“The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous,” runs the opening line of Edgar Allan Poe’s spooky story.
Over the past year, we’ve become accustomed to interpreting or rediscovering art through the prism of Covid-19. For several weeks in 2020, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion became the most-watched film on Netflix as a kind of scary survival guide. Newer films such as She Dies Tomorrow were greeted as disconcertingly prescient commentary on the pandemic. There has also been a renewed interest in classic contagion narratives, including Jack London’s post-apocalyptic The Scarlet Plague and Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
The latter, with its depiction of disease deniers ignoring the titular plague until it comes upon them and a wealthy elite holed up and partying, five or six months into their seclusion, "at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence" while pestilence rages without, lends itself to multiple corona-friendly interpretations. Simultaneously a scary story and a literary commentary on scary stories, it echoes genre standard The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole while offering a twisted tale that can be read as a doomy parable on original sin by a Christian reader or just deserts for the exploitative ruling classes by the Marxist reader.
For Covid-deniers and post-news purveyors, meanwhile, there’s a stark lesson about ignoring serious problems that are quite apparent.
A new restoration of Roger Corman’s 1964 adaptation of Poe’s short story – the best-known and most admired version – confirms both the film and source’s continuing relevance.
Poe occupies an appropriately odd space in American letters, as evidenced by the greater and continuing reverence paid him by non-Americans, including film-maker fans Alfred Hitchcock, Lucio Fulci, Jan Švankmajer, Guillermo del Toro and Akira Kurosawa.
Poe was a tart literary critic in an era when reviewers were keen to "puff" any and all American literature. He was the originator of the modern detective novel (with his C Auguste Dupin series), a translator of Charles Baudelaire, a cosmologist who prefigured the big-bang theory in an 1848 prose poem, a keen cryptologist whose work allowed the US to crack Japan's purple code in the second World War, a perpetrator of hoaxes, the editor of several journals, and a prolific writer of romances. But he remains best known for the Gothic fiction that amounted to a small percent of his phenomenal output. His mysterious death and the unexplained week-long absence that preceded it amplified Poe's synonymy with the macabre.
He was not well-liked in person and frequently moved as he fell out with magazine owner after magazine owner. He was equally scorned as an artist by many of his peers. His popular romantic poem The Raven, was sniffed at by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who referred to Poe as "the jingle man", and by William Butler Yeats, who dismissed the work as vulgar.
A damning obituary by Poe's great literary rival, Rufus W Griswold, twisted an already compromised reputation into a depraved, drunken madman, a composite of Poe's least likable character traits conflated with the crazed, guilt-ridden protagonist of The Tell-Tale Heart and vengeful narrator of The Cask of Amontillado.
The depiction was as inaccurate as it was unfair. Save for his final delirious hours, Poe was too dedicated and hard working to pass for the broken alcoholic or weirdo lunatic of Griswold’s narrative.
He was, however, stalked by death, even by the standards of the early 19th-century US, where half of all children born did not survive until adulthood. By 1809, the year of Poe's birth, tuberculosis was so pervasive that it had killed one in seven of all people who had ever lived. His mother, the English-born actor Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, died from pulmonary tuberculosis when Edgar was two years old. He would lose two later maternal substitutes to consumption: Jane Stanard, the mother of a childhood friend who went mad before she died; and his foster mother, Frances Allan, who was as fond of the young, orphaned Edgar as her wealthy husband was indifferent.
These tragedies were compounded by various misfortunes. John Allan would leave nothing of his sizeable fortune to Edgar in his will, preferring to acknowledge his illegitimate children; he also sent his son to college without paying all of his tuition, leaving the teenager to gamble in the hope of raising funds to stay in school.
Poe eventually joined the army to escape his debts. He proved a decent soldier but remained desperate for kinship. He finally found a makeshift family among his surviving Baltimore cousins. Aged 26, he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, a relationship most biographers agree was fraternal, not romantic. She too died after a lengthy battle with TB at 24 and was the inspiration for Poe's dying literary heroines Ligeia, Annabel Lee and The Raven's Lenore.
Dark romantic vision
These gloomy circumstances and the grinding poverty Poe often faced shaped many of the stories favoured by legendary B-movie director Roger Corman. "That dark romantic vision combined with the repressed sexuality, the claustrophobia, the fears that we all have," Corman said in 2016. "Poe's work is very complex."
Corman had already established himself as the low-budget king of the quickies with such drive-in programme-stuffers as The Beast with a Million Eyes, Swamp Women and Attack of the Crab Monsters when he began his eight-film cycle of Poe adaptations, featuring scripts by genre veterans Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Russell, R Wright Campbell and Robert Towne.
"My first encounter with Edgar Allan Poe was a school assignment when I was maybe 12 or 13," Corman told the British Film Institute in 2010. "I was given the short story The Fall of the House of Usher to read. I loved it and wrote a rather lengthy essay that got a nice grade from the teacher. I was so enthralled with the story I asked my parents to get me the complete works of Poe for Christmas. Poe was a brilliant and possibly disturbed man who probed the farthest reaches of the mind."
Corman began work on his film versions of Edgar Allan Poe between 1960 and 1965 for the poverty-row studio American International Pictures. They wanted black-and-white pictures made for $70,000 or $80,000 on a 10-day schedule and packaged as double bills. Corman pitched for twice the budget, a 15-day shoot and colour. He found a terrific screen cypher in Vincent Price who starred in seven of the eight Poe films, beginning with House of Usher in 1960.
"Roderick Usher was a highly intelligent, educated, sensitive and slightly out-of-his-mind character," Corman once said of Poe's protagonist. "And without going too deeply into the out-of-the-mind aspect of it, I felt that Vincent embodied all of those characteristics. You might say our work together was a shared passion. I was passionate about Poe and Vincent was passionate about acting. And [in Poe] he found a genre, a type of character that he could play very well. He was no longer the young leading man. He was an older man. And these parts fitted Vincent's persona perfectly."
Corman’s last two Poe pictures, The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), were shot in Britain with slightly larger budgets thanks to the success of the series and a contemporaneous subsidy for English-made films. Of these, The Masque of the Red Death, which was preserved by the Academy’s film archive in 2019, is indisputably the prolific Corman’s masterpiece.
It was not universally acclaimed on release, but it had fans at the New York Times and Variety. A contemporary review from the Monthly Film Bulletin hailed the film as “Roger Corman’s best film to date, The Masque of the Red Death has passages of such real distinction that one wishes he could be persuaded to take himself more seriously . . . Where most films of this nature tend simply to pile on the blood, here there is a genuine chill of intellectual evil, because Vincent Price, initiating horrible tortures with a characteristic air of sadistic glee, also conveys a genuine philosophical curiosity as to the unknown territories into which his quest for evil may lead him.”
The director and Price fashion Prince Prospero, the callous anti-hero, as a proud satanist, one that is counterpointed by the film's virtuous young lovers Gino and Francesca (David Weston and Jane Asher). This aspect proved unpopular with the Catholic Legion of Decency in the US and with the British Board of Film Censors, which demanded different cuts of the film be produced.
One major difference in the transatlantic versions concerns the characters of Hop-Toad (imported from another Poe story by screenwriter Charles Beaumont) and Esmeralda, who was played in the film by child actor Verina Greenlaw, but with an adult-dubbed voice. A document from the Motion Picture Association of America, included as part of the restored 4K edition, demands deletions from the very first reel, including “reduce shots of person on fire” and “reduce shots showing Alfredo’s interest in the female dwarf”.
Jane Asher, who was Paul McCartney's girlfriend at the time of production, adds to the heady 1960s effect as the increasingly feverish film delves into the same whirling, highly coloured psychedelia that characterised Dario Argento's Suspiria.
That is in keeping with Poe’s vision of Prince Prospero, who, accompanied by wealthy, sycophantic nobles, hosts a masquerade ball in seven rooms of the abbey, each decorated with a different colour. A mysterious figure disguised as Red Death intrudes upon their revelry and moves through the abbey. Prospero confronts the stranger, thinking that his Dark Lord will protect him. But the Red Death informs him that Death has no master. The guests, who have been writhing as part of a heady danse macabre, all die.
The elaborate sets and lush costumes, refurbished leftovers from Becket and A Man for All Seasons, coupled with Nicolas Roeg’s lush technicolour photography, make for a compelling spectacle.
Our current global predicament adds to the film’s eerie power as the Red Death rounds the tale with “Sic transit gloria mundi” – Latin for “Thus passes the glory of the world”. Poe’s words finally flash on the screen: “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
The Masque of the Red Death is released on January 25th