Sunday, 27 November 2011

Notes on The Masque of the Red Death

Roger Corman 1964

Clip 1 - Intro

In this opening shot the tilted camera creates a sense of unrest, a technique Corman uses throughout the film but which often ends up having quite different effects on the viewer; for example, compare this scene, in which we get a feeling that something disturbing is coming, and the scene towards the end where Prince Prospero's guests takes a frightening turn, in which we get a sense of his panic and fear. The tilted camera effect used in the scene shown, in fact the whole atmosphere of the scene, owes a lot to the opening scene of David Lean's Oliver Twist from 1948.

The film is a good example of Bazin's idea of "those directors who put their faith in the image... those that relate to the plastics of the image" with its lavish sets, lush colours and extravagant wardrobe; none of which adhears to any sense of the 'real'. The film had a relatively small budget but looks more expensive than Corman's previous Poe adaptations due to moving the filming to London. The sets were borrowed from the production of Becket (1964), a film that David Weston (Gino) worked on prior to The Masque of the Red Death. English cinematographer Nicolas Roeg used lush color to contrast the form and look of the images with the horrifying content of what the images conveyed.

Clip 2 - Prospero's Entertainment

But even though Corman seems to rely on "the plastics of the image", the use of montage helps create suspense; in this scene he is alternating his signature extended tracking shots and long takes with a carefully calibrated montage (we see the reaction shots of the guests enjoying the entertainment intercut with Prospero's increasing dismay as neither victim shows any sign of fear).

As in a true Gothic tale the characters and the story are stereotyped, but very ambiguously so, and constantly undermining the values connected to their stereotype. Gino (David Weston) is the classical hero - in his very first scene he recues a child - who wants to save his love Francesca (Jane Asher) who got abducted by the villain Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), seeing the corruption of her pure faith as his ultimate mission. At the same time Gino doubts himself, Francesca is not as chaste as she first appears - the tension between her and Prospero is undeniable - and Prospero is capable of both sophistication and depth of feeling, despite being evil personified. Prince Prospero's villain stems from the Gothic tradition within literature where the villain is normally the character that the reader is supposed to give attention and sympathy to, thus him being the character that most noticeable undermines his stereotype.

Clip 3 - Francesca's curiosity

The Masque of the Red Death is full of symbolism, not only in the use of colours. Corman talks about Freudian symbolism; The girl “must run down that corridor! That is very symbolic and extremely important. To me, the corridor is, simply, a vagina. You must set up two things in the movement down the corridor; I think it is a child’s approach to sex, in which he knows there is something great and wonderful out there but that child has also been told by the parents, ‘That’s bad—don’t do that!’ So to recreate that feeling—because I think the sense of horror does have elements of sexuality within it—you go down the corridor, and the audience must be saying to the person—identifying with the person—‘Don’t take another step. Get out of there right now! Don’t open that door! At the same time, the audience must be saying, ‘Open the door. We must see what is behind that door!’ If you set that sequence up correctly, it never fails to generate an emotional response”. This symbolism is part of the formula Corman applied to the horror genre - most explicitly in his distinctive psychadelic dream-sequences.

"And darkness and decay and the Red Death held dominion over all". - Edgar Allan Poe

The Masque of the Red Death is based on Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 short-story with the same name. The plot of another Poe story, Hop-Frog (1849), is used to add substance to the film (Poe's The Masque of the Red Death is only four pages long) and there are references to the story The Pit and the Pendulum (1842) and the poem The Raven (1845).

There is a few overarching themes that could really stem from any Poe story; death's ultimate victory over everything and the subsequent fear of death and thus time. In
Poe's The Masque of the Red Death the big ebony clock in the black room plays a very important part as a physical manifestation of the inevitable coming, something that is played down in the film - or maybe replaced by the questioning of morality and religion. Even though humanity - the characters - know that death is coming for everyone, religion has taken on the function of an escape-route to eternal life. The film tries to show that essentially all religions are the same, and good and evil are only words utilized to justify the journey (the guidelines of any religion) one has to follow to reach that eternal life, call it heaven or hell.

  • The Masque of the Red Death - Edgar Allan Poe 1842
  • The Seventh Seal - Ingmar Bergman 1957
  • Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel - Alex Stapleton 2011
  • House of Usher - Roger Corman 1960
  • The Pit and the Pendulum - Roger Corman 1961
  • The Premature Burial - Roger Corman 1962
  • Tales of Terror - Roger Corman 1962
  • The Haunted Palace - Roger Corman 1963
  • The Raven - Roger Corman 1963
  • The Tomb of Ligeia - Roger Corman 1964

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