"There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction. These the mere romanticist must eschew, if he do not wish to offend or to disgust. They are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of Truth sanctify and sustain them."—Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial, 1850
Roger Corman, the man who, according to the title of his autobiography, "made a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lost a dime," made his reputation as a low-budget horror auteur in the early 1960s with a series of six films for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson's American International Pictures, based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. All but one of Corman's Poe sextet starred veteran genre actor Vincent Price; the sixth featured Academy Award winner (Best Actor, The Lost Weekend, 1945) Ray Milland.
MGM Home Entertainment's Midnite Movies series pairs Corman's best Price/Poe collaboration, The Masque of the Red Death, with the Milland starrer The Premature Burial on this double-sided, double feature DVD.
Facts of the Case
Masque of the Red Death:
At Prospero's castle, his consort Juliana (Hazel Court, who also co-starred in The Premature Burial) is given charge of Francesca, whom she immediately (and correctly) perceives as a threat to her place at the prince's side. While the women become acquainted, Prospero amuses his drunken guests with a pair of dwarf entertainers, tiny dancer Esmeralda (eerilyplayed by a little child named Verina Greenlaw and dubbed by an adult actress) and court jester Hop Toad (Skip Martin). When Esmeralda inadvertently knocks over the wine goblet belonging to Prospero's friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee, A Clockwork Orange), Alfredo slaps the miniature ballerina to the floor, an act that draws the ire both of Prospero—who throws his own wine into Alfredo's face—and Hop Toad, who devises an ingenious plan for revenge.
Prospero's callous cruelty, we soon learn, finds its root in his adoration and worship of Satan. (Must have been listening to Jane Asher's boyfriend's records backward.) That cruelty is so thouroughly engrained that it expresses itself with casual disaffection—when a nobleman desperate to escape the Red Death offers the prince his wife in exchange for sanctuary, Prospero replies off-handedly, "I've already had that doubtful pleasure." Because she represents light to his shadow, Prospero is both disgusted and bemused by Francesca's devout Christianity, a religion he perceives as naïve and fruitless. The remainder of the story becomes a battle between good (personified by the valiant Gino) and evil (personified by Prospero) for Francesca's soul…a battle already long ago lost in the case of the prince himself.
The Premature Burial:
To stave off a potential disaster, Guy constructs a mausoleum for himself, equipped with every imaginable escape device: a coffin with spring-release side panels, and excavation tools mounted in the lid; a pull cord that activates an alarm bell; a crypt door triggered from inside; a case of dynamite; even a goblet of poison in the vent all else fails. He grows increasingly paranoid, lashing out in rage at the site of flowers (they remind him of funeral decorations) and collapsing in panic attacks when he hears the folk melody "Molly Malone" (he was present during a disinterment at which one of the sextons whistled that tune while he worked).
The question for the viewer: is Guy clairvoyant in foreseeing the manner of his own death, or is he merely insane?
A convincing argument could be made that The Masque of the Red Death represents Roger Corman's finest work as a director (the likely alternative candidate would be his other collaboration with Ray Milland, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes). It's certainly the class of his Poe adaptations (though personally, I'm partial to The Pit and the Pendulum). There are valid reasons for the artistic success of this film: The Masque of the Red Death boasted a markedly larger budget than any previous Corman opus (he combined the costs for two potential films to make this one); thanks to the increased funding, Corman was able to take five leisurely weeks to shoot Masque instead of his customary pell-mell three; the picture was shot in England—Corman's first British-based production—so the director was able to utilize sets already built for other Gothic horror films and take advantage of lower-priced acting and technical talent.
Any discussion of what makes The Masque of the Red Death a genre classic has to begin with Vincent Price, who turns in one of the most memorable performances of his storied career as the amoral Prospero. Critics delight in dismissing Price as a self-caricature laced with more ham than a Sunday brunch, but no one in the history of cinema embodied that unique blend of urbanity, debauchery, and egotism gone mad more fully than he did. And in Masque, Price was at the peak of his prowess; perhaps only in The Conqueror Worm did he portray a more realistically evil character. Could you envision another actor uttering these melodramatic lines without reducing the audience to hysterical laughter? "The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness." "If my hound bites my hand after I have fed and caressed him, should I allow him to do undisciplined?" Vincent Price says them, and cold clammy beads of sweat dribble down the small of your back.
The rest of the cast is at best adequate. Jane Asher is a dull, wide-eyed cipher as the virginal Francesca, and Hazel Court is hardly more revealing as a woman driven mad by her love for an evil man. Skip Martin, the small actor who plays the calculating Hop Toad, contributes some nifty moments, stealing every scene where he appears.
Frequent Corman screenwriters R. Wright Campbell (Machine-Gun Kelly) and Charles Beaumont (Seven Faces of Dr. Lao) do a creditable job making something out of essentially nothing—Poe's original short story The Masque of the Red Death totals a scant 2,434 words, contains no dialogue, and names only one character, Prospero. So the majority of the script had to be invented from whole cloth. The entire subplot about the vengeful dwarf was grafted in from another, unrelated Poe story, Hop Frog, and the rest of the story could have been cobbled together from an amalgam of H.P. Lovecraft's Weird Tales and old EC comics. But it works for the most part, and Corman keeps it moving briskly, with the exception of a hallucinatory dream sequence that drags on far too long and does nothing to advance the plot (except that it gives Corman an excuse to throw in a dash of the mystical balderdash that he loves so well).
Viewers accustomed to the papier-mache production values of most of Corman's horror work will be pleasantly surprised to see how rich this film looks. As previously mentioned, Corman was able to cannibalize scenery left over from other movies while shooting Masque, and he uses everything to terrific advantage. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, later a respected director in his own right (Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth), affords the film a sumptuous visual texture that's incredible for a bargain-basement thriller.
Where The Masque of the Red Death shows Corman at his best, The Premature Burial is easily the weakest of his Poe adaptations and for this reason is the installment of the series least familiar to movie fans today. Contrasted with Masque, Burial is hampered by its modest budget, pedestrian script (Beaumont again, this time partnered with Ray Russell, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes), weak acting, and thoroughly uncharismatic lead. Ray Milland was in his mid-50s when The Premature Burial was filmed, and if you can buy him as a medical student, you must have attended college at Geriatric State U. (Then again, what would Price have looked like in this role? Though originally considered by Corman, Price was contractually barred from the film when Corman agreed to make it under the Pathé imprint—Price was signed to AIP. Ironically, AIP bought out Pathé's interest in mid-production and ended up releasing the movie under its own banner.) Milland's character grows so obnoxious that by the time the film is half-over, we almost wish someone would bury him alive.
MGM's DVD delivers 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers of both Masque and Burial. Both films show both their age and the fact that no one much thought these cranked-out B-pictures would be of interest to cineastes 40 years later. Print flaws abound—a couple of egregious examples mar the climactic sequence of Masque—though this is probably as good as either film has appeared in decades. The original mono soundtracks, predictably, are tinny and harsh, with Masque sounding slightly more balanced than its B-side. Both films come equipped with French alternate audio and French and Spanish subtitles.
Extra content is limited to the original trailers for each film and a pair of interview segments featuring director/producer Corman. Both interviews are marvelous—the featurette accompanying Masque is 18 minutes in length, the Burial clip roughly half that—chock-full of insights and reflections from the master, and not just about these two films. Corman clearly enjoyed making movies, and his inventive, intelligent approach to directing belies the fact that he worked mostly on shoestring budgets and corset-tight schedules. He references influences in his work that might never occur to the viewer who regards this stuff as hokey, cheapjack schlock. Corman's remarks are so entertaining, in fact, that I'm baffled that MGM didn't just keep him talking until they had full-length commentary tracks for both movies. I'm sure he hadn't wrapped up everything he had to relate from a lifetime of cinematic experience in a mere half-hour.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some twisted, demonic impulse persuaded Corman to produce, in 1989, a remake of Masque of the Red Death starring Adrian Paul (later of the TV version of Highlander). I saw this stinker on television by accident late one weekend night, thinking I was tuning in for the Vincent Price classic. There is also, apparently, yet another latter-day Masque pretender starring Rambo's no-talent brother, Frank Stallone (I can only imagine in fevered sleep how dreadful that one must be…). Suffice it to say: when it comes to getting your Masque fix, accept no substitutes. (To the best of my knowledge, no one's ever attempted a revisitation of The Premature Burial. A good thing, this.)
The Masque of the Red Death is a classic, pure and simple, with a brilliantly nuanced performance by the one truly American parallel to Boris Karloff. Every fan of the horror genre, and especially those who enjoy the Gothic style pioneered by Hammer Films, should own this. The Premature Burial isn't Masque's equal in terms of quality, star power or entertainment value. But it's goofy fun, and it's over quickly. The Corman interviews alone are worth the admission price.
Roger Corman still hasn't lost a dime. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Two Interviews with Director/Producer Roger Corman
• IMDb: The Masque of the Red Death
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