The Masque of the Red Death
To these tired eyes, the greatest development in horror cinema in 2011 was the lack of a new Saw sequel. Keep your severed fingers crossed that this isn’t just a fleeting instance of taste from Lions Gate Films, and that the swollen, unimaginative, and sadistic franchise is over for good. Not only were the movies impoverished and cynical, they were doing damage to American horror filmmaking itself, making the genre synonymous with its lowest-common-denominator torture supply-and-demand for a number of years. True horror fans should have been outraged. Of course, sequel-itis was alive and well, nevertheless, with yet another Final Destination film (accident porn turns me off even more than its torturous close cousin), another chance to cheapen-by-making-expensive the Paranormal Activity concept, and the odd spectacle of a fourth entry in the Scream series (and this after Wes Craven imposed a silly “trilogy” superstructure on his series circa 2000). And do we need to mention the usual crop of remakes? (I doubt I’ll ever have the stomach for the CGI update of The Thing or the time for a sexy redux of Straw Dogs; but Fright Night had its atmospheric charms before it devolved into unrestrained and hackneyed spectacle, and I’ve been told The Crazies isn’t completely worthless.)
What of contemporary original horror, you ask? Though James Wan’s Insidious appears to be the year’s breakout hit of the genre, and though it is an admirable and effective scare machine, shockingly adept at creating chilling images that stick in the craw, its overall conception and design is so derivative of so many horror “essentials” (plus, oddly, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) that one would have to use some form of analytic astral projection to justify it as original. Stakeland has its fans, but I haven’t taken the plunge. So, despite one upcoming winner (which might just be a benchmark of British horror, and which I will expound upon later in the week), 2011 is a fairly bloodless state of affairs for anyone who wants to see something a little, well, different. Not too much to ask for, it would seem, but then again horror is a peculiar form, reliant as it is on certain expectations that must be met, and the seemingly limited arsenal of Things That Scare Us.
Thankfully, as with every Halloween, there’s a seemingly endless treasure trove of horror films from prior decades, and there are even still a handful in there that can take you by surprise. Imagine my happiness upon finally deciding to watch Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, the final film in the cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by the independent impresario, and, as shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, the most sumptuous. Next to Corman’s more hearty narrative of The Fall of the House of Usher and even his jokey The Raven with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and the director’s standby devil, Vincent Price, the 1842 Poe story The Masque of the Red Death might seem at first glance a particularly odd choice for adaptation: at little more than two-thousand words it’s more of sketch than a story, with no vividly drawn characters or perceptible arc. It’s intuitive and metaphorical, a remarkably evocative description of fear and pestilence as it descends upon the merry masked ball of the heedless Prince Prospero, personified in a red-cloaked figure of doom.
Read the rest, and keep checking back all week for new Great Pumpkin entries!