The Masque of the Red Death
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
Director: Roger Corman
Production: Alta Vista/Anglo Amalgamated; Pathécolor, Panavision; running time: 84 minutes. Released August 1964.
Producer: George Willoughby; screenplay: Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, from the story by Edgar Allan Poe; photography: Nicolas Roeg; editor: Anne Chegwidden; sound: Richard Bied, Len Abbott; art director: Robert Jones; music: David Lee.
Cast: Vincent Price (Prince Prospero); Hazel Court (Juliana); Jane Asher (Francesca); David Weston (Gino); Patrick Magee (Alfredo); Nigel Green (Ludovico); Skip Martin (Hop Toad); John Westbrook (Man in Red); Gay Brown (Senora Escobar); Julian Burton (Senor Veronese); Doreen Dawn (Anna-Marie); Paul Whitsun-Jones (Scarlatti); Jean Lodge (Scarlatti's Wife); Verina Greenlaw (Esmerelda); Brian Hewlett (Lampredi); Harvey Hall (Clistor).
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* * *
The Masque of the Red Death was the seventh of Roger Corman's eight Poe adaptations, and one of two (the other being The Tomb of Ligeia) to be produced in Britain on slightly larger budgets than usual. Throughout the cycle Corman's distinctive mise-en-scène—comprising an expressive use of colour and sweeping, elegant camera movements— had represented in external form his characters' troubled psychological states. (This differentiated him sharply from the more moralistic approach adopted by contemporaneous British horror filmmakers.)
In many ways, Masque is the least coherent of all the Poe films. While the psychological element is still present—notably at the conclusion, where the cloaked figure which brings death to Vincent Price's Prince Prospero is played by Price himself—its development is hampered by a loss of focus within the organization of the narrative. This can be attributed to the script's rather clumsy stitching together of two of Poe's short stories, "Hop-Frog" and "The Masque of the Red Death," and it results in Price, usually the most precise and expert of actors, seeming uncertain at times as to what tone to adopt. The banality of his "philosophy" of evil is a further hindrance as is the lacklustre concluding masque (which was apparently curtailed during production by budgetary restrictions).
In order then to locate the film's merits, which are considerable, one needs to look elsewhere. Firstly, to Corman's use of colour which, largely detached as it is from its usual psychologically expressive function, takes on a non-representational, kinetic force— most impressively in the various camera tracks through a series of rooms, each of which has been decorated in a different colour—which is rarely seen in mainstream commercial productions and which anticipates moments of psychedelic abstraction in Corman's later "drug-culture" film The Trip.
Secondly, all the scenes involving Juliana, played by British actress Hazel Court. Court had already appeared in several British horror films (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Man Who Could Cheat Death) in conventionally staid leading roles. In Corman's films (she also appears in The Raven and The Premature Burial) she is unexpectedly transformed into a figure of awesome sexual perversity. Her masochistic preparations for her "marriage" to Satan are given us in meticulous detail; first she brands herself and then has a series of hallucinations (cut from the initial British release print), all of which re-enact a brutal rape fantasy. Marriage—in a Poe-like equation—is linked to the death of the bride, and Court commits herself to this with an eagerness which is truly disturbing. The intensity of her performance has only been equalled within the horror genre in some of the films featuring Barbara Steele (another British actress who left her native country and developed her career elsewhere: she had starred in an earlier Corman production, The Pit and the Pendulum). It is only in these brilliantly executed scenes, in which the film's formal qualities most eloquently match its content, that Corman finds a coherent theme upon which he can exercise his formidable ability to visualise a character's perverse desires. The film's true dramatic climax is the chilling epitaph spoken by Prospero over Juliana's dead body: "I beg you, do not mourn for Juliana. We should celebrate. She has just married a friend of mine." As is so often the case in Corman's work, the forces of good that eventually triumph, represented here somewhat half-heartedly by Jane Asher's Francesca, are, in comparison with this vividly drawn picture of a desire unto death, anaemic and unconvincing.
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