Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Once Upon a Poe Revival Dreary" Edition: MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1989) and the Poesploitation Remake Craze of 1989-91

(US - 1989)

Directed by Larry Brand. Written by Daryl Haney and Larry Brand. Cast: Patrick Macnee, Adrian Paul, Clare Hoak, Jeff Osterhage, Tracy Reiner, Kelly Ann Sabatasso, Maria Ford, Daryl Haney, George Derby. (R, 82 mins)

One of the strangest, most ill-conceived, and universally rejected fads in the history of horror cinema took place from 1989 to 1991. To honor the 140th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), veteran exploitation producers Roger Corman and Harry Alan Towers separately initiated a competing series of Poe remakes and adaptations that were supposed to be released throughout 1989. This Poesploitation explosion probably seemed like a good idea, especially since some of Corman's best films as a director were his numerous 1960s Poe adaptations for AIP (THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE RAVEN, etc) that usually starred Vincent Price, and those were classic films still revered by critics and audiences. On the other hand, it was a fool's mission: there was little chance of these remakes doing anything but paling in comparison to respected adaptations that came before them and they were often beset by so much financial and behind-the-scenes turmoil that the majority of them never even made it to theaters. What was meant to celebrate the legacy of one of America's most influential writers ended up being the most ill-fated 1989 cinematic resurrection this side of EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES. Corman produced some occasionally worthwhile films under his then-current Concorde banner (STRIPPED TO KILL, CRIME ZONE, EYE OF THE EAGLE 3) and had a few minor hits that stayed in theaters for two weeks instead of just one (BLOODFIST, TWICE DEAD, CARNOSAUR), but typically, Concorde product was shot fast and cheap and vacated multiplexes quickly on their way to America's video stores. Unlike his days running New World in the 1970s, Corman didn't have much in the way of breakout directors during the Concorde era. Corman's proteges at New World included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. At Concorde, Corman was focused more on turning a quick profit than shepherding talent, though guys like Carl Franklin (EYE OF THE EAGLE 2) and Luis Llosa (CRIME ZONE) would find some A-list success at the big studios (Franklin with the Denzel Washington vehicles DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS and OUT OF TIME, and Llosa with SNIPER and THE SPECIALIST), and both Franklin and Rodman Flender (IN THE HEAT OF PASSION) are still busy with steady TV directing gigs. Both Corman and Towers (who bankrolled many a Jess Franco film in the 1960s) were past the point of caring about quality, but they got movies made, knew how to turn a profit, and had been in the game long enough to woo recognizable names who were not exactly at their career pinnacle and were cool with whatever as long as the check cleared.

"Now...the magic of the master of horror and suspense 
is available on videocassette for $79.95..."

The first of the new Poe adaptations to hit theaters was MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which opened on October 27, 1989 and moved around the country into January 1990 as Corman was still continuing his New World practice of striking a small number of prints and shipping them to different regions week by week. Corman's own THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) is regarded as one of his best films as a director and arguably the artistic pinnacle of his 1960s AIP Poe cycle. The remake again utilizes the same essential story of Prince Prospero (Adrian Paul) barricading himself in his castle along with the elite nobleman who suck up to him while a plague decimates the peasants in the surrounding countryside. All the while, a mysterious red-cloaked figure on horseback makes his way to the castle for the Masque, a grand ball where Prospero and his ilk finally get their comeuppance. Corman's 1960s Poe films were known for their sometimes campy elements and Vincent Price's hammy acting, but as the series went on, things generally got more serious, especially by the time of the 1964 MASQUE and the next year's THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Price's Prospero was a smiling, gleeful sadist reveling in his power over those beneath him. As played by Paul, Prospero is gloomy and depressed, and the mood is much more bleak and funereal. Director/co-writer Larry Brand is hindered by an obviously low budget that causes some interiors to resemble a community theater production, but he uses that to his advantage: in the 1964 MASQUE, the opulent, brightly-colored look of Prospero's castle helped sell the Prince and his fellow debauched hedonists on the notion that they were immune from the Red Death and that they'd be safe among their wealth and privilege. In Brand's MASQUE, the flimsy sets and gray, decrepit decor only convey the idea that the sense of security is an illusion, and while the oblivious sycophants overindulge, a somber, morose Prospero knows that judgment day is coming.

Of course, being that it was 1989 and an R-rated Roger Corman production, Brand was allowed to throw in some more modern elements. There's some sporadic gore and some nudity in a grueling and seemingly endless scene where some orgiastic noblemen make three servant girls (among them Corman regular Maria Ford) strip. Prospero is also involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister Lucrecia (Penny Marshall's daughter Tracy Reiner, who took her stepdad Rob's name), who grows jealous over his attraction to peasant girl Julietta (Clare Hoak). This triangle also existed in the 1964 film, with Prospero's lover Juliana (Hazel Court) and peasant villager Francesca (Jane Asher), but there was no sibling/incest element. The other major change is that the biggest name in the cast is playing the Red Death, in this case Patrick Macnee, best known as John Steed on the classic 1960s TV series THE AVENGERS. It's hardly a spoiler, as Macnee's distinctive voice is heard emanating from behind the Red Death's covered face throughout (in other words, it's not Macnee in these scenes). Sporting what resembles a clip-on mullet, Macnee is seen briefly in a dream/flashback to Prospero's childhood as his mentor Machiavel in the opening scene, and his face isn't seen again for another hour, when Machiavel arrives at Prospero's castle for the Masque and quickly reveals himself to be the embodiment of the plague that's sweeping the vicinity. Macnee provides enough of a credible headlining name for Corman, but he's really just a top-billed guest star.  MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH has acquired a minor cult following over the years due to the presence of soon-to-be HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES star Paul, who already logged time on ABC's DYNASTY spinoff THE COLBYS and was co-starring in the syndicated TV series WAR OF THE WORLDS at the time he got the lead role in MASQUE. Considering its low-budget origins, Brand's MASQUE has a bit more going on than most Corman productions of that era. Brand achieves several striking shots throughout, and the film makes creative and pragmatic use of its budgetary limitations. With its melancholy tone and glacially slow pace, it also does a very effective job of capturing a foreboding and very palpable sense of doom and despair. It has its scattered moments of ineptitude--the male actors' wigs, the padded leggings on Hoak's stunt double clearly visible during her roll down a hillside in the climax--but count Brand's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH as one of the more intriguing and ambitious projects to emerge from the Corman/Concorde factory in the late '80s.

Scorpion has just released MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH on DVD (but not Blu-ray), in a very nice 1.78:1 transfer with an audio commentary track by Brand. The track is moderated by serial-one-man-commentary-wrecking crew Bill Olsen, the Code Red head who found some down time to fit this in between alienating his customer base with his constantly-vanishing web site, fighting with cult movie fans on message boards, and his various other daily social media meltdowns. Olsen has done some atrocious work in the past and this commentary gets off to a dubious start with the gaffe-prone emcee introducing the director as "Rally Brand," and Brand not even remembering shooting the opening credits sequence before admitting "It's been years since I've watched this." Olsen asks some expectedly dumb questions (though not as dumb as asking an incredulous Isabelle Mejias about her inspiration in the way she stirs Nestle Quik into a glass of milk on the commentary for 1983's JULIE DARLING), but once Brand gets comfortable, he has enough things to say that Olsen doesn't get much of a chance to indulge in his usual schtick, namely mocking the movie he's watching and mispronouncing actors' names on purpose in the least funny manner possible. Brand is a little delusional about how "beautiful" the sets look, but he has some interesting things to say about working on the Roger Corman assembly line and how Corman was generally hands-off as a producer and granted a director almost total freedom so long as they didn't go over budget and delivered the requisite amount of gore and/or nudity. Brand says that Macnee was their second choice for Machiavel after Michael York had a scheduling conflict, and calls himself a "prude," stating he wasn't really as interested in the exploitative elements as much as his Concorde colleagues, though he did have to tone down one torture scene where a restrained man is impaled in his skull when Corman feared it would get the film an X rating. MASQUE was Brand's second film for Corman, following 1988's THE DRIFTER, a FATAL ATTRACTION knockoff with Kim Delaney being stalked by psycho hitchhiker Miles O'Keeffe after a one-night stand at a cheap motel (the trailer declared "Love can be deadly, when the attraction is fatal!" just in case you weren't sure what blockbuster movie it was ripping off). Corman was pleased enough with the results of THE DRIFTER to offer Brand his choice between this or BLOODFIST (Brand on turning down BLOODFIST: "I wasn't really interested in kickboxing or working in the Philippines"), and he would go on to make the 1990 Catherine Oxenberg erotic thriller OVEREXPOSED before leaving the Corman stable, where he's generally worked in DTV thrillers except for scoring a co-writing credit on 2002's HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION.

Just as MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH finished making its rounds and playing to mostly empty theaters, the next Poe offering from Corman and Concorde arrived in the form of Jim Wynorski's THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA. MORELLA opened in February 1990 and traveled the same regional route for one-week stands across the US. It bore little resemblance to Poe or to the "Morella" segment in TALES OF TERROR as Wynorski took the core concept of the dead Morella taking over the soul of her grown daughter Lenora and added splatter, gratuitous nudity, and lesbian sex scenes to fashion the kind of T&A-filled romp that Brand showed little interest in making with MASQUE. A post-CHARLES IN CHARGE and pre-BAYWATCH Nicole Eggert (her last name misspelled on the poster) plays Morella/Lenora, with David McCallum, years before his NCIS-abetted resurgence, is Lenora's father/Morella's widower husband, with the main cast rounded out by the inevitable Maria Ford and BARBARIAN QUEEN's Lana Clarkson, a Corman veteran by this point, but tragically best known today for accepting an invitation back to Phil Spector's mansion one fateful night in 2003.

While Corman got the ball rolling on the Poe revival, the legendary producer quoth "Nevermore" and pulled the plug on future Poe-related endeavors, putting the onus on Towers to leave audiences nodding, nearly napping with the bulk of the other offerings. Towers had distribution deals with both Menahem Golan's short-lived 21st Century Film Corporation as well as a post-Golan Cannon led by Yoram Globus and Christopher Pearce. Towers was on a classics tear during this 1989-1991 period, producing not only Poe movies for 21st Century, but also the Robert Englund-headlined PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (also for 21st Century, and the doomed company's only nationwide release), yet another remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS for Cannon, and the spectacularly sleazy Jekyll & Hyde/Jack the Ripper hybrid EDGE OF SANITY for Miramax offshoot Millimeter Films (a sort-of B-movie predecessor to the later, more successful Dimension Films) with Anthony Perkins as the high society Dr. Jekyll turning into a coke-addled, masturbating Mr. Hyde on a serial-killing spree of lascivious Whitechapel streetwalkers. While PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and EDGE OF SANITY were shot on the same sets in Budapest, Towers' other films of this period were shot in Apartheid-era South Africa at a time when it was cost-effective but politically and socially frowned upon to do so. While PHANTOM, SANITY, and TEN LITTLE INDIANS made it into theaters, 21st Century was in immediate financial trouble and after MACK THE KNIFE tanked in limited release and THE FORBIDDEN DANCE (aka "the other Lambada movie") had to be distributed by Columbia, the money was gone and all of the company's titles (including Albert Pyun's CAPTAIN AMERICA, which was supposed to be 21st Century's meal ticket) were left in limbo on the shelf, only to trickle out on VHS courtesy of RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video over the next few years.

Towers' Poe projects were shot over 1988 and 1989 but didn't start turning up in video stores until late 1990 and into 1991 (shot in 1989, CAPTAIN AMERICA was unseen in the US until its VHS release in 1992). Despite some interesting casts, Towers' Poe titles are a pretty sorry lot. Unlike Corman, who chose to keep the MASQUE remake and THE HAUNTING OF MORELLA as period pieces, Towers' Poe titles are updated to the present day, but the modernization brings no new perspective to Poe or the themes in his work. BURIED ALIVE, shot in the fall of 1988 and released straight to video two years later, borrows the central conceit of The Cask of Amontillado by having the killer wall his living victims into a tomb, but it's mostly a bland slasher movie with minor supernatural elements and occasional shots of a black cat roaming around. Set at a school for troubled girls run by an ascot-sporting Robert Vaughn in prime "smug asshole" mode, BURIED ALIVE offers a few bits of spirited gore and some nudity and sleaze courtesy of French hardcore porn director Gerard Kikoine, who also helmed EDGE OF SANITY for Towers, but is a pretty tired affair, with Donald Pleasence hamming it up as a toupeed, German-accented doctor, a young Arnold Vosloo (THE MUMMY) as a sheriff's deputy who keeps trying to hook up with the heroine (Karen Witter), and an 18-year-old Nia Long in her first film, a couple of years before co-starring in BOYZ N THE HOOD. If BURIED ALIVE is remembered at all, it's because it was the last film of the legendary John Carradine, fourth-billed in what amounts to a bit part, with two brief appearances for a total screen time of less than a minute. 82-year-old Carradine died just days after his scenes were shot. He decided to treat himself to a brief European vacation after leaving South Africa, but he died suddenly while in Rome and never made it home to the States from his BURIED ALIVE gig.

THE HOUSE OF USHER, also shot in 1988 and unseen until its belated arrival in video stores in 1991, is one of the most boring horror films ever made, despite a hilariously surreal wedding sequence, a discreetly-shot scene of rat-on-genital torture, and a crazed Donald Pleasence going on a power-drill killing spree in the last third. Lots of secret passageways and long corridors in this updating, but director Alan Birkinshaw keeps this moving at a snail's pace, and it only briefly comes to life very late once Pleasence and Oliver Reed share the screen and engage in a full-throttle ham-off that's ruined by a total cop-out ending, and the chief music cue is a blatant recycling of Gary Chang's 52 PICK-UP score. Towers also had his own THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH remake to butt heads with Corman's MASQUE, this one directed by the busy Birkinshaw, with Herbert Lom (a replacement for Jack Palance, who bailed at the last minute) as a dying millionaire hosting a "Red Death"-themed party where the attendees are offed one-by-one in what amounts to another slasher movie disguised as a Poe adaptation. Lom and MASQUE co-stars Frank Stallone and Brenda Vaccaro were also in Towers' and Birkinshaw's TEN LITTLE INDIANS, and presumably shot their scenes during the same ethically-challenged trip to South Africa in 1989.

While Corman and Towers were the primary purveyors of the stunningly unsuccessful Poe revival, there were contributions from others to commemorate the anniversary of the great writer's passing. The most high-profile was the two-story George A. Romero/Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES, an Italian production shot in Pittsburgh in 1989 but unreleased in the US until late 1991. Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" was a remake of the concluding story in Corman's TALES OF TERROR (1962), where the dying, comatose Valdemar (Vincent Price) is under the influence of a conniving hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) who's after his fortune and his wife (Debra Paget). In Romero's version, the hypnotist (Ramy Zada) and the wife (Adrienne Barbeau) are in cahoots in their plot to get Valdemar's (Bingo O'Malley) money. Argento's "The Black Cat" is a mash-up of Poe stories with crime-scene photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel), his girlfriend Annabel Lee (Madeliene Potter), their black cat, their neighbors the Pyms (Martin Balsam, Kim Hunter), a sultry bartender named Eleonora (Sally Kirkland), and a body walled-up Amontillado-style. Despite its pedigree, neither director is at the top of their game with TWO EVIL EYES, and though this catches Argento in the infant stages of a several-decade career nosedive that shows no signs of stopping, he does manage a couple of memorable sequences and a committed, if a bit mannered, performance by Keitel, and while Romero's more or less resembles an R-rated episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, it's fairly entertaining and slightly better than its reputation.

With the possible exception of Brand's MASQUE, RE-ANIMATOR director Stuart Gordon's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1991) is probably the best film from the Poesploitation movement. It has the same dark, dour mood as MASQUE but benefits from a bigger budget, much better production design, and an absolutely riveting performance by Lance Henriksen. Released by Full Moon in the wake of the collapse of Empire Pictures, Gordon's PIT doesn't really follow Poe or Corman's 1961 film, instead telling a WITCHFINDER GENERAL-type story with witch-hunting inquisitor Torquemada (Henriksen) and his rabid, self-loathing sexual obsession with an accused spellcaster (Rona De Ricci). Shot in Italy, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM has a distinct European flavor to it and, despite its requisite amounts of gore and T&A, has a certain element of class to it, with Henriksen, in one of his best roles, bringing much legitimacy to the film's more lurid elements. Gordon was planning this PIT remake since the late '80s and actually had Peter O'Toole signed on to play Torquemada at one point until the project fell apart. Also featuring cult actors Jeffrey Combs, Tom Towles, Stephen Lee, and Mark Margolis, and a cameo by Oliver Reed in a nice nod to Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is one of the best and most serious films to come from the studio best known for its PUPPET MASTER and DOLLMAN franchises. Even Troma got into the act with Fred Olen Ray's HAUNTING FEAR (1991), an alleged adaptation of The Premature Burial (previously made into a 1962 film by Corman, with Ray Milland stepping in for the director's lone '60s Poe movie without Vincent Price) with a cast of straight-to-video erotic thriller regulars like Brinke Stevens and Delia Sheppard mixing it up with fallen A-listers Jan-Michael Vincent and Karen Black as well as cult figures like Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES) and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA: VAMPIRE).

As if the Poe revival wasn't already going badly enough, two other completely unrelated films were pulled in to help absorb some of the flop sweat. Cannon's SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1990) began life in 1986 as a miniseries for Italian TV starring Lou Ferrigno and directed by Luigi Cozzi. Cannon fired Cozzi during pre-production and replaced him with Enzo G. Castellari. The project was shelved after Cannon deemed Castellari's six hours of footage unusable, but three years later, the cash-strapped company rehired Cozzi to piece together 80 minutes of salvageable footage from the rubble and shoot new wraparound sequences with Daria Nicolodi as a mom reading a bedtime story to her daughter, played by Cozzi's daughter Giada. The bedtime story was Poe's Arabian Nights parody "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade," which of course had little, if anything to do with the movie other than give Cannon an excuse to open the film with a crawl about Poe. SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS is a dumpster fire of a movie that's still worth seeing for an incredibly entertaining performance by John Steiner as the evil wizard Jaffar, but the whole thing is a badly stitched-together disaster, perfectly summed up by an amazing moment where Ferrigno's clean-shaven Sinbad dives into the sea and either Castellari or Cozzi cuts to a stock footage underwater shot of a bearded Ferrigno swimming, clumsily cribbed from 1983's HERCULES. Around the time he was trying to piece together something resembling a watchable SINBAD, Cozzi also found time to direct DE PROFUNDIS, featuring cult actors such as Caroline Munro and Brett Halsey, a film intended to be an unofficial third chapter to Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy, which to that point consisted of SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980). Argento eventually officially completed that trilogy himself with 2008's MOTHER OF TEARS, while Cozzi's DE PROFUNDIS was attempting--and failing--to be meta before meta was cool. It's largely nonsense, with a director played by Urbano Barberini planning a sequel to SUSPIRIA about a witch named Levana, who keeps appearing as an apparition to vomit green goo on everyone. 21st Century acquired the film for the US and retitled it THE BLACK CAT with the cynical intention of selling it as another Poe title. Of course, it was shelved like all the others, debuting in the US on the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was then known) at some point in the early 1990s, and promptly vanishing shortly after without even getting a VHS release. It was available to stream on Netflix Instant for a while and can easily be found online, but despite some nice Argento-inspired color schemes and approximately 17 opportunities to hear Bang Tango's lone hit "Someone Like You," it's a mind-boggling, incoherent mess that's really only for the most devout Italian horror obsessives, and certainly not for anyone looking for anything even remotely related to Edgar Allan Poe.

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