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The Masque of the Red Death / The Premature Burial

Roger Corman inaugurated a new class of low-cost / high-value Grand Guignol films with his first two Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). These stylish and entertaining macabre thrillers were such a critical (not to mention economic) success that additions to the series were inevitable. 1964's The Masque of the Red Death is worth this disc's sticker price all by itself. If you die having seen only one Vincent Price movie, you could do worse than to have it be Masque — thanks to a larger budget, principal shooting in England, and more production time (five weeks instead of three), this is Corman's most opulent and visually impressive Poe picture, and his grimmest. It's a tour de force of perverse gothic ghoulishness, and perhaps Price's most colorfully sinister role.

Blending two of Poe's chillers, "Masque of the Red Death" and "Hop-Frog," Masque showcases Price as cruel prince Prospero, who maintains a sadistic grip on his surreal, plague-stricken medieval village and on his palace's debauched noblemen guests, who mistakenly believe that they are sheltered from the Red Death stalking the land outside Prospero's towering walls. High points include an unusually meditative and layered script, gorgeous production design brought to fever-dream life by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, 17-year-old Jane Asher (Alfie) as the virginal village girl Prospero takes as his own, Patrick Magee as the degenerate victim of dwarf Hop Toad's vengeance, an hallucinatory Satanic-ritual dream sequence, the orgiastic masked ball, a beautifully scripted and shot coda that tips a hat to Ingmar Bergman by way of EC Comics, and of course Price, who proves (as if anyone still doubts) that he was more than just a swooping-cape camp actor. He took his professionalism quite seriously here, and it shows. He's so obviously having a grand good time with Prospero's silky wickedness that, with Sadean debauchery and supernatural comeuppance never looking so good, we do too.

On the other hand, The Premature Burial (1962) suffers from Price's absence. Ray Milland emotes, by turns, dour gloominess or manic eyeball-spinning through a weak script that bears too little sense and too many similarities to its predecessors, Usher and Pendulum. Tormented Guy Carrell, doomed by an obsessive fear of being entombed live, is a role crying out for the theatrics Price displayed in those pictures, but Milland just can't lock his character's pieces into a solid whole, nor is he given much help from a lazy screenplay stricken by multiple-personality disorder. Because his father was buried alive after a bout of catalepsy, newlywed Carrell is convinced that the same fate awaits him. He constructs numerous elaborate mechanisms to prevent such a terror, but a horrific event shocks Carrell into his own death-like catatonia. He is (you guessed it) buried alive until graverobbers and a complicated deception engineered by his bride push Carrell and the movie off the deep end. Corman's taut directing keeps an effective hold on the reins, but Premature Burial galumphs instead of canters. It can't shake out the rocks in its shoes, and Milland doesn't deliver the focused sureness he gave the following year in Corman's X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

Both films are lauded among fan circles for script work by Charles Beaumont, set designs by Corman's meisterbuilder Daniel Haller, and the yummy presence of scream queen Hazel Court, "in whose bosom," Time magazine noted, "you could sink the entire works of Edgar Allan Poe and a bottle of his favorite booze at the same time."

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This two-sided double-feature DVD, part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" series, spotlights the AIPoe that — alongside The Tomb of Ligeia — many enthusiasts consider the series' best, and bills it with the entry generally ranked at the bottom of Corman's Edgar Allan adaptations. Masque of the Red Death's new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is exquisite. The print is so clean and beautiful it's startling, with richly saturated colors from all over the spectrum popping out crisp and solid. Most of the time we could be watching a virgin source master. Audio is a strong, clean DD 2.0 mono. The Premature Burial doesn't fare as well with its 2.35:1 anamorphic print not quite as clean or colorful, but it's still a good image with fine monaural DD 2.0 audio.

The original theatrical trailers for both films are on board (Masque's gives away a climactic "Gotcha!" moment, so don't watch it first). Also here are a pair of 2002 on-camera interviews with Corman focused on the conception, writing, and production of these two films. In the longer one, "Roger Corman: Behind the Masque" (19 minutes), the genial director acknowledges the influence of European art films, particularly Bergman, and tells a charming anecdote about the day he had lunch on the set with Jane Asher's then-boyfriend, a Liverpudlian musician on his way to London for his band's first big-city gig. The lad was Paul McCartney. As extensions of Corman's commentary tracks on the Usher and Pendulum discs, these two mini-documentaries continue our professional education in (as the title of his autobiography puts it) how to make a hundred movies in Hollywood and never lose a dime. Alternate French language track, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne



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