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It's not difficult to praise Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe movies. No matter how he elaborated on the slight plotlines of the various stories and poems, the result was always in keeping with Poe's originals - his House of Usher, unlike earlier versions, didn't sidestep the issue of incest. When he gave up being faithful and made a comedy out of The Raven, the result was more sentimental than sacreligious.
The Premature Burial did very well commercially, but is considered less successful than Corman's earlier efforts. The first problem mentioned is Ray Milland, whose performance as the deranged Guy Carrell isn't as satisfying as Vincent Price's work. Milland is the acting equal of Price, no doubt, and he does great work holding up the next year's "X" practically by himself. But Price's flamboyant theatrical presence makes him perfect for fantastic and Gothic characters; even when he overacts (Pit and the Pendulum) he does no harm. Milland can be verbally eloquent and he expresses poetic moods nicely, but in The Premature Burial he just seems too rational a fellow to behave so erratically.
Not helping is a script that makes Guy Carrell repeatedly change personalities. He militantly celebrates his morbidity one moment, and then, with a few words from his bride-to-be, is seemingly cured. Everyone talks about his inconsistency, but nobody intervenes when he spends a fortune on a marble crypt to indulge his fantasies. He installs 101 fanciful escape aids, and then tortures himself with a dream in which they're all rendered useless. Literary analysts have been using Poe's work to diagnose the author's mental maladies for over a hundred years: Guy Carrell behaves like a classic manic-depressive. The movie follows an erratic path that substitutes mood swings for incident, but prefers to leave Guy's incipient madness poorly defined.
A lack of complications keeps the drama as bald as the unsatisfactory fog-and-bare-trees exterior sets. And the lack of Usher's mood lighting or Pit's extended set pieces keeps the excitement level fairly low. The central scene everyone remembers is Guy's dream of being buried alive. Its irrational horror content is the only delirium encouraged in The Premature Burial, and it plays like a sidebar to the story and not part of it. There's too much morbid talk and too little action -- even though a conspiracy plot enters in the last reel, the film never really makes up its mind whether or not Guy's fears are unfounded.
Guy Carrell is morbidly afraid of being buried alive yet his best solution for the problem is to arrange a life-in-death by living in his own custom crypt. It's a clever but undeveloped idea that would seemingly make The Premature Burial ripe for a re-invented remake.
There's not much chemistry between Hazel Court and Milland, but she makes a fine Gothic heroine and enlivens what would have been a fairly colorless show. The supporting actors are reasonable in their stock parts. Corman regulars Dick Miller and John Dierkes are stuck in those pitiful no-budget exterior sets, and don't make much of an impact.
The transfer of The Premature Burial is a bit iffy, with slightly dull colors and more grain, owing to elements poorly maintained over the years. It's only really noticeable on larger monitors. For extras there's a trailer and a pleasant Roger Corman interview in which he discusses the production, the difference between working with Price and Milland, and his directing style in general.
The 'fun fact' on the copy refers to in incident in Corman's mostly agreeable relationship with A.I.P.'s Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson: Corman set this production up with Pathé as a change of pace, and perhaps a demonstration of independence. When the two moguls went to the trouble of buying the whole production to bring Corman back into the fold, it acknowledged how irreplaceable an asset he was to them.
Corman's first Poe film in England shows him capable of handling a larger-scaled production, and extending his style. The Masque of the Red Death doesn't just get rid of the 'twisty red candle' economizing of the American films, it brings on a whole new look thanks to the cost savings to be found in England, and a creative young cameraman, Nicholas Roeg.
This time the source story lent itself to feature adaptation, and Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell have folded in Poe's Hop Frog as well. The quasi-Italian background isn't as jarring as the phony Spain of Pit and the Pendulum, and even the often-questionably painted sets (made from mix-n-match standing flats) add to the forced gaiety of Prospero's palace. Many scenes are dramatically lit, with dynamic color contrasts.
As Prospero, Vincent Price is grand, commanding and convincingly cruel, ordering executions and village burnings as if disciplining himself to be evil. His attraction to the innocence of Jane Asher 1 is well-motivated. Prospero might be an extrapolation of any leader who maintains power by encouraging competition and jealousy in the ranks, but his hold over his troops and castle is never the issue. Prospero doesn't just spout pro-Satanic sentiment, he's a true disciple of Evil who hopes to gain favor with the Dark One by being as ignoble as possible. True to the source story, Prospero learns too late that it is the minions of Death that hold sway over the Earth, and that Satan, if he exists, has no power above the scourge of the plague.
The Masque of the Red Death is less concerned with delicacy than earlier Corman Poes. The court nobles are a fairly tame bunch of chortling partygoers but the scene where Price and Hazel Court verbally harass Jane Asher in her bath is fairly perverse. The duel of cruelty between Patrick Magee and the vengeful Hop Toad is played straight and sadistic. Prospero's 'bad Karma' is everywhere -- with miserable peasants burned from their homes and scattered, and displays of courage answered with cruel games of death. Supplicants that beg for mercy at the castle walls, peasant and noble alike, are met with closed gates and deadly arrows.
Some films about religion have the courage to say that faith in this life can be a vain quest, especially when those who aspire to saint-like qualities seek even the smallest scraps of acknowledgement. This is the basic tragedy / comedy of Bunuel's Simon of the Desert and Nazarín, and Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. In The Masque of the Red Death, Hazel Court's Juliana seeks to keep Prospero for herself by attaining his spiritual level, not knowing that she's volunteered herself for ritual slaughter. The dreamlike ritual isn't particularly explicit (except for one revealing slow-mo angle of Court running in a nightgown) but it does show her shocked surprise. She's given herself totally to Evil, and for her malice becomes the victim of a horrible joke.
Like the aspiring saints in the religious movies, Prospero is doing his best to earn his place beside Lucifer. However, he foolishly seeks a direct route, avoiding actually having to die like an ordinary mortal. His hopeless vanity also shows him incapable of being purely Evil -- his kindnesses toward Francesca surely aren't going to win him any brownie points in Hell.
Roger Corman gives his 'meaningful allegory' muscles a workout in The Masque of the Red Death. It never becomes pretentious, but it does weaken a bit toward the end. For Savant, the assembled color-coded Deaths don't really conjure up an Ingmar Bergman rip-off, but they aren't particularly inspired either. Prospero's mad ball also is something of a letdown, with its stagey dancing and camera direction that never quite achieve the full-tilt delirium that the text seems to be reaching for. There's no sense of abandon or chaos; something that other movies (Dementia, for one) succeed in creating.
Elsewhere the art direction, camerawork, and Corman's eye do much better. The burning of Alfredo is chilling, as are the many summary orders of execution. The original story's multiple rooms of contrasting colors are nicely revealed, and remain mysteriously meaningful. 2
MGM's copy of The Masque of the Red Death is gorgeous, even more bright and colorful than the excellent laserdisc. A new Interpositive transfer element was created from the original negative. Two scenes described in an issue of Video Watchdog as missing from Image's laserdisc (Hop Toad speaking to Esmeralda, the beginning of a dialogue scene between Price and Jane Asher) are not present here either. MGM's own research on the original negative and continuity script strongly suggests that these scenes were not in the original U.S. theatrical release, although they were apparently reinstated for some TV broadcasts, and may have appeared in some foreign theatrical prints. Disc producer Greg Carson had hoped to include them as an extra, but was unable to locate them in time.
Another effective trailer is present, and a Roger Corman interview that's much longer than the one for Premature Burial. It does go on a bit with perhaps too much generic info on directing, but Corman relates several stories that he obviously treasures, such as his meeting Paul McCartney just as the Beatles were becoming famous.
Horror fans are going to be excited about MGM's Midnite Movies Double Features and this Poe combo will certainly be one of the bigger sellers. The studio is going to continue the line next Spring, with another group of paired horror and science fiction movies, and the plans include several long-anticipated titles. The fact that some of them are getting well-produced extra materials is also a positive sign. Perhaps it might be a good idea to repackage earlier stand-alone releases in the same manner. It would be a way to eventually upgrade some problem transfers, like the one for The Angry Red Planet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Premature Burial rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Masque of the Red Death rates:
1. For being slighted as a 'girlfriend of a Beatle', Jane Asher made a nice contribution to movies, notably as a little girl in The Quatermass Xperiment and as a 'bird' that won't put up with Michael Caine's attitude in Alfie.
2. Paul Schrader borrowed the motif for his Hardcore, when George C. Scott smashes through a series of identical but differently-painted cubicle-like compartments in a sleazy brothel, to finally find his daughter in the heart of darkness. It's a nice allusion to the Corman film & the Poe story.