Wednesday, September 5, 2012
The Masque of the Red Death 1964
While I was watching Roger Corman's excellent 1964 adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death I kept thinking of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. I don't often put Corman and Bergman in the same thought bubble, but I couldn't help it here. Corman used a lot of imagery and themes that suggest Bergman. I was pleased as punch when I ran across an interview in "Cinefantastique" that confirms that Corman was copying Bergman, and didn't care who knew it! Check out the whole article here. I bring this up first not only because I think it's cool and weird, but because The Masque of the Red Death is a really interesting, good film with deep dark themes. Much like Bergman, Corman here is not simply making a horror film, but a meditation on morality, good vs. evil, and religion. Yeah, that Roger Corman.
Based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story, with supplemental material taken from Poe's "Hop-Frog", The Masque of the Red Death is the story of Prince Prospero, the Satan worshipping overlord played by the always amazing Vincent Price. Prospero discovers that the village near his castle has been afflicted by the "Red Death." He orders the village burned and kidnaps a beautiful young peasant Francesca (Jane Asher). He also kidnaps her Father and lover with the idea of making them fight to the death. Prospero is just that kind of asshole.
The Prince invites his "friends" to hole up in his castle until the Red Death threat has passed. He plans amusements for them, including a "Masked Ball." Meanwhile, he tries to persuade the pure Francesca to embrace Satanism. Near the end, she nearly does, but the whole thing is interrupted by the arrival of one very uninvited guest...
As with most of Corman's Poe adaptations, we don't get to the meat of the story until the very end (a subplot from the "Hop-Frog" is merely filler but still very interesting.) Other filler includes Prospero's mistress Juliana, played by the lovely Hazel Court, who converts to Satanism and becomes the Devil's bride. In a crazy dream sequence, she is symbolically "penetrated" by various demons. It doesn't surprise me that this sequence was cut in England. I mean, she is really enjoying it! Too bad her pleasure is cut short when Prospero has her killed by a Falcon! This movie is that kind of crazy.
Price's performance is fantastic. I know he often goes over the top, but I don't feel like he does that here. He is a man of conviction, even though his convictions are evil. I almost felt sorry for him when The Red Death comes for him at the end. His God failed him, and we see the horror of that realization in his face during his death sequence. We never see what happens to poor Francesca, spared by Death and reunited with her lover. She would be the definition of PTSD.
As the film ends we return to Bergman territory. The Red Death is playing Tarot with a child that Prospero spared in a rare display of mercy. He is joined by others, presumably plagues and horrors, and they discuss the death and destruction they have left in their wake. "Sic transit gloria mundi" declares The Red Death. "Thus passes the glory of the world". I tell you, I am going to have nightmares about these Technicolor monks!
The Masque of the Red Death is hyper colorful but still Gothic and creepy. Shot by Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to be a big shot Director himself, this is the most "beautiful" AIP picture I have ever seen. There is a lot to discover in this film. The things that go on at Prospero's castle are pretty dark and twisted. We see nothing, it is all suggested and implied. I loved it, and I am ashamed it took me so long to see it, and so long to appreciate Corman the Director.