Dir. Roger Corman
Time for some Edgar Allen Poe. Having only seen two of his Poe adaptations, I can yet say the decision by legendary producer/director Roger Corman to make these films - appealing to a potential cinema audience for their lurid, baroque quality, but with intent for high art and production - was the best for him, able to succeed in both areas. The original short story of The Masque of the Red Death was only a few pages long, a mood piece, so a lot of additional material and a larger plot had to be added for a cinematic adaptation, turning it into a completely different type of story in fact, able to keep the main tone but be its own creation. The original set up is that Prince Prospero, played by Vincent Price here, has locked himself in his castle with lords and ladies, for countless days of dining, decadence and dancing, away from the Red Death, a plague that is killing off the population outside the walls. Here though, Prospero is also a Satanist and a cruel lord who doesn't care if his subjects in the village all die out, blaspheming against Christ and revealing in brutality for entertainment. Devil worshippers may be outraged, but no one would complain when it means Price is cast in the role, deliciously evil and throwing a punt kick verbally at the Christian God occasionally that does sting. Holding village girl Francesca (Jane Asher) captive, with her father Ludovico (Nigel Green) and fiancée Gino (David Weston) in the dungeon, he plans to have his way with them, not knowing that the dreaded spectre of the Red Death is just outside his castle walls, personified by a mysterious figure in a blood red gown covering his face.
The resulting film is a gleefully macabre yarn, a ridiculous film in tone, but never kitsch because it's made with a real artistry. It's a serious film in its plot yet is entertaining as expected with Corman in a very accessible way, comparable to many of Vincent Price's films that have a tongue in their cheek without laughing at the content within them, a playfulness alongside the gristly material. Price is compelling, as to be expected, twirling his moustache as an utterly evil yet charismatic character, as is the individuals on mass that are revealing in the blissful decadence, including Patrick Magee as Alfredo, a Lord who is to be humiliated by the dwarf Hop-Toad (Skip Martin) in Prospero's staff in revenge for the humiliation of someone close to him. If there is a problem with this film on the surface, the actual heroes of the film, played by Jane Asher, Nigel Green and David Weston, are not charismatic at all, the paradox being that we're supposed to see characters like Prospero or his wife Juliana (Hazel Court), who is going through a ritual to become a bride of Satan, as the villains but they're too compelling as onscreen beings and in the people playing them. Instead, the reason the film is entertaining is that it delights in extremely dark content that is surprisingly nasty still, including an unfortunate event of an accidental fire, without become misanthropic and losing the literary tone. In place of Poe's masterful construction of mood, you get an excited ghoulishness to the proceedings, the film as much rolling in its own gristle as it is still a film with an important tone.
The production design and look in the other Corman-Poe adaptation I've seen, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), was special but here the original story was a godsend for the aesthetic design. A key theme of the story is colour, Prospero having seven special rooms, four or so here in the film, all based around a single colour each - same coloured decor and lighting the same colour - except for the last, a black room which yet has a blood red light coming through the crucifix shaped window. The colour obsession is taken further in the other rooms in the castle and how everyone is dressed, before and during the masquerade. A film like this is what colour was made for in cinema, an already good film made even better by the striking use of colour. The sense of scale and tone for the entire narrative, the care taken in creating the setting and the details within it, is the masterstroke for the film's qualities, the care taken showing in the film and adding to its virtues. The entire film takes the Gothicism of the original story and adds to it the many rich aspects of horror cinema, anything from a reference to Poe's story The Raven twisted further along into a ghastly end for one character to a dank dungeon. There's even a psychedelic sixties trip sequence that just happens to surround Satan and a sadomasochistic ritual. The film takes on an occult vibe by its end that is drastically different from the tone of the original story, from the final masquerade as depicted almost as a dance of death to the reveal of what the red gowned figure, who is always with Tarot cards, is part of, adding atone for the final that is beyond the stereotypical good and evil plot set up originally but something much more darker and contrasts from the playful tone of before.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Out of the films of this series that haven't gotten onto this list, this one does become more and more befitting the concept of "abstract" as it goes whilst still sticking to a strict narrative, becoming more and more about the metaphysical with extra emphasis on the supernatural forces in actual control, where the real force behind most of the narrative is also the being that brought the Red Death to life in the first place. Despite not adding an odd air to the film, the fact that the heroic male character is merely a background character as the story finishes, and the story goes away from the good Christians versus evil Satanists drastically by the final scenes, does come off as an unexpected shock and gave me something to smile about as the film went against my expectations.
A Cinema of the Abstract film?
The other interesting thing about this sort of film is that, between these films and those of the later Sixties, you'd see a transition to the more explicit and adult horror films by the Seventies, this nonetheless still a macabre movie despite its age, and moments in terms of the violence and the sexual content give an early sign of what was to come in the genre internationally. The emphasis on style as well here is something that would continue on in the likes of European cinema. The film itself was worthy covering and Corman's career is interesting by itself to be worth discussing.