Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Here’s my official rankings of the best of the Poe/Cormon/Price cycle: “Fall of the House of Usher” is the most well made and put together. “Pit and the Pendulum” is my personal favorite. And this film, “Masque of the Red Death” is the most artistic. It also has the highest production values of any of the films.
It’s generally accepted that this film’s heightened artistry is a result of Nicholas Roeg, who would go on to direct impenetrable art films in the seventies, being the director of photography. While Roeg’s involvement in the film certainly contributed, especially in the movie’s brilliant use of color, Cormon was directly influenced by Bergman and other Euro-Art directors during the making of this film. It’s a gorgeous movie to look at. The scenes of characters passing through the various multi-colored rooms are fantastic. The movie’s philosophical ending and Hazel Court’s nightmare (In which she is menaced by an Aztec priest, what I think is a Turkish warrior, and an Indian kabuki actor, for seemingly no reason.) certainly makes this the trippiest of the series.
Prince Prospero is one of his Vincent Price’s nastiest roles. While he’s not as flatly sadistic as Matthew Hopkins, Prospero is unapologetically mean-spirited and enjoys torturing people both physically and psychologically. The movie’s story is pretty straight forward but pads the running time with a mini-adaptation of Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and Prospero’s wife’s attempt to sell her soul to Satan. The finale, in which the Red Death indeed makes itself known, is fantastic. Sadly, the theme of decadent rich hedonist locking themselves away from the poor, suffering masses is even more relevant now then in the sixties. (I write this as a news story about the "Occupy Wall Street" movement plays on television.) (8/10)
The Premature Burial (1962)
This movie suffers greatly from the lack of Vincent Price. Ray Millard certainly isn’t a bad actor. (The fact that I’m more of a fan of “X” instead of the melodramatic “Lost Weekend” should surprise nobody reading this.) But he’s a little too morose and bipolar in this part. It’s very easy to see how much better Price would have played this role, especially during Guy’s climatic descent into madness.
It’s obvious from very early on that the people around our main character are attempting to gaslight him. It’s pretty obvious who’s responsible too, despite the abundant red herrings. The scene of our protagonist showing off his various insurance plans in case he’s buried alive (Spring-loaded coffin lid, poison, dynamite?) is oddly jovial and never pays off. There’s a psychedelic nightmare sequence very similar to the one in “Masque of the Red Death,” right down to the green tinting. When the titular premature burial inevitably happens, any of the dread it could have produced is undermined by the somewhat goofy voice-over. (Though the shot of Millard’s face being covered with dirt is pretty cool.) After being exhumed by Chekov’s Graverobbers, the now completely mad Guy goes about offing the people responsible for his entombing, in a somewhat proto-slasher sort of way. The movie does have some fantastically foggy atmosphere and isn’t without a few decent jump scares. But it’s easily the weakest of Roger Cormon’s Poe adaptations. (6/10)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Generally regarded as something of an out-of-print classic, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” plays almost like a feature length episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” It claims to tell the true story of the Phantom Killer that terrorized Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946. A dramatic narrator chimes in throughout while the majority of the film is composed of what are essentially dramatic reenactments. This method isn’t always successful, especially in the scenes revolving around the police investigation. The director, Charles B. Pierce, plays a bizarre comic relief character named, god help us, “Sparkplug.” This character is straight-up Barney Fife and his broad, slapstick antics, which included crossdressing, are a serious distractions from the mood. Likewise, Ben Johnson’s over-the-top performance as a cowboy hat sporting police captain called onto the case seem to intentionally clash with the docu-drama tone.
But the movie is well-remembered for the scenes recreating the Phantom Killer’s night time assaults. Stepping right out of an urban legend, the Phantom attacks a necking teenage couple at a Lover’s Lane. Later on, the Phantom chases an innocent victim, played by Dawn “Mary Ann” Welles, through the woods. Once he has her pinned down, he tortures her with a trombone, in a particularly surreal, unsettling moment. The most frightening sequence actually takes place in a brightly lit room, as the killer shoots a man through a window and then chases his wife through a cornfield. The appearance of the killer undoubtedly influenced eighties slashers. The simple white hood over his head was copied in “Friday the 13 Part 2” while the killer’s steady, rhythmic breathing, in which his breath sucks the front of the hood in and out, might have influenced Michael Meyer’s similar heavy breathing. It’s often been said that the faceless mask horror movie villains wear are meant to block their human features, so the audience can’t relate any emotions or feelings to them. I’ve never put much credence in that theory, but it totally happens here. The killer and his white featureless face are truly the stuff of nightmares.
The film does a great job of illustrating the panic and dread the town feels as the murders carry on. I also love the final chase through the swamp, where the Phantom literally disappears into legend. While the mockumentry style hampers the film in some ways, the night time attack scenes are shocking, startling horror stuff. I give this one a hearty recommendation and will probably have to see the same director’s similar, earlier “The Legend of Boogey Creek.” (7/10)