Hazel Court's devilish dream in Masque Of The Red Death
Martin remembers scream-queen Hazel Court at her devilish best, in Roger Corman's classic adaptation of Poe...
It was with some sadness that I received a bulletin on Tuesday announcing the death of well-loved Roger Corman/Hammer scream queen Hazel Court, from a heart attack at the age of 82. It was a couple of days later that her demise made the news, and since there are many well-deserved tribute obituaries around, I thought I’d take a simpler route to commemorate the many reasons that Hazel knocked us all out in the Corman ‘Poe cycle’ - and also just how far Roger Corman could rise above his reputation as the ‘knock-off’ king of Hollywood.
About an hour into Masque Of The Red Death (1964) comes a highly theatrical sequence representing the process of willing damnation. It’s sexy, frightening (largely due to the innovative use of music and sound) and yet amazingly ‘staged’, capturing perfectly the mute helplessness of being caught in a nightmare. The green-tinged sequence, though directed by Corman, was lensed by avant guard film-maker Nick Roeg, who served as cinematographer on MoTRD.
In some unspecified eastern-European country, evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) has gathered up the noblemen and women of the area into his impregnable castle, to spare them the ‘red death’ that is ravaging the region - and to enjoy their fawning loyalty and favour. The Satanist Prospero brings innocent but staunch village-girl Francesca (Jane Asher) into his protection on a pretext of punishment for a public taunt made by her boyfriend Gino (David Weston), but his real aim is to corrupt this sylph-like Christian girl and bring her over to devil-worship.
But Prospero’s current protégé – the more mature Hazel Court as ‘Juliana’ – takes umbrage at the competition and decides to perfect herself early in the black arts that she has been studying under her dark master. Alone in a late-night ceremony, Juliana – who has branded her right breast with an inverted crucifix - drinks some unspecified (presumably hallucinogenic) mixture from a chalice, in a ritual that is intended to definitively pledge her soul to Satan.
The ritual dissolves into Juliana’s toxic dream of damnation, and finds her tip-toeing terrified through a mysterious forest in what appear to be ballet shoes, wearing the most transparent negligee that ever locked a 12-year old boy’s bedroom door. For this early part alone, Court won legions of admirers, but the sequence develops into one of genuine tension and mystery…
…as the sequence fades to a later part of Juliana’s nightmare, where she finds herself lying on a four-poster bed, surrounded by brass gargoyles. She’s not chained, but seems unable to move as a series of demons penetrate the transparent curtains around her and cavort in devilish pirouettes before attacking her with knives, scythes and ceremonial swords.
The theatricality and symbolism of the sequence is enhanced by the fact that there are no wounds or blood. These murderous gestures do not really touch Court, despite her evident terror and voiceless screams - the only soundtrack on the sequence is David Lee’s sulphurous score.
The first demon comes in the form of what looks like a Polynesian warrior, the second some kind of Greek Gnostic, the third an Egyptian priest and the fourth an African prince. These silent spectres perform similar ceremonial wounding-actions as Court’s expression – optically warped – segues between anticipation, pain, pleasure and horror.
Presumably these ‘pagan’ avatars represent the damnation of the soul outside of the Catholic church (dominant in the period portrayed in MoTRD), and the embracing of ‘other’ religions is arguably painted as the road to hell. This politically incorrect demonising of non-Catholic faiths is similar to the temptation of the sapphic Muslim twins in The Saragossa Manuscript, and unlikely to reappear in modern horror output, however gothic.
As Juliana seems set to expire from the pain of these (presumably psychic) wounds, the sequence fades to black, and we find her back in Prospero’s castle, her marriage to Lucifer consummated. Unfortunately, ultimate demonic approval will prove to come in the form of ravens attacking her in Prospero’s empty halls and pecking her to death. But that’s love, I guess…
The ‘green dream’ sequence in Masque Of The Red Death provides then a scene of dark ravishment which spells out the sexual subtext of female stabbing-victims in horror films in a way that only Alfred Hitchcock had heretofore attempted – in Psycho. It’s not a sublimated rape scene, since Court deliberately and enthusiastically brings the entire experience upon herself, and is pleased with its result afterwards, in Prospero’s castle. Nonetheless the sequence is shot through with sado-masochism and sexualised (if symbolic) violence, to a degree that is unusual in a series of films that – by this time – represented ‘mainstream’ horror.
The Corman/Poe series remains fascinating viewing – hints of ‘c’-feature perversity and originality permeate these films, as if Corman cannot resist showing his hard-won (and temporarily won) mainstream audience some of the harder-edged material that was to carve him a long career as the king of great - and not so great - schlock horror.
Hazel herself is beautiful as ever in the sequence, but also proves her acting prowess, as she rapid-fires a fusillade of conflicting emotions during her torment. This was a formidable ‘scream-queen’, in an equally formidable – and eternally classic – work of gothic horror.
Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.