“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.”