Roger Corman's less-successful second stab at Edgar Allen Poe's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH makes its digital debut courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.
As a youth, Prince Prospero vowed to his mentor Machiavel (Patrick Macnee, THE HOWLING) that his rule would be different from that of his cruel father. Years later, Prospero (Adrian Paul, TV's HIGHLANDER) has not lived up to his promise, ruling capriciously under the weight of the accumulated sins of his family line which he sees ending with himself and his sister Lucrecia (APOLLO 13's Tracy Reiner, daughter of Penny Marshall and stepdaughter of Rob Reiner) with whom he carries on an incestuous relationship. With news of the plague known as the red death ravaging the land, Prospero decides to invite his fellow nobles to take shelter within the castle walls until the epidemic has passed. For their entertainment, he requests the presence of young maidens from the village as guests for a masquerade ball. Since those who disappear behind the castle walls never return, town spokesman Benito (Paul Michael, BATMAN) voices his concern. Prospero's general Claudio (Jeff Osterhage, SKY BANDITS) guarantees their safety – and implies that they are better off at the castle without actually warning of the plague – and Benito's own daughter Julietta (Claire Hoak, COOL WORLD) is among the women selected. Tensions flare when Lucrecia notices Prospero's growing attraction to Julietta, who he sees as capable of redeeming him. When Claudio brings news that the plague has reached the village, Prospero decides to withhold that information from his guests and proceed with the masquerade. Julietta learns of the plague and wants to return to the village but Prospero has the gates sealed (literally), but a red-cloaked figure has managed to slip in to crash the party.
Not really a remake of Roger Corman's own 1964 adaptation, the 1989 MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH was actually one of two adaptations the same year: the other being Alan Birkinshaw's South Africa-lensed updated version for Harry Alan Towers' Breton Productions and Menahem Golan's 21st Century Film Productions trilogy of gory Poe films. The latter was less of a slasher than a variation on Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians", for which Towers held the rights (and would produce adaptions in 1965, 1975, and 1990). While Corman's 1964 version was shot on British soundstages with seasoned technicians and more resources than one would get on the same budget stateside, the seams of the 1989 version's low budget are evident but not as distracting to the illusion as its performances and the telltale signs of its era of production. The medieval production design of Stephen Greenberg (GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE, DANCE OF THE DAMNED) is quite attractive if economical (i.e. cramped) – as are the costumes of Sanja Milkovic Hays (THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR) – while the cinematography of Edward Pei (HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS) is more consistently elegant and the scoring of Mark Governor (PET SEMATERY II) is also above par for the budget. A pre-HIGHLANDER Paul mutters through most of his performance with his gaze downcast. Osterhage is really no blander than the secondary male leads of many AIP and Corman period films from the sixties. His performance has conviction but he looks too eighties, as does Hoak and the supporting cast of fratboy-esque nobles (including co-writer Daryl Haney, FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD). Reiner and Macnee are the only lead performers who make a consistently good impression.
At just over 80 minutes, the pacing does drag at points that could possibly have been livened up by a bit more violence and debauchery. A surprising amount of restraint for a Concorde-era Corman production is shown when it comes to T&A, with the nudity restricted to a scene in which the maidens – including KILLER WORKOUT's Kelly Ann Sabatasso and NAKED OBSESSION's Maria Ford – are made to strip on top of the dining table for the entertainment of the guests. The context of the scene is humiliation and it follows through with the results not only leaving a bad taste in the mouths of viewers but also the guests as the scene culminates in a long, pregnant silence. The red death effects – realized by Dean Jones (nominated multiple times for STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE) – are grislier than the red seeping pores and stained skin of the Corman/Price film but unimpressive by eighties horror standards. Director Larry Brand (THE DRIFTER) makes the most of his resources and does manage to achieve more stately results than THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA, but Corman and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH will always bring the Vincent Price film to mind first.
Distributed on VHS by MGM, the rights reverted back to Corman who did not elect to release it on DVD himself in the earlier decade and a half of the format. Scorpion's single-layer DVD features an HD-mastered progressive, anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer from the original IP that sports attractive colors (particularly the reds, of course) and only a few rare speck here and there, looking less gauzy than the tape release. The Dolby Digital 2.0 rendering of the stereo track is mostly clean apart from the occasional pop at the reel changes. The film can be viewed in "Nightmare Theater" mode with intro and post-script by Katerina Leigh Waters (and her evil twin Antoinette) that highlights the careers of the cast and crew, mentioning that Brand also directed THE DRIFTER for Corman but not that he more recently scripted HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION.
The film can also be viewed accompanied by an audio commentary with director Brand and moderated by Code Red's Bill Olsen. Brand does not recall parts of the opening title sequence background which may have been shot by a Corman associate and notes Corman's notorious cheapness by stacking the editor and production designer credits on a single card (the castle set was designed for another film that did not get produced, and Corman reportedly decided to do a remake of the Poe story so as not to let the set go to waste). He recalls that Paul had auditioned a number of times for a casting director friend with nothing that seemed right for the actor until this. Michael York was apparently up for Macnee's part but could not appear due to scheduling, and that he wanted Olivia Hussey for the Lucrecia role. He speaks well of Osterhage as the only one of the lead actors who did not ask for or require specific notes. Unlike Price's character in the original, Brand wanted his Prospero to be tortured rather than evil so that he has a character arc. Brand had already directed THE DRIFTER for Corman and did not feel comfortable turning Corman down twice since he had already refused the martial arts film BLOODFIST (which would be helmed by THE NEST's Terence H. Winkless instead), and MASQUE was part of a two picture deal that also included Brand's OVEREXPOSED with Catherine Oxenberg as a soap star being stalked by a killer. Of the concurrent Golan/Towers adaptation, he recalls that Corman did not like the idea of contemporizing Poe and refused Brand's own suggestion to do a modern Poe adaptation. He is less interested in the AIDS allegory aspect of the plague than prince's duty to his subjects (hence naming Prospero's tutor after the author of the 16th century Italian treatise "The Prince"). Here, Brand requires minimal prompting and seems energized by the opportunity to see the film again. The disc also includes trailers for HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, NASHVILLE GIRL, THE RAIN KILLER (shot by SCHINDLER'S LIST's Janusz Kaminski), NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN, WOMBLING FREE, and STRIPPED TO KILL. (Eric Cotenas)
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