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The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Jane Asher and Vincent Price

Jane Asher and Vincent Price

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.

The Trip (1967)

Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda

Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda

Back in the sixties, no American filmmaker understood his audience better than Roger Corman. Starting his career in the fifties, Corman understood early that the key to success was to cash in on whatever trend was popular at the moment. Whatever people were paying to see, whether it was gunslingers, juvenile delinquents or monsters from outer space, he was always willing to oblige. But in the sixties he began moving away from sci-fi and teen flicks, finding inspiration instead by looking at the changes that America was going through. And aside from a single commercial failure*, he seemed to have an infallible instinct for what would excite young audiences. While the Hollywood studios flailed around frantically, spending fabulous sums of money on bloated epics, Corman read the mood of the country and made a series of low-budget features that connected with moviegoers, especially young moviegoers, in a way that nobody had before.

The Trip is one of his smartest, sharpest films. Though he wasn’t into drugs himself, Corman understood that drug experiences were central to the counterculture movement. In a way it seems he may have even anticipated the drug culture with features like The Masque of the Red Death and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, which included delirious, hallucinogenic imagery. Corman understood that a shift in consciousness had taken place. As a commercial filmmaker, he was interested in exploiting current trends, but as an artist, he was also interested in exploring the changes that were happening in the world around him.

The first draft of the script was by Charles Griffith, who had already written numerous Corman films, including Not of this Earth, Little Shop of Horrors and The Wild Angels. But apparently the director wasn’t satisfied with Griffith’s screenplay and handed the job to Jack Nicholson, who received sole credit. The script is pretty unconventional. There’s no plot, at least not in the usual sense. Corman avoids the melodramatic structures that had served him so well for years. He doesn’t need them because he’s not trying to deliver a message about drugs. He just wants to immerse the audience in an experience. From the beginning of the film to the end, we simply stay with the main character while he’s tripping on acid.

Corman starts off with a shot that sets the tone for the movie. We see a beautiful young couple embracing against a blue sky. Then the woman speaks, and we realize that she’s reciting an ad slogan. The camera pulls back to reveal that the couple is standing in the middle of the ocean. We then see two men perched on some rocks by a camera. The director yells cut. We’re at the beach, watching a commercial being filmed. The director, Paul, is satisfied with the shot and tells his crew to bring the couple back to the shore. Opening the film with a surreal image of an idealized couple is not accidental. Paul is shortly confronted by his wife, who is angry that he missed an appointment to sign divorce papers. It’s clear that Paul isn’t happy about splitting up with his wife, but it’s also clear that he’s interested in getting together with other women.

This sets up the dynamic for the film, the conflict that will shape Paul’s hallucinations once he drops acid. His friend John is going to act as his guide while he’s tripping, staying with him to make sure that everything goes well. They go to John’s home in the Hollywood Hills, a large, comfortable house decorated with an array of psychedelic colors and op-art patterns. When the acid first starts coming on, Paul is childlike, enchanted by everything he sees. Simple objects suddenly seem incredibly beautiful. We see Paul roaming through the house, enthusing about the living energy he sees around him, and these scenes are intercut with subjective images of Paul’s visions.

In this imaginary landscape Paul encounters all sorts of strange things. His wife appears, but there are other women, too, and it seems that the conflict between love and desire is very much on his mind. We see two riders on horseback, completely covered by black cloaks with hoods. At first they seem to be figures in a landscape, but suddenly they’re pursuing our hero and he runs into a cave filled with mist. As the film goes on, Paul’s hallucinations become darker and more complex. He starts getting very paranoid, and when John leaves the room for a moment, Paul bolts from the house, running down the side of the hill to the Sunset Strip. Somehow Paul manages to negotiate the colorful chaos of the Strip at night, though he does have a couple close calls. Finally he meets a woman in a club and goes back to her home to spend the night. When he wakes up the next morning, the LSD has worn off, leaving him wondering what has happened. He dropped acid to gain insight, but he’s unsure if he’s learned anything at all.

Corman gives us a striking snapshot of LA in the late sixties. From the illusionistic opening at the beach, to John’s colorful hillside home, to the happy frenzy of the Sunset Strip at night. The Trip doesn’t just document the locations, it also captures the state of mind of the hipster crowd in LA at that time. Everything’s cool, everything’s mellow, everything’s groovy. Until the cops show up, and then you just run like hell. By this point in his career Corman had become an extremely capable filmmaker, able to produce interesting, intense movies on very tight budgets. He was always concerned about holding the audiences’ attention, so there’s usually a fair amount of action and a certain amount of sex. But his best films were also visually expressive, and he knew how to create potent, compelling images. I wish that he’d invested a little more time and money in The Trip, because some of Paul’s visions seem to have a cut-rate quality, and some scenes could have benefitted from a little rewriting and a few more takes. To their credit, Nicholson and Corman are tackling some serious themes. I feel like they could have dug a little deeper, taken it a little farther. Still, Corman was not out to deliver a message, and the movie is honest in that Paul doesn’t claim to have any more answers after taking acid than before. It is maddening, though, that AIP changed the ending, superimposing something like shattered glass over Paul’s face in the final shot to imply that he’d been damaged by the experience. It’s a nasty scar on a film that is otherwise an imaginative and engaging look at a moment in American culture. It’s a rare example of a commercial film that’s willing to engage the counterculture on its own terms.

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* The Intruder, a sharp, tough little movie about racial prejudice.