31 October 2011

MUCH OF THE WANTON, MUCH OF THE BIZARRE, SOMETHING OF THE TERRIBLE, AND NOT A LITTLE OF THAT WHICH MIGHT HAVE EXCITED DISGUST

The seventh of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for AIP, The Masque of the Red Death, opened four years and two days after the first, House of Usher, and that is a whole lot of Poe in not very much time no matter how you slice it (and let us pause to observe that by modern standards, seven movies of any sort in four years is an insane amount of output, and further that the Poe movies represent only about half of his directorial work in that period). It's probably not surprising that at some point, the man was simply going to burn out; and by my reckoning it would appear that this was the moment where that happened. Really, though, it would seem that Corman's infatuation with the series had gone cold pretty fast: the third movie, Premature Burial, was an uncertain retread of the first two, the fourth and fifth were largely parodies, and the sixth, The Haunted Palace, was actually an H.P. Lovecraft movie in Poe's clothing.

Part of the problem was undoubtedly the choice of source material: though one of Poe's most celebrated stories, "The Masque of the Red Death" offers virtually nothing in the way of actual plot, though it is arguably the most perfect exercise in creating atmosphere through prose in the writer's work. More than one-fifth of the rather short tale is dedicated to describe the layout and design of the rooms in which it takes place; that's longer than all of the lines dedicated to fleshing out the "conflict", if I can be so bold. In effect, the entire narrative goes like this: "There was a hedonist, and he did hedonistic things. He had a blue room. He had a purple room. He had a green room. He had an orange room. He had a white room. He had a violet room. Finally, he had a black room with a red stained glass window that was ghastly to be in for any amount of time. One night, he died of the plague."

In order to inflate that to anything resembling a feature film, writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (the latter making not only his first Poe movie, but his first horror movie overall) first grafted one of Poe's last stories, "Hop-Frog", onto the stump of "Red Death" - and why not, they're both easily read as stories of a dissolute nobleman getting his comeuppance - and then came the mad invention. Somewhere in medieval Europe, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) throws hideously orgiastic parties every night to keep himself amused by enjoying the depths to which human dignity can sink; when he's not doing that, he rides around the countryside being a holy terror to the peasants under his control, plucking away their food and supplies to keep his endless debauch alive. And that is just what he's doing when we first meet him; but today, the locals are fighting back. The two ringleaders prove to be Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), and Prospero is about to have them put to death when he is stopped by a pretty young woman, Francesca (Jane Asher): she's Gino's fiancée and Ludovico's daughter. Seeing a new opportunity for cruelty, Prospero offers her a chance to save one of the men; she must choose who will die. The only thing that interrupts his little game is when an old woman whom we saw earlier chatting with a man all dressed in red (John Westbrook) is found dead, oozing blood out of all her pores. Realising that the dreaded Red Death is in the area, Prospero orders an immediate retreat to his castle, dragging the three hapless villagers along to be his playthings, and proceeds to plan the grand bacchanal to end all bacchanals. Literally, as the case turns out, but he doesn't know that yet.

The vast bulk of the film (which, at 89 minutes, is too short to be anything but fleet, though it's one of the longest films in the cycle) consists of Prospero, who we eventually learn to be a Satanist - or what the screenwriters call a Satanist, but for all the talk of faith and God and good and evil (at times the dialogue seems plucked from one of those interminable Bible epics of the '50s), the whole thing doesn't feel like it was written by people with more than a passing familiarity with Western religion, sort of like those weirdly Christian-inflected manga - speaking cruelly and persuasively to Francesca, while Prospero's equally lustful but far less suave friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee) heaps cruelties upon the dwarf exotic dancer Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw), and thus bringing her lover, the dwarf court jester Hop Toad* (Skip Martin) to the point of murderous revenge.

There's a lot to like, even love, about The Masque of the Red Death, but it suffers from a huge and easily-named flaw: the script is rotten with blind alleys and deadwood. The Prospero and Hop Toad plotlines intersect only inasmuch as they take place in the same location at the same time; eventually, the writers all but yanks the jester bodily out of the picture with one of those old-timey vaudeville shepherd's crooks. And even setting that aside, the A-material, Prospero's long mental torture of the maiden, suffers from being the same scene played out multiple times: the Satanist speaks in silken tones of pure evil, and the girl brightly asserts her Christian faith, though each time she's a little slower on the draw.

It's not an insurmountable script (though it's surely one of the weakest in the series); but it certainly would have taken a director pushing at the material with more urgency than Corman was apparently interested in scrounging up to make it a top-tier Poe movie. Nor is it at all the case that he was sleepwalking: in fact, The Masque of the Red Death represents a striking new way of presenting this Gothic horror, one mired in bright lights, bold colors, and lots of moment. These are all of them the very polar opposite of House of Usher or Pit and the Pendulum; no merely lazy filmmaker would have gone in this direction. Unfortunately, a bored director might have. Ironically, it might even have been this attempt at a new visual scheme that hurts the film: when the other Poe movies hit their slow patch - and all of them have slow patches - they were able to get by on the moody, foggy atmosphere they'd created (the best of them, especially Usher and Haunted Palace, seem to deliberately court these slow stretches just to show off their atmosphere). In this movie, the atmosphere is of a wholly different flavor, still menacing, but not so hulking and brooding, and when things slow down, it's sort of boring.

On the other hand, it probably sounds like I'm picking on something I completely love: the film looks absolutely gorgeous, and I wouldn't give it up for anything. The ubiquitous and desperately necessary Daniel Haller works his magic yet again, while the cinematography was by a largely untested camera operator named Nicolas Roeg - I pray you know that name, and if you don't, then I envy the exciting trip you have ahead of you. Of course, Roeg as DP of a cheap-ass AIP picture is not the same as Roeg directing Don't Look Now and Walkabout, yet there are traces of the phantasmagoric touch he brought to his later movies in the way that bright colors are used like a weapon in this movie, so damn cheery and saturated that they almost start to overload your retinas. Heck, they're so hard and beautiful that I can even overlook the fact that there are only five, not seven, monochromatic chambers, and yellow was not one of the colors in Poe's original list.

The other thing that redeems The Masque of the Red Death, and to an even greater extent, is the lead performance: the supporting cast ranges from pretty good (Magee, Martin) to hopelessly one-note (Asher, Weston), to criminally under-used (Hazel Court, in her third and last Poe movie), but Price is on a level he virtually never doubled. If I hesitate even slightly in calling it his best work in the Poe cycle, I am solely thinking of The Haunted Palace, and both performances would put in a strong claim to being the highlight of his entire career. Here, he's playing a complete and unmediated villain - a Satanist, for chrissake! - but finding an excellent number of shades of that villainy, from the purely malicious to the bored to the self-impressed and urbane. Even despite its clumsy storytelling, the mere fact that The Masque of the Red Death gave Price the chance to play this character in such a way is all the justification it needs to exist, and while I wish it was as potent as the excellent story that inspired it - and I wish, even more, that it was up to the wonderful standard of the best Poe movies - Price is by himself enough to make it essential viewing.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

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