Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Horror Of...The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Ah, hello there! I see you to are wandering the countryside. I just decided to see if the rumors were true, that a strange malady was preying these lands.

I fear it may be true. The peasantry seem quite restless, and a strange tinge inflicts the landscape. It is unnatural.
"The 'Red Death' had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal. -- the redness and the horror of blood..."
But not to worry. My castle is near. And I have such entertainments awaiting us. Humor. Spectacle. Succor.

Why, have you ever been faced by the Masque?

One, in times like this, one need to partake of it.


It is time for you to experience...

...The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death came to us in 1964. It was an American International Pictures release. Also, it's another of Roger Corman's productions (The Raven). In fact this is seen as the 7th of 8 films in what's called The Corman-Poe Cycle, where Corman was adapting (written advisedly) Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale. This time around it's the "The Masque of the Red Death".

Roger Corman and Vincent Prince being interviewed on set
- Photofest Photo Archive - Courtesy of Bam
Corman has had a long career in film making. He's produced or directed 100's of movies. Often B movies, some dreadful, some beloved by fans. He knows how to get a movie made. Give him a camera, a bit of money, and a weekend, he will have something finished...That may be something of an issue for him with his lesser results. But films like The Masque of the Red Death are ones that show the better results that Roger Corman could deliver.

It seems like he had an early interest in producing this story. It may have been made years earlier, but the cinema world gave him pause. When he looked at it, he decided it had certain similarities to the then recently released Ingmar Bergman The Seventh Seal (You can look at the two movies and decide for yourself.) and he delayed production for years. Still, when he did get it started, unlike other films in the cycle, he actually spent an extra 2 weeks on filming this film (Up from 3 weeks.). It helped it.

But that's not to say he didn't look for savings. The film was made in England, unlike earlier movies, to get some tax benefits. Also, sets for the movie come from an earlier production, Becket.

Another factor in the time it took to get this movie going was getting the right script. He went through a number of versions before landing on one that satisfied him. Writing that final screenplay were Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell. Beaumont also wrote The Haunted Palace, Premature Burial,  and Burn, Witch, Burn. He also wrote for The Twilight Zone (in the 60's and the 80's). Campbell wrote Teenage Cave Man, among other films.

A number of changes were made from the original telling. The changes in this final movie include the addition of some subplots. Among them is the addition of another Poe tale, "Hop-Frog". It's the story of a diminutive entertainer at a royal court, who's wronged and seeks "recompense". Hard to disapprove. It makes for an interesting additional facet to our story, and is a nice way to enjoy just a bit more of Poe.

Another story used is "Torture of Hope" by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam. You can read the short story and see how it's included in the final film.

Here's a taste of the movie, via a trailer.

For the cast, Corman went to some of the people that were proven in earlier filming endeavors.

"Who's the most stylish and sexy S.O.B. in all the Middle
Ages?" "You are, sir!" "Damn right."
Starring in the movie is Vincent Prince. Price we've looked at before in The Raven and The Bat (finally a non-animal title). He was in a number of Corman's movies at this time, and he always added value.

In this movie he's the prince. The dark and terrible Prospero. Lord of the land, torturer, devil worshiper. Many horrible things are whispered about him. And most of it is true. He makes for a fine menacing ruler. He offers pleasantries to those he finds worthy of it, and strikes down those that don't amuse him. He's horrible, but Price plays him in such a calm and cool way. He knows he's the one with the power, he knows that no one can touch him, he knows everyone fears him, so he gets to feign magnanimity.

Price also gets to enjoy a lot of costuming in the movie, his villain loves a good costume change.

Also returning, we have Hazel Court, who we last saw in The Raven. She plays Juliana. She's Prospero's...kind of...girlfriend. Really, she's more a hanger on, and disciple of his devil worshiping. She has her interest in Prospero, but she seems way more into the Devil. She's a dark figure, a dangerous woman.

Court has found herself in many different horror movies over the years, beyond this and The Raven. The Man Who Cheated Death. Premature Burial. Devil Girl from Mars. The Curse of Frankenstein. Doctor Blood's Coffin. Omen 3. She also appeared in The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Having her alongside Price again is almost odd. In The Raven she was playing Price's wicked one time wife. You almost could pretend this is some weird prequel to it...Almost.
...But this isn't a prequel to The Raven...Right?

As our young heroine, we have Jane Asher. She plays the innocent Francesca. Her character is just a simple pious girl from the village. But Prospero takes an interests in her. He taunts her, plays with her, and tries to convert her to his ways. In his castle she witnesses many levels of human inhumanity.

Asher in more recent years has been in a number of different shows. Poirot. Marple. Tales of the Unexpected. The Sarah Jane Adventures. She's also been in the 2007 Death at a Funeral and The Stone Tape.

For this movie they actually built of plenty of halls and corridors. They say almost 2 miles (Truth or myth?). And it was largely to have a variety of areas for Asher to run through as she was chased or fleeing the horrors she was witnessing. Feels free to watch the movie and see if you can tell. But it is a nice thought. These days green screen and movie magic usually means 10 yards of corridor made to look like a labyrinth.  (Not that I want to fault production teams with budget and time issues, who work magic. ..But there was a day...)

Interestingly, Asher was friends with Paul McCartney at the time they were making this film. She got Corman to allow him to visit the set while he was in town, prepping for a certain event. So the crew of this film got to meet Paul, of The Beatles, just as they were about to go on British TV and explode into pop culture.

Hop-Toad also plays a role in this movie. The character is from another short story, but manages to easily slide into this tale of the Red Death. He is an amiable fellow. He's also smart and proud. He knows where he stands in court, but he also knows his own worth. It is unwise to underestimate Hop-Toad.

I am unclear as to why they changed the character's name to Hop-Toad from Hop-Frog.

He's played by Skip Martin. He's appeared in a number of interesting movies: Son of Dracula (1974), Vampire Circus, Circus of Fear, and Horror Hospital. He also appeared in the series Adam Adamant Lives.

Playing his fellow entertainer, Esmeralda, is Verina Greenlaw. She was a child actor, who was dubbed over to have an adult voice. The character is meant to graceful diminutive beauty. It feels a little odd having a small child playing an adult, but needs must, I guess.

Another of our villains is Alfredo. He's a vile noble. He loves enjoying the pain and humiliation of others. And he's eager to watch people die for his amusement. Being cruel is his pleasure. And he's always looking for a new target to distract himself with.

He's played by Patrick Magee. He's been in films including: Dementia 13, A Clockwork Orange, Tales from the Crypt, The Skull, Monster of Terror, Portrait in Terror, Demons of the Mind, Beware My Bretheren, Asylum (1972), And Now the Screaming Starts!, The Black Cat (1981), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne.

As for the rest of our salt of the earth heroic types, we have Gino and Lodovico. Gino is Francesca's love. He functions as a determined force, seeking to free Francesca and escape this dark lord. Lodovico is Francesca's father, who also wants to get them all free and away from this dark place.

Gino is played by David Weston. He was often playing the handsome romantic lead in film and TV. And he also appeared in Doctor Who.

Lodovico is played by Nigel Green. He was in The Skull, The Face of Fu Manchu, and Countess Dracula. He also appeared in Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes series and The Avengers.

This film also has Robert Brown in it as a guard who trains the two men above in sword use. We last saw him in The Abominable Snowman, with Peter Cushing. He is best known for playing M in a number of James Bond movies in the 80's.

The cast is a nice fit. Many of the players were familiar with each other, and their director, Roger Corman. And they all seemed well suited for the roles they had to play. The result were engaging scenes and fun character movements to enjoy.

But I feel like I'm missing someone...ah. The unmentioned guest at the feast.

Played mostly by John Westbrook.

From the start the movie draws you in, showing us an old woman walking through a misty landscape. As she goes, she passes a hooded figure reclining against a tree. She takes no notice as she passes. The figure is a man, cloaked all in red.

Look at it. It's beautifully shot and brought to life. It really shows the care taken through much of this movie. Just beautiful and evocative.

He beckons the old woman to him. He has a flower for her. He also has good news. Soon her villages deliverance shall arrive.

Ah, the Red Death. Such a joker.

Before he passes the flower to the woman, he waves a hand over it, and it changes to red. It almost seems to be drenched in blood.

"Are we dating?"
 She takes it and walks on to her village with the news...and more.

Later in her village, visitors arrive. Prince Prospero has come. And as you'd expect for his caliber of villain, his caravan races into town, and a child in the road is almost run over. ...Evil? Or poor parental supervision?

Prospero announces that, per custom, everyone in the village will soon be welcome to come to his castle for a celebration. Gino is bitter towards the prince. They all have little food, and must give most of it to the prince. Gino believes they will all starve this winter. Prince Prospero is underwhelmed.

"Hey, Gino? Don't pad the role. Okay?"
"Gino? This is another fine mess you've gotten us into."
Gino keeps needling the prince, and Ludovico joins in. Not the best timing, Ludovico. The prince has them grabbed and orders his men to garrote them.

Francesca appears now and begins begging Prospero to stop. But Prospero wants his blood.

"Helloooo, Peasantry."
He is given pause by her, but he also is amused by an idea.

He wants her to pick one to die. And she tells him that she can't, one is her beloved and one is her father. ...Francesca, that is the kind of thing that only excites a guy like Prospero.

Then screaming is heard from a nearby hut. And Prospero learns disturbing news. It's the old woman. And she's been afflicted by the Red Death.

The dark side of slapping into a Slim Jim.

And like a smart administrator, Prospero knows what to do. Burn everything, and get the hell out of there. But he brings Francesca, Gino, and Ludovico. He isn't done with his fun.

Ah. Smart, Corman. "Accidentally" burn down the sets and collect the insurance. Savvy producer.

And from here, the story moves to Prospero's castle. He has all of his coterie race to the castle, to beat the Red Death. And then he seals them all off, to await the diseases passing.

And inside, Francesca gets to see and experience the twisted world of Prospero.

His sycophantic friends and followers. Drunken. Debauched...What was I talking about? Oh, right a horrible way to live.

They all seem to revel in their dark desires, their darker nature. Much like Alfredo all seem eager to see humiliation, torture, and death meted out.
Medieval court, or average KFC lunch crowd?
But that isn't to say they are immune to Prospero's whims. He does call on them at times to. To humiliate themselves. To debase themselves. To be what he wishes.

They know the alternative.

But they've learned to revel in it, because they all suffer, and all profit, and gorge. And they know the cost if you refuse Prospero.

Spring Break: Castle Prospero - 1643

As I mentioned before, most of the sets were from an earlier movie. It is lovely, as are the modifications done by Corman's crew. (And the costuming deserves some love. Prospero and Francesca get to look impressive.)

And then we have the addition of the many colored rooms, famed of the original Poe tale.

For some reason I'm flashing back to Star Wars: A New Hope.

And that final room...

The lights and color are a feast.

If there is an issue with the movie, it's how they handle some of the "witchcraft" or devil stuff. As you will find in many of the 60's movie dealing with Satanic matters, their is a quandary about how to present it. What does it look like? Just some goats and pentagrams? Kind of dull, and old hat. So often filmmakers just grab imagery that they like from cultures that are usually deemed by the public to be "exotic" or "ethnic". And this movie does as so many others have done.

Of course most of it looks like Juliana is have a bad trip.


Oh, look. There is a black character in the movie.

Sadly this type of representation isn't that unique. And when you see the imagery of Satan come down to a black man dressed in "tribal attire", you can't help but wince.

But does Prospero pull off the party of the year?
"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night."
"Peter Lorre sends his regards."
As you can imagine for a tale like this, the party eventually has to end. And people begin dropping.

Some are taken by their greed or hubris.

And some just had their time run out.

The Red Death takes it's toll.

And in watching this movie, with a pious young woman facing a satanic lord, I could almost expect some sort of New Testament/Good over Evil ending. But it doesn't feel like that. The Red Death has interests, is picking winners and losers, and letting some innocents survive. But it's also wiping most everyone out. And when it comes for Prospero, it isn't divine retribution, it's just that he has no sway over the Red Death. It's his time, and the Devil doesn't get a say in the matter.

"What do you mean you spent the whole night killing one knight?"
But the Red Death does spares some. Well, 6 people. In this land, 6 lived. And as the Red Death waits, more Deaths arrive. All of different colors. Each brings news of the mass deaths they have brought. The others mention the 10's of thousands that sleep, or the 100's of thousands, all as they passed through their lands.

There's really no rhyme or reason to those struck. The good and wicked died. The rich and poor. It mattered not. It was just their functions to bring these people death.

But done with their night's work, they are tired. And they depart, leaving behind the survivors.

The Red Death makes for an enjoyable anthropomorphizing of illness and sickness. It is passed to an old woman, who carries it to a village, and so it passes on. And then as the revelers of the castle dance, it passes from person to person on the dance floor.

And the villages wishes were granted in the end, right? Their suffering ended. The one who inflicted the suffering has stopped? The Red Death delivered.

And so does this movie. Corman brought much of Poe's vision quite well, and added his own touches. And the cast bring their own magic to the roles.

It is a film worth checking out and sharing.

Regrettably it is hard to find on DVD. It has been out, and there is a Blu Ray. So it is around, but it still seems scarce. I can only hope it will be put into wider distribution soon. This is should be more widely available.

But if you want to check it out...


A strange hue swamped the land and I retreated to my citadel of old.  
Quickly I called to friends, the greedy, the debauched, and the ribald.  
Secreted away we drank and danced, and watched movies of the horrible.  
Locked away from the doom we sang and laughed, all were incorrigible.  
But soon all were screaming and crying, and shaking at what had come.  
For now they found that their joy was for naught, and their lives were undone.  
And now I sit alone, silence laying a sonorous siege on my tomb of old.  
My voice lost, the hue calls me to my bed, but I have grown so cold. 

Let's take a break next time, get away from all this death. Let's get back to my ongoing seminar on the evils of pranks, hmm? I mean if I say Jamie Lee Curtis, Horror, and deranged killer, what movie pops right in your...Okay, their are actually a number of possibilities. She was THE scream queen for awhile there.

Next time, Let's all get aboard when pranking kills. ...CHOO! CHOO!

1 comment:

L. Queenies said...

Thanks for this post! this film is amazing, and Jane is really brilliant in it! we really love Edgar Allan Poe too! xoxo