Color, 1989, 82m.
Directed by Larry Brand
Starring Adrian Paul, Patrick MacNee, Clare Hoak, Jeff Osterhage, Tracy Reiner
Scorpion Releasing (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Color, 1989, 82m.
Over three decades after he brought the definitive version of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Masque of the Red Death" to the screen with Vincent Price, Roger Corman revisited the tale in 1989 by producing an updated under the banner of his company called Concorde at the time (which has gone through several different brand changes since then). Since Poe tales are public domain, they're always reliable for a solid, completely rights-free story structure along with great brand recognition, and that was definitely the case here. Unfortunately producer Harry Alan Towers had the same idea and mounted his own production the same year for the Menahem Golan-run 21st Century Film Corporation, except that version was a modern day slasher film with new wave musical numbers, plenty of gore, and Frank Stallone and Brenda Vaccaro. Needless to say, VHS customers were baffled when dueling versions popped up on shelves at the same time, but just to clarify, the one we're talking about here is the medieval adaptation with Adrian Paul before he hit it big on TV's Highlander.
You probably know the routine by now, but for the uninitiated, the tale involves the antics of the wicked, debauched Prince Prospero (Paul), who lives a life of excess in his palace while the villagers around him are falling victim to a deadly plague. He decides to throw a big dance for his aristocratic friends, and of course it's just a matter of time before an uninvited guest in red arrives to crash the party. This version also adds a few wrinkles like Prospero's sister (played by Reiner, daughter of Ron), with whom he has an uncomfortably intimate relationship, and a subplot involving the local town girls being saved from the pestilence by getting thrown into a sort of unofficial beauty pageant, with the pure Julietta (Hoak). Also showing up in a glorified cameo is his advisor, Machiavel (The Avengers' Macnee), who figures in a climactic twist.
While the great Corman original barely qualifies for the horror genre (it's more of a dark fantasy art film), this one qualifies far less as it spends most of the running time on our antihero's internal anguish. It's basically a glum medieval melodrama with a couple of very mild gothic moments thrown in like a fleeting bit of torture and the title character's appearance in the last third. That said, Paul fans will enjoy the fact that he's in practically every scene, and this being a Corman film, there's a brief nude post-orgy scene thrown in to keep viewers awake.
Director Larry Brand (who went on to write the execrable Halloween: Resurrection) was still cutting his teeth here after just one feature (the VHS thriller staple The Drifter), and he manages to soak this film in late '80s ambience complete with a soft filtered look throughout, a droning electronic score, and a seemingly endless parade of inappropriate frizzy hair and unconvincing wigs. It's strange that Corman didn't ask for the trash value to be escalated considerably here (it's barely qualifies for its R rating), but if you have a taste for this period in his career, Masque is mandatory viewing. On top of that it also belongs at the beginning of a weird Poe renaissance that took over video stores for a few years with 21st Century leading the pack (thanks to House of Usher and Buried Alive) along with more eccentric offerings like Two Evil Eyes, Corman's The Haunting of Morella, and easily the best of the bunch, Stuart Gordon's The Pit and the Pendulum.
Barely released in theaters, Masque of the Red Death was brought to VHS and laserdisc by MGM/UA in a very fuzzy, bland-looking open matte transfer. Fortunately the 2014 DVD from Scorpion Releasing improves things considerably with a new HD transfer, wringing out a considerable amount of additional detail and actually showing off something resembling a wide color palette. It'll never look like a crisp, top-tier production, but this is definitely a big step up. The mono audio sounds fine given the incredibly bland nature of the source material.
Though not branded as such, the film can be played as part of the Katarina's Nightmare Theater line with our hostess, Katarina Leigh Waters, facing off against her vindictive twin sister and rattling off a number of trivia tidbits about the film. There's also an audio commentary with Brand, moderated by Bill Olsen, in which they cover the ins and outs of working for Corman during the early Concorde era and odd facts like Michael York being considered for the Macnee part. Also included are very diverse trailers for Hollywood Boulevard, Nashville Girl, The Rain Killer, Night of the Cobra Woman, Wombling Free, and Stripped to Kill, none of which will ever be programmed together in a film festival.