Saturday, February 9, 2013

#150: The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964)

In the 2011 documentary Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Jack Nicholson says of Corman's body of work, "By mistake, he accidentally made a good picture every once in a while." In the filmography of Corman, the man who gave early breaks to actors and directors like Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, David Carradine, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Sylvester Stallone, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, James Cameron, Curtis Hanson, Bill Paxton, William Shatner, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Monte Hellman, Paul Bartel, Robert Towne, Jack Hill, George Armitage, and (don't blame him for this one) Ron Howard, The Masque of the Red Death is one of those quality accidents. Nicholson's comment was a good-natured joke with a grain of truth. Corman, as director and/or producer, has made hundreds of low-budget films and is still going strong in his eighties. A lot of those films are cheap, entertaining schlock, but plenty of others overcome their limitations and hold up as good films, no qualifications necessary. When Corman had a personal attachment to his material, he was a very good director capable of strikingly memorable images, and he's done great work as a character actor in cameo roles for Wim Wenders, Coppola, Demme, Dante, and Bartel.
The Masque of the Red Death comes near the end of a long string of loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Corman directed in the early 1960s, which make up some of his strongest work. Working with a larger than usual budget, Corman still managed to make the film on the cheap by shooting in Britain (which at the time had fewer taxes than American film shoots), receiving a subsidy from the British government for using local crews, and using sets left over from the big-budget Peter O'Toole/Richard Burton film Becket. Corman shot the film in rich Path├ęcolor and was aided by the considerable skills of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who would go on to become a great director in his own right) and longtime collaborator Daniel Haller on production design. And, of course, a fine lead performance from Vincent Price as Prince Prospero.
Corman takes the plot of Poe's short story -- a wealthy, decadent prince avoids a deadly plague sweeping through the countryside by holing up in his castle with several decadent underlings and having a masked ball -- and spices things up by making the prince a sadistic Satan worshiper and adding in a subplot taken from another Poe story, "Hop-Frog." Price seems to be having a great time as Prospero and nails the film's precariously balanced combination of Baroque camp and genuine menace. Too much of either the former or the latter would have seriously damaged the movie, but Price innately understands how to occupy both sides of the seesaw.
The film begins with a woman wandering through a cemetery at night. A red-cloaked figure sitting in front of a nearby tree hands the woman a white rose he turns red with a few drops of blood and commands her to take the rose to the village. At this same time, Prince Prospero arrives by coach in the village, nearly trampling a toddler sitting in his path, to invite the townspeople to his annual masked ball. He is not too popular with the locals, though they are deathly afraid of him, and two men make their displeasure known. Prospero demands the execution of the men, and a woman breaks free of the crowd to beg Prospero to forgive them. The woman, Francesca (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's then-girlfriend and the sister of Peter & Gordon's Peter Asher), has urgent reason to beg the prince. One of the men is her boyfriend, the other is her father. Prospero finds her attractive and tells her he will spare one of the men as long as she chooses which one will die, to the delight of his even more sadistic underling Alfredo (A Clockwork Orange's Patrick Magee). The festivities are rudely interrupted by a screaming woman. She turns out to be the woman from the beginning of the film, and she is dying from the "red death," a contagious plague. Prospero rescinds his invitation to the ball, asks if Francesca and the two men had contact with the sick woman, takes all three prisoner when he finds out they haven't, and quickly returns to his castle for masked balls, sadistic mind games, sadistic acts of violence, Satan worship, and plague avoidance.
What follows is a highly enjoyable, beautifully photographed comedic horror film with a tone that is just camp enough to be clever and not so campy that it's cynically superior to its material. At 89 minutes, the film's pacing is brisk and doesn't drag the way some low budget horror films have a tendency to do in their second halves. I've already spent enough time praising Vincent Price, but the entire cast is also strong. The fluid camera moves through the set gracefully, capturing Roeg's striking use of color and light and Haller's wonderfully over-the-top sets and clothes. Poe obsessives may be annoyed at the liberties taken with the source material, but everyone else should have a great time. Corman himself said Masque was one of the three best films he made (the other two are The Intruder and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). If for no other reason, watch it because a small child plays an adult character with her voice overdubbed by an adult woman. Crazy, man.