Archive for Masque of the Red Death

Legends of the Fall

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2010 by dcairns

Jean Epstein’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, which played at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse with live accompaniment by the Southwell Collective (excellent — they even researched the music referred to in Poe’s story and used it as the basis of their work), was really the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe Week — that, and the Cornell Woolrich comparison. Since I’d done a Woolrich Week, a Poe Week seemed essential, and also a nice way to build up to Halloween.

Where to begin? Storywise, Epstein goes surprisingly mainstream and literal for a European, tidying up a lot of Poe’s excess and illogic. The incestuous vibes of the Roderick-Madeleine relationship obviously made somebody uncomfortable, so the Ushers are now man and wife, which makes everything dandy (so long as they aren’t still brother and sister as well — that would be worse) and their friend, the narrator of Poe’s story, is a stodgy old duffer rather than a fervid neurotic. You don’t need a Degree in Eng Lit to spot that the craziest character in the story is the storyteller, but filmmakers generally avoid this implication, preferring to set a stable frame for the narrative — as if stability were in any way part of Poe’s goal.

Fortunately, Epstein’s visual approach compensates for his narrative conventionality — the movie is almost as ideas-packed as the classic Watson & Webber short, also from 1928. The ideas are mostly visual in both films, although Epstein also has the smart idea of folding in another Poe tale, The Oval Portrait. In said story, a man paints his beloved and as he nears completion, she gets sicker and sicker. In capturing her spirit on canvas, he extinguishes her life. Rather brilliantly, the painting in this film is an empty frame with the actual actress visible through it, standing still.

(I recently acquired a large-scale 1934 student film version of THE OVAL PORTRAIT, directed by future Twilight Zone director Richard L. Bare. But it’s not very good — an attempt is made to flesh out Poe’s story with a bookend structure, but the result is almost as clumsy as the British 1948 version of USHER, and much less interesting.)

The idea of padding one Poe story by allowing it to ingest another has been a popular one: Corman’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH swallow up Hop-Frog, and his Black Cat episode of TALES OF TERROR consumes so much of The Cask of Amontillado that it winds up resembling the second story more closely than  the third. Another Black Cat, Argento’s episode of TWO EVIL EYES, casts Harvey Keitel as a crime scene photographer, all of whose cases turn out to be drawn from Poe’s writings (Berenice, The Pit and the Pendulum…)

Epstein was a marvelously versatile filmmaker, with neo-realist, surrealist, and melodramatic tendencies, any of which could dominate utterly on any given project, or which could be allowed to battle it out with one another. USHER is naturally more in the surreal/expressionist vein, with a musty, misty, vignetted look which is far more alien and antique to modern eyes than his FINIS TERRAE, made the following year in a completely contrasting style.

Nevertheless, by whizzing the camera along at floorboard level, Epstein introduces “The Presence” that haunts THE EVIL DEAD films of Sam Raimi, and the slo-mo tumble of books from a cluttered, overflowing cupboard is a dreamlike pre-echo of Bunuel (who worked as assistant on this).

Red or Dead

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2010 by dcairns

“It was night, and the rain fell: and, falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe.

I like the way Poe films always try to shoehorn in a few direct quotations. I offer the neglected, but excellent, phrase above to anyone who can find a good home for it. Griffith’s THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE stuffs quite a few quotes into its intertitles, and Corman’s Poe films very often end with a printed quote. The idea is the same in both cases: shore up the impression of classical authority and fidelity by inserting bits of actual Poe in, like mortar between bricks which very likely owe nothing whatsoever to the source text.

Poe’s Masque of the Red Death is only about five pages long in my edition, so it’s surprising (but delightful) that the resultant movie is possibly Corman’s masterpiece. Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont deserves the lion’s share, not so much fleshing out a skeleton as assembling a whole new structure extrapolated from a few intriguing metatarsals. There’s no satanism in the Poe story, so Prince Prospero is essentially Beaumont’s man, and apart from the figure of Death, there’s no supporting cast either. Corman reports that he put the script aside while he shot THE SECRET INVASION, and when he came back to it he felt it was a little slight, and so with R. Wright Campbell he expanded it by folding in the plot of Hop-Frog, another Poe story which happens to feature a masque, and is likewise set in a vaguely medieval European court. Even though it’s buried within another picture, Hop-Frog probably qualifies as the Poe story most faithfully treated by Corman, the only major change being the substitution of eight fat men in ourang-outang costumes, for one Patrick Magee in a gorilla suit.

Few Corman productions can have offered such time for reflection, and it clearly helped here. Among other things, the movie can be considered simply as a series of very good scenes. No bad ones, few average ones, lots and lots of really good ones. Admittedly the “good” characters, apart from Hop Toad (the excellent, understated Skip Martin), are a little dull — even Nigel Green can’t make much out of his staunch dad role — but they’re decently cast and played. The Sadeian Prince Prospero makes a splendid role for Uncle Winnie, who dials the fruitiness down, having indulged in the more comical horrors of TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN. Prince Prospero has all the best arguments, and although his obeisance to Satan certainly isn’t endorsed by the film, all his arguments against the existence of a benign god are basically allowed to stand. It’s Death, a force of nature, who does him in in the end.

Poe strikes me as something of an atheist — even if his stories are rich in supernatural phenomena, he’s more inclined to use them for obvious allegorical purposes, and he’s the father of the Scooby Doo explanation for Impossible Crimes. His rationalist side is countered by his deep devotion to dark psychological depths, with his characters yanked about like puppets by emotions buried too deep to be recognised — it’s a guilty conscience that speaks through The Tell-Tale Heart and The Imp of the Perverse. And though characters may rise from the grave in Poe, he seems highly doubtful of any final resurrection — the whole message of The Raven is that the dead are permanently taken from us, to be met with nevermore.

All good heavy stuff, to be danced around as playfully as possible by Price, Magee, Hazel Court and the rest. Fiona and I are big fans of the monochrome rooms: Prince Pros tells us that his father imprisoned “a friend” in the Yellow Chamber for some years, after which the man was unable to look upon the sun, or even a daffodil. We wondered what the effects of the purple room and the white room would be? Perhaps an aversion, in the first case, to Ribena blackcurrant juice and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and in the second case, to snows and sea-birds of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and to the face of Bebe Neuwirth.

Colours are important in this film! See how many of them you can spot. At the end, the Cavalcade of Eastmancolor Deaths, the Red Death, White Death, Green Death, Yellow Death… so many potential sequels! Come on, Roger, Poe only gave you five pages to get you started on this one — how about a sequel that’s all your own? It can be five pages shorter than this one, if that helps?

“What is terror? Come. Silence. Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or is it the failing beat of your own heart? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed… only to the previous few.”

In/Congruence

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2010 by dcairns

I’ve always felt that Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, stylised and willfully studio-bound as they are, owed something to the works of Powell & Pressburger… Corman, who’s usually frank and generous in crediting his inspirations, has never mentioned this to my knowledge (Fellini and Bergman get name-checked, though), but I still feel it’s there… I first got the impression from the climax of HOUSE OF USHER, where the mad Madeleine (Myrna Fahey), risen from the grave, scares the leaping bejesus out of Vincent Price. I thought, “Ah-hah, Kathleen Byron in BLACK NARCISSUS.”

But watching MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH again the other night, I was reminded during the psychedelic satanic ritual scene of THE RED SHOES by a quick shot of Hazel Court’s feet (or a balletic stand-in’s) running ~ here’s Moira Shearer’s version ~

And here’s Hazel’s ~

It has to be influence, otherwise why is Hazel running en pointe? It’s not just the quick-moving close-up track, but the way it’s incorporated into the sequence as a whole, struck me as a definite swipe (and I use the term with admiration, not pejoratively). Of course, cinematographer Nic Roeg, steeped in British cinema, may have suggested the idea, but he couldn’t have done so on HOUSE OF USHER. So, then I wondered if, really, THE RED SHOES was the overall influence. It just so happens that THE RED SHOES was one of my first Blu-Ray purchases, and so I ran it. (It was beautiful.)

Whadayaknow? It seems like Fahey’s impressive, pantomimic gesture with her bloody nails might stem from Moira Shearer’s moves in SHOES, and indeed, that Corman’s whole zombie-dream-sequence approach, borrowed to pad out almost every one of his Poe movies (and provide visual relief from the chatter), might owe something to Vicky’s nocturnal adventure in the demi-monde of TRS’s ballet scene…

USHER even features a fast shot following Mark Damon’s feet down a flight of stairs which seems to echo the spiral ironwork staircase shot in THE RED SHOES recently homaged by Scorsese in SHUTTER ISLAND.

I don’t for a second think Mr. Corman is trying to pull a fast one — it’s quite possible that THE RED SHOES exerted a subconscious influence, or that it was fresh in his mind when he made USHER and MASQUE, but is less so now. All I want to do is congratulate him on his excellent taste.

(Images aren’t taken from the Blu-Ray of TRS, because I don’t know how to do that.)

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