In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
By 1964, there were six films in this Poe Cycle: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and The Haunted Palace. Most of the films follow a pretty basic template. There is a remote castle or mansion. There is a small cast. There is at least one psychedelic, color-tinted dream sequence. And there is Vincent Price at the center of it all. The sole exception to the rule was The Premature Burial, which does not star Vincent Price and features a larger cast than usual. But this film was an anomaly that began production at a different studio thanks to a minor spat between Corman and AIP that afforded the director the slightly larger cast (mostly in the form of extras, admittedly) but denied him the services of Price. Ironically, the studio making this film was purchased by AIP partway through production, which meant Corman ended up working for AIP after all. American International seemed a little more willing to give Roger access to a larger cast from there on out, although the core of the story was always owned by a cast of only a few.
The Haunted Palace was another attempt by Corman to tweak a formula he feared might be getting stale. Rather than basing the film on a story by Poe, Corman turned instead to haunted New England writer H.P. Lovecraft for the basis of the movie. AIP however balked at advertising a film based on such an obscure author and insisted that Poe’s name be affixed to the movie somehow. So H.P. Lovecraft’s The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward had a couple lines from a Poe story slapped onto the final frame, thus transforming it into Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace. Corman attempted again to mix the formula up with his next Poe film, The Masque of the Red Death, resulting in the most ambitious, elaborate, and beautiful of the films in the Poe Cycle, and one of my very favorite horror films.
Based on the Poe story of the same name, Vincent Price stars as cruel medieval nobleman Prince Prospero, who is forced to interrupt his usual schedule of running over and brutalizing peasants when he stumbles upon an outbreak of the Red Death, a fictional stand-in for the much beloved Black Plague that destroyed half of the European population. Fearful of contracting the rapidly spread disease, Prospero secrets himself away in his lavish manor along with a bunch of other nobles, but not before kidnapping fair peasant maiden Francesca (Jane Asher, Alfie), her fiancee (David Weston), and her father (the always welcome Nigel Greene). The two men he imprisons in his dungeon with the intention of forcing them to fight each other to the death for the amusement of the nobles; Francesca he intends to press against her will into decadent royal society, which in classic style involves lots of cavorting, eating of turkey legs, mild orgies, and devil worship.
But all is not well within the safe walls of Prospero’s estate. Propsero and his estranged wife, Juliana (the legendary Hazel Court), are trying to one up each other in the eyes of their master Satan. Prospero’s best friend (Patrick Magee, A Clockwork Orange), who he seems to hate and who seems to relish cruelty almost as much as Prospero, has taken an interest in tormenting Prospero’s jester, Hop Frog (Skip Martin, Psycho-Circus and Vampire Circus — dude enjoyed a properly creepy circus) by threatening Hop Frog’s wife (creepily played not by a little person, but by a child). Gino is down in the dungeon plotting an escape and revenge. And amid it all, a mysterious figure in a red robe and cowl is skulking about, making dire proclamations and fooling around with tarot cards whilst sitting under a spooky tree, as such beings are wont to do.
If Corman’s earlier Poe films had been responses to and attempts to recreate the look of Hammer horror films, then Masque of the Red Death, while still maintaining the opulently decorated and vibrantly colored style of Hammer and the previous Poe Gothics, finds the director turning toward even loftier sources for influence. Here specifically, it’s obvious that Corman had recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal (which seams to have previously served as the influence for another Corman film, 1957′s The Undead). Corman’s vision of the Red Death manifest is a crimson interpretation of Bergman’s boardgame-loving Grim Reaper, and the overall feel of the film, especially when the Red Death is present, aspires to the same level of intellectual discourse. At the same time, Masque is very much its own beast and a natural progression for the Poe films. Where Bergman’s film is all bleak black and white and moody shadows, Corman’s is over-saturated in vibrant color. Where Bergman conjures up a sense of Scandinavian ennui, Corman — anchored by yet another fantastic performance by Vincent Price — plays things in a much rowdier Grand Guignol style. Two very different but very similarly effective approaches to visual flare, each striking in its own way. At times, Corman seems to even be using color as shadow, in much the same way Dario Argento would later use it in both Suspiria and Inferno.
In terms of philosophy and scenes of characters ruminating on the hopeless nature of life, the inevitable conga line led by death, and the permeable border between good and evil, Seventh Seal generally gets regarded as the more respectable of the two. However, and not to undermine the power of Seventh Seal (a film I happen to adore), I’d argue that Masque gets severely underrated in this regard on account of its perceived identity as a cheap, tawdry horror film made by a director and studio with names synonymous with drive-in junk. This is unfair on just about every level and betrays a very common bias in both film goers and film makers: that horror is a base, degraded, and inherently small-brained (if it’s brained at all) genre, unless of course it is being explored by a self-proclaimed art film that is, you know, just dabbling. You know the type: those horror films that go out of their ways to distance themselves from the horror genre because they feel they are better than that genre. Too important to be a mere horror film, despite the fact that a vast number of innovations — stylistic, technical, narrative — were pioneered by genres as lowly as horror. Masque is no less contemplative for being an honest horror film, and Seventh Seal is no less a horror film for concentrating on philosophical dialogue (in fact, Corman’s first Poe horror film, House of Usher, is comprised largely of dialogue).
Masque expresses its ruminations partly through dialogue and partly through action. Granted, the film’s more contemplative moments can get lost amid the candy colors and scenes of little guys roasting rich pricks in monkey suits, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. While the Red Death itself speaks in the disconnected monotone of your standard issue philosopher-observer, the true philosophical heart and soul of the film are carried by the same man who does the heavy dramatic lifting: Vincent Price. When first we meet Prospero, he seems a pretty cut and dry villain, the sort of smug, murderous, entitled authority figure Price would play with despicable perfection in movies like Cry of the Banshee and The Witchfinder General. That characterization doesn’t remain as one-dimension, however, for very long. Prospero is never as sympathetic an antagonist as Price’s doomed characters in other films in the Poe cycle: Roderick Usher in House of Usher, Don Medina in The Pit and the Pendulum, or Charles Dexter Ward in Haunted Palace — all basically good men who are driven to madness or possessed by evil. But Prospero is still no paper-thin villain. He is cruel and petty to the local peasants (though no more so than any lord of the time), but once he has pressed Francesca into his court, he treats her with a hands-off reverence bordering on fear, as if he has acquired a possession so precious and valuable that he dare not handle it. Never once does he abuse her or force himself upon her as a properly vile lord in one of these movies would typically do.
There is also no sense of camaraderie between Prospero and his fellow noblemen and women. Once sequestered away in his palace, Prospero’s veneer of friendship quickly washes away to reveal the disdain he has for his peers, to reveal that he finds them loathsome and trying. He is, in a way, much like Caligula. Or at least Caligula as realized by Malcolm McDowell in that most infamous of films. Both are men of immense power and influence who subvert and mock the powerful. Caligula masks his anarchic behavior behind madness, and Prospero hides behind a mask of sarcasm, relying on the stupidity of his peers to keep them from even realizing they are being mocked. Prospero’s treatment of the peasants isn’t indicative of a nobleman’s condescension toward hoi polloi. He hates noblemen just as much. At no point is this more apparent than when, under the guise of a jape, he commands his room full of drunken royal dullards to debase themselves by writhing about like animals, which they do with gleeful abandon.
In the end, it’s humanity in general that he despises, not to mention despising himself. He is, after all, exactly what he loathes, and his self-loathing is what drives his dedication to Satanism more than any true sense of spirituality. Within the context of this plot, Satanism is Satanism because it comes with a built-in set of scares that are easily translated to a horror movie. But really, Prospero’s could be any religion. Catholicism, Judaism, Islam — anything in which one invests their ultimate fate to the hands of a higher power, that sells people on the notion that through dedication to this higher power, they can somehow elevate themselves above their sordid state. Such belief sometimes motivates people to live better lives. Very often, however, it is looked upon as a “get out of jail free” card, a way to repent a lifetime’s worth of wretched behavior while still achieving eternal salvation. Your sins, however gross they may be, can be wiped clean by your chose savior. Or in the case of Prospero, it’s not sin so much as it is patheticness.
The idea that a god, even if that god is Satan, can make you more than what you are without you having to do very much (and yes, I know lighting all those candles must be a chore, but still). The more we see of Prospero, the less he seems evil, and the more he simply seems like a chump. By contrast, Prospero’s wife Juliana does not coem to her religion as a means of compensating for a sense of self-loathing. Instead, she uses her faith — Satanic though it may be — as a means of competing with and besting the husband who no longer seems interested in her. Where there is a self-indulgent melancholy to Prospero’s religion, Juliana’s faith is driven by relentless anger. Neither of them are pure in intention, and both of them look to the higher power to make them more. Despite paying ritualistic lip service to Satan, they’re not in it for his glory. They’re in it for themselves, and so they don’t have to do anything for themselves. And for that, they are abandoned.
Standing in stark contrast to Juliana and Prospero is Jane Asher’s Francesca, who Prospero fetishizes as a symbol of his redemption (or whatever the Satanic equivalent of redemption is). The idea of a female character representing the potential for redemption for a complex male character has been around I think since humans first starting spinning yarns for one another, but once again I think Masque of the Red Death does something much smarter than it’s given credit for by turning the hoary old chestnut of “woman as redeemer” upside down. For starters, Francesca is not written as some incredibly pious and devout Christian whose love of Christ saves her in the end. If that was the case, she would be no different than Prospero and Juliana waiting around for Satan to step in and make their lives awesome. Francesca is simply a woman, a normal everyday human being. But she is a woman who refuses to comply with the scenario in which she has been cast by the man desperate to use her as his redemption (granted, the fact that redemption, in this case, comes not from spiritual sacrifice of the woman, but actual sacrifice). Without being overt or making passionate speeches, she is simply a woman who exerts an independent opinion on what her life should be, ultimately freeing herself from Prospero’s thrall. She does not depend on God to save her. She does not even depend on her father and fiancee to save her. They try, but their escape and rescue attempt despite all its swashbuckling flair, amounts to nothing. It’s up to Francesca to defy Prospero simply by defying Prospero.
Ironically, many “Satanic” philosophies embrace the idea of self-determination and free will as paramount. It is these things, however, that enable Francesca to defeat her Satanist captors, making her, I guess, a better Satanist than the Satanists. Juliana even prays to Satan at one point to send her a demon. And indeed a demon of sorts does show up in the form of the Red Death, but it’s Francesca who benefits from its arrival. However, that’s not an act of faith come to fruition for Francesca, and the Red Death is no angel in disguise. It is a universal killer, one from which faith is no protection and one that is uninterested in your religion or your station in life. The movie’s Satanist trappings are, ultimately, just that: trappings. Neither Juliana nor Prospero are actually very good Satanists, and when all is said and done, they seem more like the Dark Age devil worshipping equivalent of square white couples from the suburbs who dabbled in swinging as a way to shake up their hum drum existence. You can practically see more authentic Satanists rolling their eyes as Juliana and Prospero arrive. “Oh God, not them again. I swear, whenever we get a nice scene going, the straights always want to show up and make themselves feel daring. Oh well, what can you do? He brings very nice wine.”
Most of the Poe films screenplays were written by Richard Matheson, a writer who has penned more of my favorite movies than I can list, not to mention writing the original novel (I Am Legend) that served as the basis for everything from Night of the Living Dead to The Omega Man. His work at AIP was phenomenal, and to keep with the Satanic theme of Masque, a few years later Matheson wrote the screenplay for one of the best in the genre, and one of my very favorite Hammer films: The Devil Rides Out. Despite his involvement in most of the previous Poe films, he wasn’t the screenwriter for Masque. That duty fell to Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell. Beaumont worked previously on both The Premature Burial (Matheson wasn’t involved in that one for the same reason Price wasn’t: Corman tried to make it outside of AIP and couldn’t use AIP contract players; and then AIP bought the independent production company anyway) and The Haunted Palace, so he knew what he was doing. The original script did not contain the Hop Frog subplot. That was added during something Corman rarely did when working with Matheson: a rewrite. But Corman thought the script as presented was thin, and so he and Beaumont dreamed up the Hop Frog story. The end result, even if the process didn’t go as smoothly as it generally did with Matheson, is fantastic, and the Hop Frog plot adds to the overall story rather than feeling like filler.
The script expects a lot from both Price and Asher, and in their the material gets the treatment it deserves. And even though she’s not the lead, it’s great to see Price and Hazel Court paying off one another. These were both performers who did not look down on horror or regret their role in horror films or treat it like it was somehow an unworthy genre somehow beneath them (for that, feel free to watch a disinterested Jason Robards ruin Murders in the Rue Morgue). Price was an old hand at horror and knew exactly how to balance a role’s call for pathos and subtlety with a its equally important demand for over-the-topness and a slight dash of camp. Prospero is one of his best and most balanced roles, and the success of Prospero as a multi-dimensional character rests entirely with Price’s portrayal (and this even though Price could also deliver one hell of a great performance as a completely one-dimensional villain if he needed to). By the time Masque was filmed, Price and Corman were well acquainted with each other and with the formula, but neither the director nor the star allow that familiarity to turn into complacency. This far into the cycle, they were still going at the material with gusto and innovation.
And Hazel Court — come on! Though not as prolific in the horror genre, she has more than earned her place among the ranks of horror royalty. Corman got to try these Poe films in the first place because of the success of Hammer horror, and Hazel Court was right there at the birth of Hammer horror alongside Props Cushing and Venerated Horror Film Icon Christopher Lee in Curse of Frankenstein. And she, like Price, already knew a thing or two about Corman and the Poe films, having previously appeared in The Premature Burial and The Raven. I think Masque is her meatiest horror role, though. As much as I would have liked to have seen more of her, in the end she’s used properly and well. Rather than falling back on the typical and having her be jealous or vindictive toward Francesca, the two women…well, not quite get along. But for Juliana, Francesca is not some petty romantic rival for her husband’s attentions. She’s simply someone who is distracting the couple for their ultimate goal of…well, something about Satan.
Asher is able in the role of Francesca as well. She gets to be the true hero of the film in a way that is unique and intelligent. Gino her love can leap from wall to wall with his sword all he wants, but Juliana’s quite sense of self-determination and will is what wins the day. She spends a lot of time here looking on on horror or confusion, but she does it quite well, and rarely does the script allow her to indulge in the knuckle biting “damsel in distress” archetype. Though not inexperienced, she was inexperienced measured against someone like Vincent Price, but she holds her own against the legend. She has a Hammer connection, too! As a child, she appeared in that studio’s The Quatermass Xperiment. Asher isn’t as closely identified with horror as her co-stars, but if you have to be known for one horror film, Masque isn’t too shabby an entry.
In terms of supporting players, this is the biggest cast AIP had yet given to Corman for these movies, even if most of them are just there to wear colorful robes and engage in those theater-friendly orgies where fully clothed people just sort of leap about and rub each others faces while laughing, as opposed to real orgy behavior, which is strewn with logistical nightmares and people trying not to fall off the bed, or just standing out trying to figure out what to do while they are “on deck” but not actually orgying (hint: XBox). It’s a bit of a shame that a performer as able as Nigel Greene is relegated to a bit part, but Patrick Magee gets to shine as Alfredo, a nobleman even crueler and less mirthful than Prospero. His is quite a good subplot, and the only point at which the movie really diverges from Poe’s source material. The movies usually had to make up a bunch of their own plot, given that they were based sometimes on very short stories, but this original subplot is probably the best one with which they came up. Alfredo’s opposite in this subplot is Skip Martin’s Hop Frog, and Martin is great in a role that gives him a lot more to do than just be a jester.
I should also make mention of the film’s most curious casting decision: to give the part of Hop Frog’s wife and the object of Alfredo’s lascivious obsession to a child rather than a little person. According to Corman, they simply couldn’t find an appropriate adult actress and so he decided to cast a small girl then use make-up to make her look older. It doesn’t work at all. She looks like a child, and the fact that the men all react to her as if she was her character (an adult but small woman) lends the attentions of Alfredo an even seedier veneer than it might have otherwise had. They aso dub over the girl’s voice with the voice of an older woman, which makes the whole thing even weirder. It’s not a failing of the film as much as it is just really odd, but in a movie full of oddity it works even if not as was initially intended. And she plays a relatively minor role anyway, little more than a springboard from which to launch Hop Frog’s delicious revenge against Alfredo.
The sets and costumes, as they were for the previous Poe films, are fantastic. They really knew how to cram every prop and piece of furniture into these films to make them look much more opulent than the budgets would suggest. Working with cinematographer Nick Roeg (who went on to direct some fantastic films, including 1976′s Performance and 1976′s The Man Who Fell to Earth), Corman creates a visual feast. The film’s stand-out visual accomplishments include Prospero’s ornate network of vibrantly colored chambers, the dizzying masquerade turned performance art interpretational dance, and the Red Death itself with its rainbow colored brothers gathering in the mist beneath a gnarled tree. Where someone like Mario Bava, working at the same time, achieved his surreal super-saturated (and supernatural) atmosphere through the liberal application of spooky colored lighting, Corman achieves much the same affect by going with a very traditionally lit film where the sets and costumes themselves are physically painted to create the same phantasmagoric surrealism.
Corman was always clever when it came to saving a nickel and getting his money’s worth, and the high production value of Masque is another example of the director’s business acumen benefitting his artistic side. The previous Poe films had all been filmed in the United States in three weeks for about $200,000. Corman noted that the films had proven extremely popular in England, where they played nicely alongside Hammer fare (AIP and Hammer would eventually become as financially involved with one another as they were artistically similar). Corman also noted that if you made your film in England, a portion of the profits would get credited back to the production. And so off to England he went, with more money and more time than usual. Instead of the standard three, he was giving an extravagant five-week shooting schedule (Corman says it averages out to four weeks since British crews were slower than American ones). Corman uses that extra time and money to his advantage, allowing no cent to go to waste. Every dime, every dollar ends up on screen. It also gave Corman access to a massive warehouse of set dressing and costumes used in previous historic period pieces (Beckett, A Man for All Seasons). Well worth the price of a ticket to London.
After the success of The Fall of the House of Usher guaranteed that AIP would green light another Poe adaptation, Corman decided to do Masque of the Red Death. But as the mentions above of Seventh Seal infer, the two movies are similar in many ways — not because Corman was copying Bergman, but because Bergman’s film itself is influenced in many ways by Poe’s original story. Because he didn’t want Masque to be written off as just a Seventh Seal rip-off, Corman decided to delay it, and instead we got The Pit and the Pendulum (my second favorite of the Poe films). It’s obvious that Corman was influenced by Bergman as well as by Poe (he says himself that he was studying the films and techniques of Bergman, Hitchcock, and the old German expressionist horror directors), but I agree that Masque is its own thing entirely, and it was a good idea to delay it, especially since that means we got The Pit and the Pendulum and an appearance by horror icon Barbara Steele alongside Vincent Price. The delay also means that Corman had time to further refine his approach, resulting in a film that both he and I consider to be his best.
As should be obvious by now, I love this movie. Absolutely love it. I think it’s the best of the Poe films (and I think extremely highly of most of them), the best film Roger Corman ever made, and one of the best horror films of all time. This wasn’t the final film in the Poe Cycle. Corman and Price would be back later that same year with The Tomb of Ligeia, the last of the Poe films and the first to use actual outdoor locations instead of sets. It’s an exceptional film but seems a bit of an anti-climax following Masque of the Red Death. Price would appear in a couple somewhat unofficial Poe cycle films for AIP — 1965′s War Gods of the Deep (directed by Jacques Tourneur and based on a Poe story but a fantasy adventure film rather than horror) and 1967′s Witchfinder General, a completely original story directed by Michael Reeves that had a completely gratuitous Poe quote pasted onto the very end so they could retitle it Edgar Allan Poe’s The Conqueror Worm. In 1969, AIP decided to revive the Poe cycle, again with Vincent Price, but this time under the stewardship of director Gordon Hessler. These are decidedly more somber and drab affairs than the Corman films, but still worth watching. Masque is a cut above, however. It’s a movie that can be enjoyed on a purely visceral and visual level, but also one that rewards repeat viewing and analysis without being too obvious about it or seeming self-important. It fulfills the formulaic requirements of the Poe films without rote repetition and brings something new to the table while still delivering what you expect. On every level, I think this film is a triumph and a wonderful example of how complex and stunning a horror film can be even when most people write them off as meaningless garbage.
Release Year: 1964 | Country: United States | Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Skip Martin, Robert Brown, Julian Burton, David Davies, Gaye Brown, Verina Greenlaw, Doreen Dawn | Screenplay: Charles Beaumont | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg | Producer: Roger Corman