Saturday, October 29, 2011

Octoberfilms: "The Masque of the Red Death" & "The Premature Burial" (1964, '62)

I'm closing up this year's Octoberfilms posts with the final Corman-Price-Poe titles, capping the series with this post and the next one, The Tomb of Ligeia.

A brief recap: In 1960, Roger Corman inaugurated a new class of low-cost/high-value gothy horror films with the first titles in his "Poe cycle" for American International Pictures, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. Along with The Premature Burial (which I'll get too later in this post), those modest yet stylish and entertaining little chillers were such a critical (not to mention economic) success that additions to the series were inevitable. After The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors downshifted the series to a broadly comedic gear, 1964's The Masque of the Red Death upshifted in several striking ways. Particularly noteworthy here are the film's richly varicolored artistic design and a luridly bleak story highlighted by Price's performance (his seventh for Corman) as evil Prince Prospero, probably his most blithely nasty character.

The Masque of the Red Death is, by my lights, the series' pinnacle. Thanks to a larger budget, his first principal shooting in England with an English cast (upping his bang/buck ratio in both departments), and more production time (five weeks across November-December '63 instead of his previous three), this is Corman's most opulent and visually impressive Poe picture, and the one that offers the most to dip your absinthe cup into. It's a tour de force of perverse gothic weirdness, and easily one of Price's most distinctive roles.

And yet, while aficionados tend to regard it as a high-water mark in horror cinema — and I'm not arguing the point — this one hits me on a different level: not so much as just a "horror movie" (there's nothing actually "scary" about it) but more of a big-screenification of the horror genre comics and magazines of the '60s and '70s. I'm thinking (however vaguely at this remove) of Marvel's Strange Tales and Warren Publishing's Creepy and Eerie lines. The Poe elements naturally lend a Classics Illustrated vibe. Contributing to the overall effect are the stage-bound storybook medieval setting, shots that would look at home in an Alan Moore graphic novel, and the vivid choice of putting the whole thing on the screen in jewel-tone and Crayola colors.

Indeed, while poking around looking for new background information on this movie, I discovered that Dell Comics issued its own adaptation of it in 1964. Here's a case in which the bridge from one medium to the next could hardly be straighter.

Instead of Corman's previous cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, this time out it's none other than Nicolas Roeg (Petulia) applying the Pathécolor and CinemaScope with creative camerawork on sets left over from the Burton/O'Toole/Gielgud Becket. The sequence of monochromatic rooms — yellow, purple, white, and finally the forbidden velvety black chamber — is one of those elements that gets mentioned when you strike up a chat with someone who has seen Masque. You can really see Roeg's work, and that of Corman's meisterbuilder Daniel Haller, on the MGM "Midnite Movies" DVD, where Masque of the Red Death's transfer is exquisite. The print is so clean and beautiful it's startling, with richly saturated colors from across the spectrum popping out crisp and solid. Most of the time we could be watching a virgin source master.

Charles Beaumont, who already had five years of Twilight Zone episodes and three other Corman films on his résumé, co-wrote (with R. Wright Campbell) the screenplay. The ambitious Corman is at a career best as Masque breaks the by-now routine formalism of the series' previous films, confidently coupling an unusually meditative and layered script with relatively high production values brought to opium-dream life by Roeg.

Smoothly blending two of Poe's stories, "Masque of the Red Death" and "Hop-frog, or the Eight Chained Orang-outangs," Masque showcases Price as tyrannical, blasphemous, Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero, who maintains a sadistic grip on his plague-stricken territory. At his castle are his debauched noblemen guests, a contemptuous pack of ass-kissing elites who submit gleefully to his degrading games in the mistaken belief that Prospero's midnight masked ball will shelter them from the pestilential Red Death stalking the land outside the towering walls.

"The Red Death? I beg you, Prospero, sanctuary!" "This is no church" Thwip!

After ordering the burning of a village that has been infected by the Red Death plague, Prospero abducts Francesca, a virginal peasant girl (17-year-old Jane Asher), as a passing fancy to corrupt and convert to his satanic ways. To staunch any rebellious impulses, he holds her fiancé (David Weston) and her father (Nigel Green, the same year he appeared in Zulu) as amusements in his dungeon. Even so, she makes no bones about leaning on her Christian faith for strength, a faith that Prospero sneers at.
Prospero: "Somewhere in the human mind, my dear Francesca, lies the key to our existence. My ancestors tried to find it. And to open the door that separates us from our Creator."
Francesca: "But you need no doors to find God. If you believe..."
Prospero: "Believe? If you believe you are gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease, and Death. They rule this world."
Francesca: "There is also love and life and hope."
Prospero: "Very little hope I assure you. No. If a god of love and life ever did exist, he is long since dead. Someone, something rules in his place."
It's in such moments that The Masque of the Red Death leans toward one of genre filmdom's more existential disquisitions, sort of a comic-book Camus in costume dress.

At first Prospero's mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) is jealous of the new girl, but soon determines that life would go back to normal with Francesca gone, and so aids her attempt to free her men and flee the castle. There's a fine moment when Juliana, seeing that she has been demoted to second place, challenges Francesca, who gives as good as she gets with steely determination:
Juliana: "You may think that you have impressed the Prince Prospero, but you can count on little help from me."
Francesca: "You will do as he told you!"
Juliana: "Yes as we all must do."
Francesca: [rising] "I will do what I must to save my men, but if they are killed I will die and so will Prince Prospero."
What makes the scene stand out is that Francesca is in what had been Juliana's gold bathtub, vulnerable in every way when the Prince and his mistress barge in, taunting and imperious. But soon after Prospero leaves, as the peasant girl rises to accept the towel held by the attending servants, her resolve to not merely survive but prevail supports her. She's no passive lamb to be slaughtered. It's a moment that gets more interesting in retrospect once we see how utterly that resolve crumbles under the theater of cruelty that Prospero has yet to reveal to her.

That, right there, that crumbling — that's the nub of what makes Francesca, for me, the most interesting character in Corman's Poe cycle. Granted, the films are by and large peopled with "types" more than characters, actors playing parts drawn with single pencil strokes, not 3D software. But Francesca is, by my reckoning, the only one whose pencil stroke bends in a surprising way. In so doing, she bends Prospero's a little too.

Going spoilery here:

Prospero's grim tutelage exposes Francesca to horrors that challenge her Christian goodness to the breaking point:

At a feast, Prospero's entertainment for his giggling, gluttonous guests includes forcing Francesca's sweetheart Gino and her father to strike each other with five daggers, one of which has a poisoned blade. With the final, poisoned, blade, her father lunges at Prospero, who runs him through on the spot before Francesca's eyes and to the amusement of the guests. Gino, to prevent him from choosing martyrdom, is cast out of the castle into the disease-ravaged landscape.

Juliana, hoping to graduate to Prospero's spiritual level as his equal, offers herself body and soul (mostly body) to Satan in a freaky dream-like phallo-Freudian-gang-bang blood rite in which she is demonically stabbed/penetrated again and again.

Afterward, she's killed by Prospero's trained hawk which, apparently, claws her face to pieces with poisoned talons. Looking over his former lover's body, the Prince expresses to Francesca merely a blasé smile and a verbal shrug: "I beg you do not mourn for Juliana. We should celebrate. She's just married a friend of mine."

Then there's the scene with Patrick Magee, who has been relishing his role as pervy, grotesque Alfredo, the boo-hiss noble who more than earns the vengeance meted out by the dwarf jester Hop Toad (Skip Martin). Avenging the mistreatment of his beloved, the child-like dwarf Esmerelda, Hop Toad tricks Alfredo into an ape suit for the masque, with himself Dom/Sub role-playing the ape's whip-bearing master for Alfredo's kinky amusement. Before the other guests, Hop Toad trusses the "ape" to the chandelier, douses Alfredo with brandy and with a candle sets the bastard afire. Alfredo burns to death in front of an audience that includes Prospero and Francesca.

That breaking sound? That's the girl's faith snapping like a scorched bone.
Prospero: [to Francesca, who is emotionlessly watching Alfredo burn to death] "I see you no longer turn away from the cruelties of life."
Francesca: "I no longer care. My life is done. What's left I give to you tonight."
Whoa. Having been force-fed from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, her eyes are opened to the everyday banality of casual evil and there's only one step left before her innocence is forever crushed out of her. She is no longer the doe-eyed peasant girl who entered Prospero's castle. Who wouldn't be changed by all that she has witnessed?

Fortunately there's not enough time to follow through on that "What's left I give to you tonight," because the party's about to start and the remnants of her "perfect faith" apparently impress the mysterious spectral figure cloaked all in red who crashes the shindig and has sharp words with its host.

About that orgiastic masque: The scene is a stagey wingding of wickedness that fails to fulfill its screen potential, partly because suddenly the dance choreography goes all "interpretive" in a way that deflates any tension that the scene might have built up. But it still provides a kick of '60s kitsch before the entrance of the Man in Red (the one color Prospero has forbidden at his knees-up), and the danse macabre that follows for this gathering of degenerate party animals. 

At first Prospero mistakes the Man in Red for an emissary from Satan and is delighted at his presence. Soon enough, though, Prospero realizes that his ultimate BFF, Lucifer, is just a bit player among the world's supernatural movers and shakers, and the Man in Red is the personification of the pestilence that observes no borders or tower walls and who has come to strike down the partygoers.

Here we get the movie's second interesting character bend. Evidently Francesca's strength of devotion has moved something within vile Prospero. She has changed him perhaps as much as he has reshaped her.
Prospero: "Your Excellency, this girl [he indicates Francesca]. In all my life, I've never met one whose faith rivaled mine. Spare her to me."
Man in Red: "A charitable request. A rare thing with you, Prospero."
Prospero gets his wish. Before leaving to escape with her fiancé Gino (who has already had his own, more benign, encounter with Red in the forest), Francesca reaches up to kiss Prospero's cheek. In thanks? Absolution? Acknowledgement? Sympathy? In any case that kiss, and Prospero's look of moved surprise, is a powerful moment, one that for me is among the film's great take-aways.

Nonetheless, Prospero's entreaty on her behalf is too little too late for him.
Prospero: "But Satan rules the universe! I made a pact with him!"
Man in Red: "He does not rule alone, and your pact with him will not save you."
Prospero: "There is no other God! Satan killed him!"
Man in Red: "Each man creates his own God for himself, his own Heaven, his own Hell."
Prospero: "Let me see your face!" [He unmasks the Man in Red to reveal Prospero's own bloodstained face]
Man in Red: "Your Hell, Prince Prospero, and the moment of your death."

And so we come to Corman's screen interp of the final passage of Poe's story:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. — Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death"
After the entire narrative's worth of build-up, when Prospero's demise comes it's a thudding anti-climax, too stylized and theatrical for its own good, as hair-raising as a pillow fight. In his 1990 autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Corman acknowledges the scene's problems and at least one big source of them:
"I still regret my decision not to pay extra mandated union fees for going over a day at Christmastime. I still feel that would have made the large-scale ball sequence — with dozens of extras, plenty of fire and lots of action — a true tour de force instead of a merely good sequence."
What should have been a horrific climactic moment is an opportunity missed. But Corman doesn't end his movie there.

What follows is an epilogue that tips a hat to Ingmar Bergman by way of EC Comics. In the forest, as the Red Death enjoys a game of Tarot with a little girl from the village we saw destroyed at the top of the film, he is joined by his fellow pestilences — the Black Death, the Yellow, the White, and so on. They discuss their melancholy work like call-center staffers around the coffee pot, and the Red Death sums up his evening's ledger:
"I called many. Peasant and prince, the worthy and the dishonored. Six only are left: a young man and woman, a dwarf and a tiny dancer, this child [he rests his hand on the little girl's head] and an old man still in the village. Sic transit gloria mundi."
Then he joins their procession and the various Deaths move on like somber cosmic crayons to their next destination.

    After the closing credits, as I slip the disc out of the player, my thoughts rewind back to Francesca, who's now offscreen embarking on her new life with Gino. Her boyfriend is little more than a cipher, although we see his traits of bravery and Christian piety in action as the plot unfolds. He's the good guy, but she's the Hero of the tale. They've both suffered, yet that big bend in her arc we've seen — "I no longer care. My life is done. What's left I give to you tonight" — points to a transformation that we can assume leaves her far more than just the spunky peasant girl that Prospero found. She is scarred, hardened, and by my read probably even "enlightened" in some grim but valuable ways. Bent but not altogether broken. Her Christian faith may be re-affirmed, but she is now also more worldly and stripped of her naïveté. She's a new woman, and I just hope that, wherever they end up, Gino can keep up with her.

    Even with Masque of the Red Death's extraordinary color palette and atypically faceted screenplay, the key element on the screen is, of course, Price. He proves (as if anyone still doubts) that he was more than just a swooping-cape, maple-glazed ham actor. He took his professionalism quite seriously here, and it shows. It's a chilling performance and he's so obviously having a grand good time with Prospero's outrageous wickedness that, with Sadean debauchery and supernatural comeuppance never looking so good, we do too.
      Pairing him up with young Jane Asher was an inspired choice. We catch her in an early ramp-up to the posh appeal she gained later in Alfie ('66) and other film, TV, and stage performances.

      On the DVD, in "Roger Corman: Behind the Masque", a 2002 on-camera interview with Corman on the conception, writing, and production of the film, the genial director tells an anecdote about the day he had lunch on the set with Asher's then-boyfriend, a member of a music group from Liverpool on its way to London for a big-city gig. The 21-year-old lad was Paul McCartney, who for a while stayed with Asher and her family in their Wimpole Street, London home during the rare down-times when The Beatles weren't touring. McCartney and John Lennon wrote their hit "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the basement of Asher's parents' house. The song saw its UK single release on November 29, 1963, while Masque was in production.

      Asher had only recently begun her five-year relationship with McCartney, and they were engaged three years later. According to Hazel Court, Asher passed the time between takes by knitting caps for Paul and his young bandmates because the Beatles wore them when they went out in public.

      MGM's two-sided double-feature DVD spotlights the AIPoe that — alongside The Tomb of Ligeia — many enthusiasts consider the series' best. On the other hand, the disc bills it with The Premature Burial (1962), Corman's third Poe installment and the entry that's generally ranked as the most forgettable of Corman's Edgar Allan adaptations.

      Both films are lauded among fan circles for their production values, Daniel Haller's set designs, and the yummy presence of scream queen Hazel Court, "in whose bosom," Time magazine noted, "you could sink the entire works of Edgar Allan Poe and a bottle of his favorite booze at the same time." And as you'd expect from a Corman costume gothic, the moodiness of The Premature Burial's foggy Victorian atmospherics is effective.

      Still, The Premature Burial suffers from Price's absence. Instead, it's Ray Milland who emotes, by turns, hand-wringing gloominess or manic eyeball-spinning through Charles Beaumont's script, which bears too many similarities to its predecessors, Usher and Pendulum.

      Where was Price in '62? Well, for starters he was in Corman's faux-Poe anthology film, Tales of Terror, with Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Its three short sequences are based on the Poe tales "Morella," "The Black Cat" (merged with "The Cask of Amontillado"), and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." Price introduced each sequence and appeared in all three narratives.

      He also starred that year in a Corman non-Poe picture, Tower of London, a remake of a 1939 film of the same name and that starred Price, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff. Like its predecessor, the '62 version is a vengeful-ghost story take on Richard III. This one sees Price mugging the tapestries off the walls as hunchbacked Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who begins murdering his way to the throne of England within the first five minutes. It's a cheesy bargain-basement affair, with Price slicing the ham in thick portions, best forgotten. Its one interesting factoid is that its dialogue director was 25-year-old UCLA grad Francis Ford Coppola, who the next year was Corman's sound man on The Young Racers.

      Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Ray Milland in The Premature Burial.

      Tormented Guy Carrell, doomed by an obsessive fear of being entombed live, is a role crying out for the theatrics Price displayed in the other Poe pictures. Milland, however, just can't lock his character's pieces into a solid whole, nor is he given much help from a screenplay stricken with multiple-personality disorder.

      Because his father was buried alive after a bout of catalepsy, newlywed Carrell is convinced that the same fate awaits him. So he constructs numerous elaborate mechanisms to prevent such a terror, but a horrific event shocks Carrell into his own death-like catatonia.

      He is (you guessed it) buried alive until graverobbers and a complicated deception engineered by his bride (Court at her loveliest) push Carrell and the movie off the deep end.

      Corman's taut directing keeps a firm grip on the reins, but The Premature Burial galumphs instead of canters. It can't shake out the rocks in its shoes, and Milland doesn't deliver the focused sureness of Price (although he did so the following year in Corman's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).

      As with Masque, the DVD serves up a chat with Corman about the production of Premature Burial. As extensions of his tracks on the Usher and Pendulum discs, these two mini-documentaries continue our professional education in (as the title of his autobiography puts it) how to make a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lose a dime.

      Music: interesting new stuff via
      Near at hand: Two passports that need to be filed away until next time.