The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

There’s not a huge amount I feel I can really say about Roger Corman’s adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘Hop-frog’ and that’s because its a film without a huge amount of substance. In so far as it’s faithfulness to the texts, it takes huge liberties and the majority of the characters are inventions of the film, but really that’s necessary coming from such sparsely detailed texts, but they capture the spirit and main plot points faithfully.

The film has an original heroine and audience surrogate in Francesca, a young christian peasant girl who is taken in by the nefarious Prospero. Prospero is the only named character in the story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, but is given no characterisation, for the flm, the character seems to be largely derived from the nameless king in ‘Hop-frog’ with a healthy dollop of satanism. It becomes essentially a morality tale between these two opposed characters, with such side characters as Juliana (played by Hazel Court who does her best with such kitsch material) a mistress of satan, Gino who is Francesca’s boyfriend and Francesca’s father. Francesca is taken under Prospero’s wing and clothed with the best clothes and given the best food in the hopes he may conver her to Satanism whilst Francesca plays along in order to try and save Gino and her father. All the while Prosero throws wild hedonistic parties with the nobles he has barricaded in his castle to rotect against the red death afflicting the surounding villages. Its at these parties where we are introduced to Hop Toad and Esmerelda, re-imaginings of Hop-Frog and Tripetta, when Prospero’s advisor strikes Esmerelda, Hop-Toad vows revenge. This story line is ancillary to the main narrative of the film, like a b-plot on a TV show but it captures the mythic spirit of the story well as well as providing us with a 8 year old girl being dubbed over by a 30 year old woman which is just great. The entire film is incredibly kitschy in this same vein and to an extent films don’t quite reach anymore, it has some light leanings into the exploitation genre ut it does have artistic ambitions. Roger Corman had a great fondness for Poe’s work and clearly wanted to do it justice, not only is the narrative a clever adaptation and expansion of the stories, the cinematography is actually good with fantastic pathecolor throughout. Even the wackier sequences such as Juliana’s dream after her stanic ritual is rooted in some cultural ntions of exoticism. That being said, the film totally glazes over any symbolic meaning behind the 7 different coloured rooms, a key feature from the story and the film is at the end of the day, a camp b-movie.

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Zodiac (2007)

I almost don’t have enough good things to say about Zodiac, this was a really fantastic film that I’d been meaning to watch for such a long time and finally got round to with the Directors cut on blu-ray which has great special features which is why I mention it.

It’s quite an undertaking to take a true story that is so well known and that still has no satisfying conclusion and to turn that into an intensely gripping and suspenseful film. I think one of the main ways Fincher manages this is through his very filmic style and the way he plays with the genre in this film. The opening scene which depicts the killing of Darlene Ferrin plays like it comes straight out of a stereotypical slasher film, with two good looking teenagers being attacked alone in a car in the middle of nowhere, we’ve seen it a million times before. What Fincher does is really interesting, he takes these scenarios that have become cliches through their exposure in 90s slashers, I imagine at least in part thanks to the Zodiac killings, and he presents the with a clean and precise style. We are never made to forget that we are watching a movie, like we might be with the more journalistic style of a film such as Zero Dark Thirty for example, we are so aware that we’re watching a film that we start to forget that what we’re watching is true and that it happened. This tricks the audience into expecting filmic tropes to manifest themselves, you expect Graysmith’s family to get attacked, in the stunningly suspenseful basement scene we even fear for Graysmith despite the fact he wrote the book this is based on. It’s quite sobering in retrospect to watch the killings take place and to realise that we’re not watching a fiction, and from the special features it seems as though the deaths are presented very accurately and unlike the editing, they’re not quick or clean.

Even if you aren’t as drawn in by the style, the case is fascinating and the film is well worth watching to learn more about it. Despite the film being almost 3 hours long, it never drags for even a second, you constantly want to learn more and at the end you are desperate for it to keep going.

The film reminded me why Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favourite actors working today, his characterisation is distinct but he makes sure to keep it subtle and never lets it take over film, as ultimately his character isn’t the focus. The film also serves as a strong example of what I don’t enjoy about Mark Ruffalo’s acting, he makes strong choices in his characterisation but by god does he want us to notice. He’s so set on using this breathy affectation in his voice that he barely has any variation and it draws attention to the performative nature of his acting. Thankfully he never goes to the same extremes of Spotlight so it isn’t too distracting, I just thought it was an interesting contrast to Jae Gylenhaal. As usual Robert Downey Jr is Robert Downey Jr but he’s enjoyable and he injects nice, and needed moments of humour without being too huge a part in the film. John Carroll Lynch is a standout with very little screen time but a lot to work with in. I was also happy to see Chloe Sevigny who I always like and a surprise Jimmi Simpson Cameo.
I don’t feel that I can talk about the acting without mentioning the costume design, I don’t know much about this side of things, but it was hard not to notice how perfectly the clothes reflected the characters in the film.

This film has stuck with me for a good week after watching it, since seeing it, I have been incredibly paranoid when I’m in a room with windows and it’s night outside feeling that I might be being watched. I never felt particulary scared in the film, outside of the aformention basement scene and the lakeside killings (it takes a genius to make a killing in broad daylight so suspenseful), but the true nature of the film has made it stick with me horribly.