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The Masque of the Red Death

by Glenn Erickson Mar 02, 2021

Whoa!  CineSavant reviewed a different release of this movie just four months ago. Roger Corman’s 7th Poe/Gothic adaptation is probably his best, thanks to a Beaumont/Campbell screenplay that fully engages with Edgar A.’s morbid agenda. It’s not really kiddie fare, what with the unrelenting emphasis on cruel torture, perverse values and Godless nihilism. Vincent Price’s Prince Prospero has a real philosophy behind his twisted obsessions. Higher English production values and the riveting cinematography of Nicolas Roeg push this one into genuine classic status. The 2018 restoration was aided by Trailers from Hell’s Joe Dante and Jon Davison — the bits missing from censored versions have all been reinstated — saved by film collectors.


The Masque of the Red Death
Region B Blu-ray
Studiocanal
1964 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 91 89, 84 min. / Street Date January 25, 2021 / Available from Amazon UK / £14.99
Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston,
Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Skip Martin.
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Production Design: Daniel Haller
Film Editor: Ann Chegwidden
Original Music: David Lee
Written by Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell from the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Produced and Directed by
Roger Corman

Unique added-value extras may justify a fan double-dip for Studiocanal’s U.K. Region B release of Roger Corman’s horror classic. The new restoration of this colorful 1964 shocker knocks us out with reinstated censor trims and an improved image quality. The Masque of the Red Death is a familiar title, but I’ll still cover the basics before weighing in on this specific presentation.

Along with Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, this film thriller seems closely attuned to our current worldwide pandemic. Corman’s pestilence strikes hundreds of years in the past, at a discreet literary distance, yet complacent First Worlders can readily relate to the social and economic inequity depicted in Masque: Poe’s wealthy nobleman rides out the catastrophe in style, while the poor and dispossessed must accept that ‘it is what it is.’

 

It’s the Middle Ages, a sinkhole of feudal injustice. When the plague comes to his district Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) invites his sycophantic neighbor nobles to wait it out in the safety of his castle. He also takes under his sinister ‘protection’ a local peasant girl, the beautiful Francesca (Jane Asher). Francesca thinks she will save the lives of her beloved Gino (David Weston) and her father (Nigel Green), but Prospero has no intention of keeping his promise: he commits evil deeds in worship to his master, Satan. Juliana (Hazel Court) becomes jealous, and seeks to win Prospero back by proving her devotion to Satan in an eerie ceremony. Prospero throws a major costume party to celebrate the suffering going on outside the castle walls. His court jester Hop Toad (Skip Martin) uses the revels to take revenge on Prospero’s most abusive guest, Alfredo (Patrick Magee), for striking his fellow performer, the tiny dancer Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw).

Is this Corman’s most successful Poe adaptation?  After his second color gothic The Pit and the Pendulum he began straining to keep the series fresh — trying out a multi-story format, a different lead actor, and comedy self-parodies. Relocating to an entirely different film industry did the trick. Masque does more than sidestep the ‘twisty red candle’ economizing. It can afford a whole new look thanks to the cost savings to be found in England — and the creativity of the highly creative English cameraman Nicholas Roeg.

This Poe source story lends itself well to feature adaptation, especially after Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell fold in Poe’s story Hop Frog as a sadistic sidebar. The quasi-Italian background isn’t as jarring as the phony Spain of Pit and the Pendulum. Corman was somehow able to bring his designer Daniel Haller with him to England, and a set from Becket was combined with mix-n-match standing flats to create large warrens of corridors, chambers, battlements and dungeons. Prospero’s decadent parties are brightly lit, but elsewhere Roeg gives Masque an eerie, color-coded dread.

 

Vincent Price’s Prince Prospero is grand, commanding and convincingly cruel, ordering executions and village burnings as if disciplining himself to be evil. His attraction to the innocence of Jane Asher is well-motivated. Prospero doesn’t just spout pro-Satanic sentiments. He fancies himself a devout disciple and aspires to gain favor with the Dark One by being as ignoble as possible. True to the source story, Prospero has misread the balance of power in the universe. If Satan exists, he has influence only over the human mind. The specter of Death (or Deaths) hold sway over the Human Condition, and nobody can bargain with death.

Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell were already veteran Corman screenwriters. For Masque they firmly establish each character’s relationship to the main question of Evil in the world. It’s assumed that deflowering innocent girls is one of Prospero’s favorite pastimes. His guests are decadent hedonists unmoved by the inequities suffered by the common folk. Patrick Magee (of the Wright/Corman The Young Racers and Francis Coppola’s Dementia 13) is given dialogue that spells out his interest in having sex with the tiny Esmerelda.  Prospero encourages such liberties in his guests, as their perversity supports his twisted worldview. As an active petitioner to Satan, he has selfishly granted himself exalted status.

Prospero’s interest in Francesca deepens his character — the prince claims that he wishes to ‘educate’ her in dark depravities. Francesca is appalled by Prospero’s murders and cruelty, and dismayed by his self-justifications, his insistence that the world is horrible and that Francesca’s loving God is dead. Yet Prospero regards Francesca’s courage and convictions as worthy values. Despite what he professes, he praises her courage to what he thinks is an emissary of the Devil.

 

 Jane Asher is terrific in a difficult role — sweet and vulnerable, yet morally strong. Her first humiliation is a nude bath with Prospero and Juliana looking on. That Corman gets away with this scene in 1964 is fairly amazing (although a glimpse here and a couple of frames there were trimmed from original prints). For being slighted as a ‘girlfriend of a Beatle’ Ms. Asher has a fine record as an actress, both as a child in Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment and later in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie, as a ‘bird’ that rejects Michael Caine’s cockney chauvinism.

 This may be the strongest screen role for the great Hazel Court, who reigned in Hammer’s premiere horrorshow in color (The Curse of Frankenstein) and didn’t mind returning to the genre in The Man Who Could Cheat Death and Corman’s own The Premature Burial and The Raven. Court’s Juliana is the rare female horror character that voluntarily seeks the Dark Side — her belief in the Satanic philosophy is stronger than Propero’s. She foolishly thinks that by ‘going all the way’ she will win her man and some kind of deified immortality. Her mania seems more credible now than it did fifty years ago — fanatics throw their lives into religious and political insanity without restraint, killing and dying for irrational beliefs.

Juliana is granted this Corman/Poe film’s regulation dream sequence, the effects scene stylized with a blue or green color wash, with overlaid mist and visual distortion… did Corman do similar ‘drug trip’ hallucination sequences before the first Poe House of Usher?  It’s a semi-subjective experience for the terrified Juliana, what with demonic warlocks from ancient civilizations threatening her with various daggers. Ms. Court throws her all into those screams. The dream-hallucination neatly sets up the next scene with the falcon, and raises more questions about the exact nature of Masque’s cosmology — (spoiler) Is Juliana simply victimized by Prospero, or are demonic forces really at work?

 

The Masque of the Red Death allows no relief from the Poe/Corman morbidity formula. The parade of cruelties never stops. Miserable peasants are burned from their homes and scattered. Displays of courage are answered with cruel games of death. Prospero’s life & death authority menaces everyone. Supplicants that beg for mercy at the castle walls are met with closed gates and deadly arrows, peasant and noble alike. Poor Gino and Francesca’s father are forced to play a suicide game for Prospero, who is amused by their foolish efforts to be virtuous.

Did Roger Corman ever risk censorship before this film?  We never heard of him challenging the Production Code in his low-budget work, if only to avoid spending money unnecessarily. But Masque pushes the standards of 1964, English and American. No ‘positive’ authority figure challenges Prospero’s twisted theories. His cruelties are dished out cold, without filmmaker comment, and no forces of mercy and decency come to the rescue. Every set piece is played straight and sadistic. We have no reason to believe that the rebellious Hop Toad, the innocent Esmerelda or the courageous Francesca’s efforts to survive will come to anything.

Vincent Price’s performance is something separate from the more parodic Poe villains — there’s no ‘wink’ in this character. Prospero is a victim of his own vanity and presumption. He does his best to attract Lucifer’s attention, but his kindness toward Francesca seems a big mistake if he really expects to impress The Devil.

 

Masque seemed a new experience this time, with Nicolas Roeg’s lighting making most of the movie look far better than the earlier Poes. The stagey quality of the hill where the color-coded Deaths meet still reminds us of those shallow stage interiors back at the rental studio on Hollywood’s Van Ness Avenue. And although very good, the masked ball scene isn’t the crowning climax it might have been. The lighting and choreography seem rushed and Corman’s camera direction is less creative. It doesn’t attempt the full-tilt delirium of similar scenes in the English- classic Dead of Night and John Parker’s overachieving oddity Dementia.

Several interesting actors draw our attention.  Skip Martin’s dwarf performer Hop Toad sees a pragmatic way to get free of Prospero’s terror. Esmerelda is played not by a midget but by an 8-year-old girl, Verina Greenlaw, who three years before was the lost tyke ‘Trixie’ in Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Familiar player Nigel Green (The Ipcress File) doesn’t get much attention from Corman’s camera, and his one dialogue line sounds as if it were dubbed by someone else. Keeping things ship-shape in Prosepero’s torture dungeon is Robert Brown, remembered from Hammer Films’ The Abominable Snowman, and a future ‘M’ in Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton 007 films.

 

Perhaps the most successful blend of scripting, design, cinematography and direction comes with Prince Prospero’s string of colored rooms, chambers that suggest a passage from reality into the devil’s domain. It expresses the notion that passage into Evil is a progression, like the river voyage in Heart of Darkness. The final chamber is the black room with the window with the scarlet light; it seems psychologically workable that Juliana could use the ‘magic’ chamber to will herself into a state of ‘malevolent enlightenment.’

Take another look at Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and you’ll see that its conclusion borrows wholesale the motif of Masque’s ‘colored rooms.’ When George C. Scott rescues his daughter from a sleazy brothel, he smashes through a series of identical but differently-painted sex cribs. He finds her in the last chamber, at the ‘heart of porno darkness.’ It’s a nice allusion to the Corman film & the Poe story.

Roger Corman stays true to Poe’s grim story right to the end. We expect a compromise, a conventional Christian victory over Satan with lovers sharing a kiss. Even though the Deaths spare the little girl, the finale instead opts for a nihilistic statement. Forget the battle between good and evil or God and Satan — there is only the common denominator of extinction.

 


 

Studiocanal’s Region B Blu-ray of The Masque of the Red Death is a stunning scan of the 2018 restoration by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation. A.I.P.’s film library was bought by Orion, and then MGM bought Orion’s catalog. Back in the DVD days I witnessed the MGM film management department’ good work with its new horror acquisitions, restoring censored scenes and in some cases entire alternate versions.


So what’s in this ‘Vintage Classics’ presentation?  Like the American disc release, Studiocanal’s Region B Blu-ray offers a choice of the U.S. Theatrical cut and the new Extended cut. The original U.K. release version of Masque was much shorter (84 minutes), deleting several violent events plus the entire sequence of Juliana’s ghostly hallucination at the sacrificial altar. But it retained two extensions of dialogue scenes that were cut from the American version. One is the first part of a talk between Prospero and Francesca on the castle battlements. The second is a discussion between Esmerelda and Hop Toad that occurs later in the film. The other odds ‘n’ ends include some bits subtracted from Francesca’s bath scene.

None of the studio-held and archived elements for Masque included an uncut version. The film’s original negative had been conformed to the approved American release version, and the existing print of the British cut was in poor condition.

The good news is that private collectors came to the rescue. The new restoration sources a print held by film collectors Joe Dante and Jon Davison. They screened it at the New Beverly Theater in 2014. Their copy must have been in good shape; with digital matching applied I can’t say that I detect much of a shift in quality for the added material.

Masque is an anamorphic 35mm feature originally printed by Pathé in America and by Technicolor in England. Earlier Poe films touted Panavision on the posters but no format is listed for this show. The most surprising thing is that even with Roeg behind the camera, wide shots in Masque have some of the worst optics I’ve seen on an anamorphic film. Every time Corman pans his camera the sets appear to ooze across the screen, stretching and shrinking in waves. Actors standing at the far left periphery are twice as thin as they should be. Perhaps Corman rented one of the inferior early CinemaScope lenses that were likely kicking around the cheap rental market at the time. At UCLA, I remember future Oscar winner Hoyt Yeatman dubbing this effect ‘Warp-O-Scope.’

That said, Roeg achieves some stunning effects for Corman. With her red hair and sorrowful eyes, Jane Asher’s peasant girl is the picture of vulnerability whether wandering dark corridors or installed in a regal bath. Hazel Court makes a radiant, full bodied sacrificial offering to the powers of darkness. Part of my positive response to the film this time (I haven’t seen it in several years) is due to the much-improved image quality.

I’m still not impressed much with the film’s soundtrack music score. It seems conventional and subdued. This time through the main theme kept reminding me of a secondary melody from the West Side Story song ‘A Boy Like That.’  (I know, I know, that’s hardly relevant.) The show plays well, but some truly weird soundtrack music might have elevated it even higher.

The extras compete well with those offered on the domestic U.S. Blu-ray released last year. Kim Newman shares audio commentary duties with author and filmmaker Sean Hogan. It’s clear that Masque is a special title for them because the talk is even more enthusiastic than usual for a Newman track — he happily announces that Edgar Allan Poe’s name is spelled correctly in the credits, which didn’t happen for Corman’s The Haunted Palace. Right off the top Newman and Hogan don’t buy that Corman can be faulted for mimicking Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal … Bergman clearly took his hooded Death figure straight from Poe’s Masque. And they note that Vincent Price may have upped his game for Masque because he was surrounded by (what Newman and Hogan describe as) superior English actors.

A nice sidebar sees the pair wandering into a discussion comparing the schools and auteurs of horror, quite humorously and with typical Newman precision. It’s a good listen.

Keith Johnston’s Colour and Censorship in The Masque of The Red Death featurette doesn’t get deeply into the specific changes between versions but offers good info on the effort to track down complete copies of the film. The special extra is a full hour’s talk between Roger Corman and critic Kim Newman, which covers a big swath of the producer-director’s career. At least half of it consists of the same Corman boilerplate reminiscences, but Newman asks the questions well, doesn’t rush things and puts his guest in a good mood. It was taped after a screening at the British Film Institute.

My copy came with no ‘art cards’ and no booklet with an essay by film preservationist Tessa Idelwine, as pictured in the product shot just above.  I don’t know if reviewers’ copies were shorted, or if those extras were only for a certain number of early purchasers. U.S. purchasers need to be reminded that Studiocanal’s disc is Region B, and that the substantive difference between this and the readily available U.S release from last year are the unique extras.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Masque of the Red Death
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette Colour and Censorship in The Masque of The Red Death, an interview with Keith Johnston; Audio commentary with Kim Newman and Sean Hogan; Video extra Roger Corman: In Conversation with Kim Newman at The BFI (60 min.); Behind the Scenes stills gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 27, 2021
(6452masq)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.