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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Asher’

I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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So, we’ve been romping through the collected works of Nigel Kneale over the last week, more or less in chronological order. This came about more by chance than design, with the fortuitous near-conjunction of TV showings of The Quatermass Xperiment and First Men in the Moon and my discovery of a few other bits and pieces on a popular video-sharing website. This partly goes to explain the absence of any of the TV versions of Quatermass from this current run, partly because I hadn’t uncovered them when I began and also because I haven’t had ten hours to watch them in their entirety. This will be amended at some future point, not least because I want to see how the TV version of Quatermass and the Pit matches up to the big-screen adaptation (surely Kneale’s most memorable film script, in the horror arena at least).

Quatermass and the Pit has a reputation as the receptacle of the classic Kneale themes: his bleak view of the human race, his interest in rationalising supernatural horror in a way that – somehow – does nothing to reduce its power to disturb. The latter of these was something that Kneale returned to and developed even further in 1972, in another of the landmarks in his career – the play The Stone Tape, an extraordinary fusion of gothic ghost story and contemporary SF drama.

stonetape

Jane Asher plays Jill, a brilliant computer programmer who is part of the R&D team for an electronics company. The team is just moving into a new research facility in a refurbished old house, their mission to come up with a new recording medium. Jill’s boss and lover Brock (Michael Bryant) – an ambitious, driven man – is furious to find that the building work has not been completed. The reason given by the estate manager (Iain Cuthbertson) is that one room in the house is haunted.

Brock is initially scornful, but Jill sees the apparition – a young woman screaming and falling to her death – and research uncovers a long history of disturbances on the site. A traditional exorcism in the 1890s apparently having failed, Brock opts to take a radically different approach and bring the full range of modern instrumentation to bear against the spectre. Initially it seems as though this scientific approach is bearing fruit, with a working model to explain the haunting not proving too difficult. But Brock sees the ‘recording’ of the ghost as a clue to a process he can potentially exploit, and under pressure to deliver, he chooses to tamper with a phenomenon he does not yet fully understand…

The Stone Tape is a multi-camera production shot entirely on videotape, meaning that it has the kind of visual quality and atmosphere nowadays found only on soap operas and sitcoms. Having said that, one can only imagine the kind of impact it would have had if it were shot on film, as even on VT it retains a tremendous power to grip and chill.

This is mainly due to the masterful precision of Kneale’s script, which painstakingly sets up the history of the haunting (leaving the seeds of a terrifying twist ending lying in plain sight, for the most part) in the style of a ‘classic’ ghost story, even if we do see the spook itself quite early on in proceedings. Then the play takes an abrupt left turn into what’s basically relatively hard SF, exploring Tom Lethbridge’s theory of hauntings as residual sense-impressions somehow associated with certain locations and replaying in the perceptual centres of witnesses.

It’s an intriguing theory, and one which makes a certain amount of sense to me (I feel obliged to mention that my tutor in Conceptual Parapsychology at university was wont to dismiss it as ‘a wild metaphysical flight of fancy’). The danger with explaining a mystery like a ghost, of course, is that by making it comprehensible and knowable, you rob it of the very qualities which make it frightening. But Kneale manages to avoid this, hinting throughout that Brock is not seeing the bigger picture, and constantly drawing on that classic SF trope: that of scientists interfering with forces best left alone.

Brock is a compelling character, and the driving force of the plot, but not necessarily a sympathetic one. That role is given to Jill – as the only woman in the centre, the boy’s club-ish atmosphere of which is convincingly evoked, she is in her own way every bit as isolated as the ghost of the woman. It’s only Jill who wonders if the recording of the ghost retains any remnants of consciousness, and Jill who first comes to understand the true nature of the ‘stone tape’ itself…

This is another example of a play punching well above its apparent weight in terms of legacy and cultural impact. If you’re going to do a ghost story in the British media, certainly on TV, then it’s very hard to escape the long shadow of The Stone Tape. Troubled, psychically-sensitive young women abound, as do overconfident investigators who fatally misjudge the nature of the forces they are dealing with. They’re there in Ghostwatch (one of The Stone Tape‘s very few serious rivals in this genre), and also in The Woman in Black (a story with its own associations with Nigel Kneale). Even the Doctor Who episode Hide (a series, by the way, which Kneale openly derided, it pains me to say) openly references The Stone Tape in its opening if not its resolution.

On the other hand, this is a brilliantly written, performed, and directed play with virtually no flaws to speak of, beyond the basic technical limitations of its medium. It is one of those things that, once seen, stays with you. Given the theme of the story, it seems entirely appropriate that The Stone Tape has infiltrated the fabric of the modern ghost story, lingering on, occasionally manifesting itself. However, unlike the monstrous apparitions in the story’s climax, it shows no sign of losing its own clarity or focus.

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