Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is a brief, terrifying parable. Prospero is a wealthy prince whose land is being ravaged by a plague. He gathers his aristocratic friends together in a castle and seals it tight to keep them all safe from the disease. Believing that they now have nothing to fear, Prospero and his guests devote all their time to extravagant entertainments, while those left outside face certain death. But like a story in the Old Testament, The Masque of the Red Death ends in terrible retribution. Prospero and his friends learn that no walls are thick enough to save them from the plague.
When I went back to story and re-read it, I was surprised to find that Prince Prospero is the only character mentioned by name. Poe spends little time describing the man himself, and he only speaks a few lines of dialogue. Most of what we learn about Prospero comes through the author’s description of the apartments designed by the prince, a suite of seven rooms, each decorated in a single color and lit by torches that shine through colored glass. The scene that Poe paints for us is highly stylized, almost abstract. Really it’s the landscape of the mind.
To make a feature length commercial film, director Roger Corman obviously had to flesh out the material. This can be a dangerous proposition, because often the whole effect of a short story depends on its brevity. But Corman was a lifelong admirer of Poe’s work, and he knew that he couldn’t just add padding to the author’s tale. The screenplay would have to expand on the material in such a way that it grew organically from Poe’s original concept.
Corman has said that in his Poe adaptations his preferred approach was to use the original story as the third act, the climax of the film. That’s what he does here, and the screenwriters do a beautiful job of fleshing out this macabre little tale. The script, by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, expands on Poe’s story a good deal, and yet it stays essentially faithful to the author’s conception. In addition, Beaumont and Campbell bring in fragments of another Poe story, Hop-Frog, weaving it skillfully into the framework of the film.
What the screenwriters do with Prospero is pretty impressive. Starting with the minimal details that Poe offers in the story, they create a fascinating, multi-faceted character. This is not your standard horror movie villain. Prospero is a philosopher who sees the world in the bleakest possible light. He is horribly cruel, but he is also intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive. This is a man who has spent his life observing the world, seeing the horror and misery that plague mankind, and he has become brutally cynical. He refuses to believe in a loving God, because he can’t believe that God would allow the suffering and the violence he’s witnessed.
As the film begins, we see Prospero’s cruelty in the harsh punishments he inflicts on the peasants in a small village. But as the story unfolds, we learn that he has no more respect for his fellow aristocrats than he does for the peasants. He sees his guests as weak and foolish, and he takes joy in humiliating them. He’s appalled by humanity. It’s as though he’s punishing mankind for its cowardice and stupidity.
Prospero is a frightening, fascinating character, and the part would be a challenge for any actor. Fortunately, Corman turned to Vincent Price, who he’d already worked with on a number of films. Price is magnificent. His performance is a marvel of intelligence and subtlety. Prospero is repellent, and yet at the same time we can’t take our eyes off him. Playing the part, Price commands our attention, but without unnecessary theatrics. Graceful and witty, cold and merciless, the actor’s performance as Prospero is one of his finest.
Art director Robert Jones and production designer Daniel Haller create an oppressive, expressionistic world that reflects the disturbing beauty of Poe’s writing. A young Nicolas Roeg shoots it all with striking confidence. The richness and subtlety of Roeg’s lighting gives the images dimension and depth. By this point in his career Corman was very assured as a filmmaker and he seems to have an intuitive understanding of the rhythm and shape of a scene. His camera glides through the chambers of the castle, settling on one composition, shifting to another, defining the relationships between the characters and heightening the tension.
Sound also plays an important part. Striding through an eerie silence, Prospero lectures his guests on the terror of time, the ticking of a clock in the background, the soles of his shoes clicking against the marble floor. Francesca is wakened in the middle of the night, and as she peers through the dark bedroom we hear the flutter of birds’ wings receding into the night, suggesting a phantom in flight. In keeping with the way Poe uses words, Corman uses images and sounds not just to create a physical world, but also a psychological landscape.
I often hear people make excuses for crude, shabby horror movies. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the time. Roger Corman proved over and over again that limited resources are no excuse. With a little creativity and cunning, a filmmaker can work wonders, even if they’re shooting on a shoestring. It’s not the size of your budget. It’s the size of your imagination.
Back in the fifties, most cartoons were about funny animals doing crazy things. While some of them included humor directed at adults, animated shorts were intended to be family fare. Cartoon characters might fall off a building or get blown to smithereens, but nobody ever got hurt. The tone was always breezy, lighthearted, upbeat.
So UPA’s decision to produce a short based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was a pretty startling move. But this wasn’t the first time the studio flouted the status quo. Though little known today, UPA was one of the most innovative studios in the history of animation, and it had a tremendous impact on the medium. Most importantly, the studio’s artists embraced a radical simplification of figures and backgrounds, and drew on the language of abstraction. They didn’t care about imitating life. Their goal was to create vivid, expressive images.
Poe’s story is a disturbing descent into the mind of a madman, who tells us how he came to murder the old man he had been living with. The opening paragraph gives us a vivid picture of the narrator’s state of mind.
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
The tale is incredibly compact, with our narrator giving a harrowing account of the crime in about four pages. At just under eight minutes, the cartoon maintains the same single-minded focus. Screenwriters Bill Scott and Fred Grable do away with the obsessive precision of Poe’s language and go for a simpler, more direct approach. They also eliminate the killer’s explanations of his complex, conflicting emotions. In the film the narration is fairly straightforward, and James Mason’s delivery is both effective and affecting.
In the film, just as in Poe’s story, we experience everything from our narrator’s point of view. Director Ted Parmalee, designer Paul Julian and animator Pat Matthews conjure up a series of unnerving images that bring us right into the oppressive gloom of the old house. Drawing on both expressionism and surrealism, the style of the film makes us feel that we are indeed seeing all this through the eyes of a madman. Spiky shadows stretch across the floorboards. The moon decays and crumbles before our eyes. When the old man is murdered we see his face disappear in a violent swirl of yellow and black.
The film would not be as powerful or as disturbing without Boris Kremenliev’s eerie modern score. Kremenliev did very little work in film, which is a shame because the dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms he uses for The Tell-Tale Heart complement the images perfectly. His style was completely in synch with the kind of music that was being performed in concert halls at the time, but it was a bold approach for a short that was being released by a major studio. While David Raksin and Bronislau Kaper had subtly woven new compositional techniques into their work, I don’t know of any Hollywood score up to that time that was so aggressively modern.
Though UPA existed as a company into the seventies, it really only maintained its position as an innovator from the late forties into the mid-fifties. But its influence on animation has been felt ever since.
If you want to know more about UPA, you can access the Wikipedia article by clicking here.
And if you want to watch The Tell-Tale Heart, click here.