Saturday 20 February 2021

On Blu-ray - John Baxter welcomes a new 4K edition of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (UK, 1964)

Vincent Price gives Jane Asher,  a tour of
the dungeons, The Masque of the Red Death


            It says a lot about Vincent Price that, when his Malibu home burned to the ground, he found that, in the rush to escape the flames, he’d paused to rescue only two items – a small Goya painting and a can of caviar. 

            Living well counted for a great deal with Price, both privately and in his films.  One had to admire the relish, if not the discrimination, with which he approached even the most ludicrous projects. Asked who would appear in one of the silliest, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, he purred contentedly “Myself, and every high-breasted woman in Hollywood.”  

            Price’s capacity for excess is lavishly on show in Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, now re-issued in a restored 4K version which does justice to his performance as well as those of Patrick Magee and, in what may be a career best, scream queen Hazel Court. 

Hazel Court brands herself,
The Masque of the Red Death

            Corman enjoyed good luck in deciding to make this film in Britain. Not only did he have Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer. He was able also to borrow John Bryan’s lavish sets for Becket, which were still standing at Shepperton Studios. For once, the castle in one of his Poe adaptations doesn’t look as if only the cobwebs are holding it up.  As well as accommodating a costume ball with a larger crowd than we are used to seeing in his meagre Hollywood productions, the main hall provides a setting for Court’s death, slashed to ribbons by a flapping demonic presence,  and Magee’s flaming demise while dangling from a chandelier.  (The reconstruction restores the censor cuts made to these last two scenes, at the cost of revealing the skimpiness of the film’s special effects.)

            CombiningThe Masque of the Red Death with another Poe fantasy, Hop-Frog, also results in a sturdier narrative than usual.  Nobody is sure whether Charles Beaumont or co-scenarist R. Wright Campbell had the idea to do so but Beaumont is the more likely candidate. Dying of a degenerative disease that accelerated the ageing process and claimed him three years later, aged only 38, he infused all his work with the sense of despair palpable in this film. 

Skip Martin as Hop Toad,
The Masque of the Red Death

            The character of the diminutive jester, re-named Hop Toad, moves to the centre of the narrative when, to avenge the cruelty of Magee’s Alfredo towards his beloved companion Esmeralda, he persuades him to attend the final masquerade as a gorilla.  “It’s not so much a costume as a performance”, he wheedles. Having trapped him in the fake fur, he sets the suit alight, to the amusement of the duke and his friends.  Skip Martin’s performance as Hop Toad redeems to some extent the casting of eight-year-old Verina Greenlaw as Esmeralda, the juxtaposition of her childishness and a dubbed adult voice jarring in these more enlightened times.

            For once, the cinematography of an adaptation matches visually the baroque style of Poe’s text. Nicolas Roeg used a modified VistaVision camera which passed film through the camera horizontally, achieving wide-screen by using two frames for each image. The resulting sharpness brings dignity even to the perfunctory soundstage exteriors of foggy forests and bare branches. 

            In such a wood, Gino (David Weston) encounters the crimson-robed Red Death, taking a break from his tiring schedule before turning his attention to the castle.  Though faceless, he’s recognisably played by John Westbrook, whose sonorous voice made him the preferred replacement in voice-overs for the once ubiquitous Valentine Dyall. In the last scene, Westbrook is joined by six companions, memorably robed in different colours (below), each representing one of the fatal diseases epidemic in medieval Europe.  

            But it’s Vincent Price people came to see, and he gives good value as Prospero. Starting as he means to go on, he spends his first scene ordering a village burned to the ground before carrying off Francesca (Jane Asher)  with her lover Gino and father Ludovico (Nigel Green) to be tormented at leisure. He treats Asher to a tour of the castle’s famous rooms, each one painted a different colour. Unfortunately Becket didn’t run to so many spacious chambers,  so those we see are the size of bathrooms, a reminder of the poky sets created for Corman’s other Poe films by regular production designer Daniel Haller. 

            Hazel Court as Prospero’s consort Juliana tries to keep up with Price, but she’s no match for so practiced a scene stealer. Faced with a rival for the spotlight, he just turns up the volume on that resonant voice, trained to reach the remotest corners of the largest Broadway theatre, while   Patrick Magee, himself not lacking theatrical chops, matches him syllable for booming syllable.  Court is left to pant along in their wake.  Even branding her ample bosom with a hot iron in the form of an inverted cross (another scene for which the  4K version repairs the censor cuts)  gets no more reaction from Price than would the offer of a second Digestive biscuit with his Earl Grey. 

            In 1941/2,  Price starred for a year on Broadway in the play Angel Street, more famous under its film title Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer replaced himDavid Selznick was in awe of Price’s performance, particularly when the rescue of his tormented wife is nearly frustrated after her saviour leaves his hat in the house. “Never have I witnessed anything in the theatre remotely approaching the effectiveness of this particular scene,” Selznick wrote. “The audience was so terrified that part of it literally stood to its feet and screamed at the stage ‘The hat! The hat!’ “ Price never achieved this level of conviction on screen, but occasionally in films like The Masque of the Red Death one may, through the catchpenny dialogue and pantomime costumes, glimpse what was lost when he sold out for Goya and caviar.

Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, 
Broadway production of Angel Street

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