It was the summer of 1965, and I was in the back seat of my Mom's car, at the fabled 82nd Avenue theater, out on 82nd Avenue out in southeast Portand, Oregon. There, amid the trucks and teens and moths of a summer night, we sat ensconced, she with her Benson and Hedges hanging out the window, I with my beloved snack-stand hot dog and a root beer. As the night fell, you could hear the crickets chattering from Mount Scott, the faux mountain just behind us. We were there for the Poe marathon. Yes, that's right, all the Corman Poe films in one evening.
My mom was a good sport about it (she liked horror films, too, but was more a detective movie fan), but I have to say after the thrill of anticipation, the novelty of the Poe films wore off, at least to a pre-teen mind. As we drove away from the theater at about four in the morning, I was a little irked at the slow pace and lack of what to my mind should have been more horrific moments. I remember getting rather sick of seeing the same image of a burning building frame crashing down toward the camera. I grew weary of every film being set in some studio-bound landscape of fog and craggy trees. Hrumph, my little mind thought. Just another batch of exploitation films that promise much and deliver little.
Yet the Poe films have gained in prestige over the years, and seeing The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death together on MGM's Midnight Movies double feature disc is to be reminded how good the films looked, and how solid they were narratively. Like the Hammer films of the '50s, they seemed dull and, and somewhat out of fashion with contemporary realism, but now with hindsight look to be much the better for their classical roots.
Premature Burial is loosely based on Poe's thin account of a man's fear of the title situation, originally published in the June 14, 1845 issue of Broadway Journal. While discussing Masque Corman makes an interesting point. He and his writers generally viewed the source Poe story as the "last act" of the film. The job of the scripters (Ray Russell, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont among them) was to conceive the backstory, or the first two acts.
In the case of Premature Burial, the task is to add a Gaslight-style backstory. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland), a dilettante painter, has isolated himself on his murky mansion in order to live in dread of catalepsy. He believes that his father suffered from it and hence was buried alive. Guy lives in fear of a similar fate, even though his sister, Lady Catherine (Heather Angel) believes that their father died naturally. Into this putrid atmosphere of fear and disease comes Guy's fiancé, Emily (Hazel Court).
It's a Corman Poe film so The Premature Burial (1961) is rife with signature elements: A cameo by that axiom of the cinema, Dick Miller; the foggy landscapes; the dream sequence, with the inevitable little spot in the middle left of the screen from one of the processing plates. It's also about a patriarch in an old dark house with a ghastly secret, tended by "enabling" servants. The film has been criticized by Corman buffs as the weakest of the first three Poes (after Usher and Pendulum) primarily because of Milland's appearance in the film over Vincent Price. Yet Milland brings a warm, yet fraught quality that goes underrated by film buffs, and was later to do more good work for Corman in X—The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. His reading of the line "I'm alive, I'm alive," even sounds like an homage to Frankenstein. Essentially, he's in an animated old E.C. horror comic story of long, drawn-out vengeance, but he's also in a variation of Dial 'M' for Murder.
Price, it turns out, wasn't available for the film when Corman took it to another studio after a dispute with American International. When AIP bought that company, Corman was working for AIP again, but still didn't have Price.
Those who miss Price can get him instead on the flip side of the disc, in The Masque of the Red Death. Hazel Court also returns, as the Mistress of the castle where Prince Prospero (Price) dwells. It's 12th century Italy, and begins with an ominous scene in which a red-cloaked Death warns an old woman that her village is on his hit list. Prince Prospero then arrives in the village, and ends up offering a Sophie's Choice to Francesca (then-McCartney girlfriend Jane Asher). But when word of the Red Death reaches the Prince a few seconds later, he burns the village and whisks away both Francesca, her father and her lover.
Back at the castle, she goes along with the Prince's seductions, orgies, and debaucheries in order to postpone seeing her intimates executed. As the frenzies increase, Francesca learns that the Prince is also a devil worshiper. But he is of a decidedly intellectual sort, a Sadean theorizer of Evil. "Can you look around this world, and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?" As the scourge of the Red Death draws closer, the two imprisoned men plot to free themselves and Francesca.
The next to last Poe film from Corman, Masque is one of the best in part because it was filmed in Britain with a somewhat longer shooting schedule on the left over sets from Becket. But also the film shows the influence of Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal, and other European films, though Corman is at pains in an interview to emphasize that Poe's Red Death, on which he has nominally based the film, came out one hundred years before Bergman's movie.
Price gives one of his best performances, perhaps his best outside of Conqueror Worm/Witchfinder General. It's subtle, but even the hammy parts are enjoyable. Also in the cast are a pre-Orange Patrick McGee, who figures in the revenge sub-plot part of the film additionally adapted from Poe's story "Hop Frog."
VIDEO: MGM's transfer of these two films looks quite good, with only an occasional white speck or other defect visible. Video Watchdog has been diligent about staying on top of how Corman's Poe features are treated by distributors, and has noted how Premature Burial, for example, was letterboxed too severely on the top and bottom of the image when it receive widescreen release on VHS. Later this year, the magazine's report on this disc should be out, with an authoritative assessment of this disc's transfers. The wide screen images (2.35:1), enhanced for wide screen televisions, are mostly sharp and clean, though there are some repaired tears visible in Chapter 14 of I>Masque. Floyd Crosby's cinematography for Burial is more than competent, and is an exercise in precise framing and subtle camera movement. Nicholas Roeg, of all people, did Masque back in the day when he was still a DP. His work is beautiful, with long, flowing, Ophuls-like tracking shots.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital mono tracks are effective for talky horror films. Both movies also come in French, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
MENUS AND PACKAGING: Since this is a flipper, there is no label; the packaging consists of a keep case with versions of posters on the cover. However, they aren't the original posters, both of which are quite nice, with the Masque poster being an enjoyable line drawing of Price's face made out of the bodies of debauchers, a kind of Ur-Truman Show device. Each of the movies is offered in 16 chapter chunks, Burial being 81 minutes long, Masque at 88 minutes, both on static, silent, but colorful menus.
EXTRAS: Extras are minimal but informative.
"Roger Corman Unearths Premature Burial" Corman summarizes the history of the production and walks the viewer through the cast and crew. It's information-packed for being only 10 minutes long.
Roger Corman Behind the Masque This 18 minute taped interview is, like its companion, highly detailed. Still, for the best summary of the film's history and meaning, try the chapter by Scott Allen Nollen on the film in the book Vincent Price in Midnight Marquee magazine's Actor Series of appreciative essay anthologies (352 pages, $20, ISBN 1 887664 21 1).
Trailers The trailer for Premature Burial> is a little splotchy, while the trailer for Masque looks good, and has a nostalgic '60s feel.