There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of what might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams.
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1)
The distinction between “high” and “low” types of cinema – between those films that were made for festivals and art houses, which can be considered Art, and those made for drive-ins and late-night cable, which are Trash – is at once artificial and absurd. Yet it’s central, at the same time, to the way we understand movies. Institutions like Hollywood and Cannes award prizes to films that fit their a priori notion of “quality” cinema, whether or not such films are particularly well-made. (Think back, if you must, to The Reader or The King’s Speech.) Critics go wild for auteur directors who manage against the odds to express themselves as artists, despite (or is that because of?) the fact they worked in popular, lowbrow genres. (Might a Samuel Fuller or Edgar G. Ulmer have lost much of his mystique if someone had accidentally handed him a good script?) Auteur critics, even at their most extreme, do not dissolve our distinction between “high” and “low” cinema. They build on it, exploit it and, ultimately, reinforce it – whether or not they have consciously set out to do so.
In this most bizarre and self-contradictory of contexts, the work of producer/director Roger Corman is largely incompatible with the ways in which we discuss movies. His film versions of Edgar Allan Poe, made between 1960 and 1965 for the exploitation studio American International Pictures, were shot without fanfare, pretension or, for the most part, budget. Each one was nominally based on a “classic” tale (i.e. one that was famous but safely out of copyright). The last two, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), were shot in Britain on slightly less of a shoestring – but only because AIP had lost a chunk of its profits to the UK government’s EADY levy. (A strange but effective Robin Hood scheme, EADY taxed foreign films and used the spoils to fund British ones. Margaret Thatcher abolished it, of course, in 1979.) The suits that ran AIP could think of no better way to get their money back.
So far, nothing in their making would ever tempt us to associate the Poe films with Art. Each was a decision as crassly commercial as the latest season of Pop Idol or Dancing on Ice. Yet The Masque of the Red Death, with its feverishly florid brand of Pathécolor Expressionism, mirrors such prodigally arty (and, in their day, financially ruinous) experiments as The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951) and Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955). As the tyrant Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) summons his acolytes to a demonic masked ball, dancers in prismatic garb twirl and caper amid the multi-coloured candelabra. The décor and the camerawork (by a young Nicolas Roeg) evoke not so much a colour scheme as a rainbow – shattered into fragments and festooned, in patterns we had not yet dreamt, about some left-over sets from Beckett (Peter Glenville, 1964). The Masque of the Red Death is a film that expands our visual vocabulary as we watch it. It creates (where most films simply reflect) a fresh way of seeing.
Nor is its visual bravura expressive of only one source. When the Prince’s depraved paramour (Hazel Court) wallows in her Satanic dream sequence (cue for billows of dry ice, and bogeymen with uncomfortable ethnic overtones) we might be back at the Come-as-Your-Own-Damned-Soul costume party thrown by Kenneth Anger as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). And when the Red Death, a figure robed and cowled in deep-blood crimson, devastates the world outside the castle with plague, we hear echoes of Ingmar Bergman and Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Corman, in interviews today, claims that he adapted The Masque of the Red Death fairly late in his Poe series because he admired Bergman and did not want to be accused of cashing in (2). (Heaven forbid!) Yet he was, in essence, a Bergman of the drive-in and grind-house – an artist who revelled in trashy splendour and lurid excess, and had no qualms about selling popcorn to the kids.
While the film today seems like a celebration of pure artifice, a spectre called “the Red Death” had an alarmingly real-life ring to audiences at the time of the Cold War. A political liberal, who admired President Kennedy, Corman was surely aware that another type of “Red Death” had threatened to annihilate the known world in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. (As a study in our fears of nuclear apocalypse, The Masque of the Red Death is less overt but more poignant than Stanley Kubrick’s over-hyped Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, another UK shot Hollywood production released in that same year!) The sadistic and decadent orgies staged by Prince Prospero – who wilfully shuts his eyes to the catastrophe around him – found their real-life parallel in the Profumo Scandal of 1963. (Even the names are oddly similar.) In London, at high-society shindigs, Tory ministers and Soviet spies cavorted with (and, in some cases, shared) the same teenage “party girls”. Blind, or so it might appear, to all the security risks involved.
This picture of a corrupt and decaying Establishment, oblivious to all threats to the world it purports to rule, has been used by some critics to explain the popularity of the Corman Poe films with youth audiences, both in the 1960s and today. Barely two years after The Masque of the Red Death was released, Carlos Clarens wrote that Corman’s “mise en scène… in film after film accentuates the putrid, the mouldy, the dusty – the crumbling of a hopelessly adult world” (3). This may sound like a direct contradiction to the film’s aesthetic of rainbow-hued excess but, strangely, it is not. Most scenes that do not take place in a kaleidoscopic ballroom are set deep underground, in dungeons where the dampness drips off the screen. And even the colours, dazzling though they are, seem to glow like the over-bright make-up on a newly embalmed corpse. “What appeals to the youngsters”, says Clarens, “seems to be the pleasure of seeing the used-up, flabby gentlemen sink as the old order rots and crumbles around them” (4).
Perhaps it is telling that the young ingénue of the film, a virginal peasant girl named Francesca, is played by the exquisite 19-year-old Jane Asher. An iconic figure in the emerging youth culture of Swinging London, Asher was dating Paul McCartney at the time of shooting and allegedly invited Corman to the Beatles’ first London gig. Her persona, both onscreen and off, was emblematic of renewal and hope for the future: a dream (however naïve or misguided) that young people could join hands to create a better world; one that was not poisoned, at its source, by the greed and folly of older generations. At the same time, her flame-red hair (a throwback to the Technicolor heyday of ’40s stars like Maureen O’Hara and Maria Montez) serves as a constant visual reminder of the Red Death that lurks outside the castle walls. A figure who brings – in his own words – not simply death, but “deliverance”.
The final word, perhaps, should go to the aptly named film historian Rose London. (A close-up of a white rose turning to blood red is the first, and perhaps the most ominous sign of the Red Death’s fatal power.) London writes:
[A]lthough Corman’s movie lacks the intellectual rigours of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, its use of the figure of Death, and its ending, where Death’s messengers report to their Master that only the dwarf jester and five others remain alive in all the world, has a quality worthy of Poe and Bergman’s own vision of the plague and the apocalypse. (5)
A film that defies both categories and critics, The Masque of the Red Death is a unique work in the annals of Anglo-American horror. It sits more comfortably, perhaps, beside such Italian Gothic films as Beatrice Cenci (Riccardo Freda, 1956), La frusta e il corpo (The Whip and the Body, Mario Bava, 1963) and Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977). All these films share its near-psychedelic visual exuberance, although they lack its underlying subtext of renewal and hope. Yet on its deepest and most visceral level, The Masque of the Red Death is precisely the sort of lurid and vulgar “bad” movie that – back when you were a child – your parents always told you not to watch. As a basic motivation for watching movies, it’s hard to improve on that!
- Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Illustrated Stories and Poems, Chancellor Press, London, 1988, p. 761.
- Interview with Roger Corman in the featurette Roger Corman – Behind the Masque, included in the DVD release of The Masque of the Red Death, MGM Home Entertainment, 2002.
- Carlos Clarens, Horror Movies: An Illustrated Survey, Secker and Warburg, London, 1968, p. 219.
- Clarens, p. 220.
- Rose London, Cinema of Mystery, Lorrimer, London, 1975, p. 67.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964 Britain/USA 89 mins)
Prod Co: American International Pictures Prod, Dir: Roger Corman Scr: Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell, based on the stories “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe Phot: Nicolas Roeg Ed: Ann Chegwidden Prod Des: Daniel Haller, Robert Jones Mus: David Lee
Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee, Nigel Patrick, John Westbrook