As we endure the lockdown during the transit of one of the glories of the world (the virus), perhaps it is appropriate — some may think differently of course (and so trigger warning or caveat lector) — to consider films that reflect our current predicament. There are several of which Contagion (2011) must be the one that comes to many people’s minds. But plagues and viruses have acted as the subject matter for two of cinema’s most well-known genres, namely horror and science-fiction; and so this present double-bill choice will consist of a film from each of these domains. These are: The Masque of the Red Death (1964), directed by Roger Corman (born 1926), and the The Andromeda Strain (1971) directed by Robert Wise (1914-2005). Both of these films are based upon literary works — the authors Edgar Allen Poe and Michael Crichton — although in the case of the Corman film there has been a certain dramatic licence taken with the story, or, as we shall see, stories. Besides the common denominator of the plague, the two films also share the idea of lockdown and isolation. This said, there are plenty of differences to keep the comparatist happy.
The horror genre was firmly established in the 1930s with a series of films from Universal Studios directed by Tod Browning and by James Whale. They are memorable not just because of their style and atmosphere but also because they consolidated within the cinema tradition the two literary horror characters of Dracula and Frankenstein, and of course they equally established Boris Karloff (playing the Frankenstein monster) as one of the most famous actors within this genre. Several of these films remain classics, perhaps the best of them being Brides of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935). These films were essentially remade in vivid colour in the 1950s by the British company Hammer Films and their life was extended both by a series of sequels and by analogous productions based upon vampires and other horror characters (one of the best being Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire, 1963). What is so special about some of these films is the use of colour. As Raymond Durgnat noted, the blue and misty forests in Brides of Dracula (1960) are more Gothic than anything dreamed up by Bram Stoker; and the colours of the windows, liquids and so on in Frankenstein’s laboratories contribute to a baroque richness and vivid atmosphere of these horror stories (Films and Feelings, 1967, at 38).
All of this was to have an important influence on the American film-maker and producer Roger Corman (as Corman himself has said in interviews). Now, anyone with a passing interest in cinema will be aware that it is a popular art form dominated by some major characters, usually film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and the like. One of these characters is Roger Corman. This extraordinary film-maker and producer is important not just for his own films (some of his early ones will be alluded to later), but for the fact that he is the ‘father’ of much of contemporary American cinema. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron (plus many others) owe their careers to him; his film company was, for these people, a film school and one that was far more effective and creative than any such school within the university world. The reason for this ‘educational training‘ success was the B-feature film which was always part of the cinema experience up until the 1970s. These B-feature films were made on very small budgets and thus acted as a source of employment for many of the professionals who later would go into television (which in turn helped put an end to the B-feature: but see Kehr (1977) 13 Film Comment, No 5, at 6-15). Roger Corman made his own name directing such B-films — or Z-films given that some were so cheap and cheerful — but he also provided opportunities for what were then ambitious youngsters wanting to be directors. Not all of these Corman protégés achieved the status of a Spielberg or Scorsese, but some like Monte Hellman and Curtis Harrington did achieve what might be called a cult-status as a result of the interesting and often low-budget films that they directed (see for example Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971, and Harrington’s Night Tide, 1961). Often these directors paid homage to their master by inviting him to make cameo appearances in their own films (he is for example one of the Senators asking questions in The Godfather Part II, 1974).
The Masque of the Red Death is one of eight films directed by Roger Corman during the 1960s based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The others in the series are: House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum(1961), Premature Burial (1961), Tales of Terror (based on several Poe stories) (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)…The richness of the colour photography and sets is their most obvious trademark, but of course the presence of Vincent Price (1911-1993) in all but one of them adds to the baroque and Gothic atmosphere. Price, a graduate from Yale in literature and art history who had been distracted from his post-graduate research at the Courtauld Institute by the theatre, brings to these films (and indeed many other horror and fantasy films) an extraordinary presence. This is a presence that uses a smooth ‘hammy’ personality and silky voice that very much suits the nature of the films themselves mixed with an underlying menace that again enhances the horror or fantasy nature of the films. In fact, it took a later UK director, Michael Reeves, really to bring out the latent ‘evil’ possibilities in Price’s acting ability. In filming Witchfinder General (1968) Reeve’s relationship with Price was at best tense and at worst hostile, but the result is both horrifying and (in terms of acting) quite extraordinary; never, in my view and the view of others, has there ever been such a portrayal of convincing evil set within a realistic backdrop of the English civil war. Price’s portrayal of Matthew Hopkins displayed the kind of nastiness that perhaps Hobbes had felt and experienced during his lifetime and which led him to propose his severe political theory response.
As for the Masque, there are those who have argued that it is by no means the best of the eight Poe adaptions (see for example Pirie, in Will & Willemen (eds), Roger Corman: The Millennic Vision, 1970). Yet there is something very Poe-like both in its atmosphere and scenery and in the way that it actually uses two of Poe’s very short stories, namely Masque and Hop-Frog, as its narrative foundation. In particular, the film brings into play two of the iconic props so to speak that are highlighted in Poe’s Masque. These are the great ebony clock — whose “pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang” (Poe, but note the inaccuracy that pendulum clocks did not exist before the 17th century!) — and the progression of seven different coloured rooms which today one might associate with some modernistic (and perhaps Turner prize-winning) Gothic art-form on display in the Great Hall of the Tate Modern. In Poe’s short story, there is not much of a narrative save of the medieval feudal aristocrats who self-isolate in Prospero’s castle to protect themselves against the red death. As Poe himself described it:
The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and the security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
However Corman and his writers invest this physical scenario, as one might expect in a narrative film, with a primary narrative that centres upon Prospero as someone who believes he is in league with the Devil and a number of secondary narratives. These latter involve several peasant villagers brought to the castle by Prospero for his sadistic pleasure and, as mentioned, the two small people who form the narrative of Poe’s Hop-Frog. This latter narrative is heightened by the presence of Patrick Magee (1922-1982, and not to be confused with Patrick Macnee) — one of Samuel Beckett’s favourite actors — as their adversary. To return to the villagers, one of them is a young, highly innocent girl (played by Jane Asher in what cannot be described as an Oscar winning performance) who Prospero is determined to corrupt within a somewhat sexually charged atmosphere. Needless to say, this attracted the hostility of the then censor — who, anyway, detested Corman films — with the result that a dream sequence, involving the rape of Prospero’s increasingly jealous mistress by the devil, being removed (but it is now back in most DVD versions).
There are many aspects of the film that have attracted criticism ranging from those who think that the whole thing is just a plagiarised pop-version of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) — both films feature Death as a character — to those who are critical of particular aspects, be it the script, the acting or whatever. Certainly, as suggested, it is not Jane Asher’s best performance (but she was very young) and there is perhaps, as David Pirie said, a woodenness and lack of originality in the way that the final dance of death is staged. However Pirie’s other criticism about the unevenness of the script in stitching together the two Poe stories is open to challenge; the blending could be seen to work quite well given the very similar setting and atmosphere to be found in the two Poe narratives. Indeed it allows the film to portray the medieval potestas of two sadistic princes (Price and Magee) that, in the end, is rendered impotent, if not by trickery (employed by Hop-Frog) then by the virus personified by Death. The latter, dressed in red, signs off with the expression sic transit gloria mundi, a saying attributed to a medieval pope. This of course reminds us legal historians that all this is taking place in the land and era of Bartolus (1313-1357) and Baldus (1327-1400), who both had things to say about tyranny (although they would not have had pendulum clocks: on which see Bartolus’ comment on D.18.104.22.168). Indeed, there is now a contemporary element given the quality of some of our rulers in the face of the present ‘red’ death: is Prospero any less rational or moral than say… Well, perhaps it might be better not to mention names but, like all of Corman’s Poe films, to end with a quote from the great American writer himself:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominium over all.
If the irrationality of the medieval approach is seen to fail against the plague, the rationality of the contemporary scientific approach may not do much better, at least if the second of our double-bill is anything to go by. The Andromeda Strain begins with a couple of soldiers observing from a distance, through a night vision instrument, a small town in Arizona before descending to retrieve a satellite that has returned to Earth. They report back to their base saying that they can see bodies everywhere which prompts a reconnaissance fly-past by an F-4 fighter. The satellite has returned from space with a deadly virus. A small group of scientists had in the past convinced the US government to prepare for this kind of event and they and others are thus whisked from their ordinary working and social lives to be taken to a secret underground laboratory. Here they will examine the virus and try also to find out why there were two survivors from the small town, an old alcoholic and a baby (it turns out to be due to the relation between the acids and alkaline in their bodies). The technology is impressive, but little things go wrong, in particular the communication system to the outside world is stymied by a piece of fallen paper that jams the message bell, with fatal consequences. The F-4 crashes, apparently after the pilot said his rubber mask was dissolving. They dismiss this pilot report, believing that it was the virus that killed the pilot, and then one of the doctors misses a vital development with regard to the virus thanks to her epilepsy. The team finally discover that a nuclear explosion will not kill but greatly enhance the virus and realise, when the virus starts to destroy all the rubber protections in the underground lab, that the fail-safe system in the lab will result in disaster. For the lab is designed to destroy itself in a nuclear explosion should the virus escape. One of the team has a key to de-activate the fail-safe system but only manages to do it after battling with the gases and lasers designed to stop infected animals escaping from the lab. The virus subsequently mutates and apparently becomes harmless (or so it seems).
In the hands of Robert Wise, a veteran Hollywood director responsible not just for some forties film-noirs but also for famous musicals such as The Sound of Music (1965), The Andromeda Strain is a very well executed piece of cinema. There is no pretentious camera-work and fairly straight-forward editing, yet some of the sequences — for example the scientists being extracted from their family homes or work places by polite but armed and tight-lipped military personnel — convey subtle but disturbing situations which finally contribute to an atmosphere which we are all perhaps experiencing with the Corona virus. This is the feeling that, on the one hand, there is a rational response in the way politicians are seemingly relying only on scientific evidence but, on the other hand, that this science and the responses might not be so confidence-inducing after all. Do they really know what they are doing? Is there not something a little sinister about the authoritarianism within a supposedly liberal democracy? And, indeed, are we actually being told the full truth? All the precautions taken with respect to the underground laboratory in the The Andromeda Strain would have seemed on paper to be perfectly rational responses; it is just a shame that in actual practice, had they been executed or achieved their immediate purpose, they would have probably led to the end of human life on Earth. What would the figure of death, dressed no doubt in red, have said as he watched the fatal nuclear explosions naively designed to kill the alien virus (a virus, itself, seemingly, deliberately brought back to Earth for germ warfare purposes)? Liberalism and scientism — and indeed lockdown — appear as fragile as Prospero’s faith in his supposed pactum with the Devil. The answer, no doubt, is Sic transit Gloria Mundi.
And so, are there any messages in these films for the comparative lawyer? Sadly, there is perhaps a message in The Andromeda Strain that we European lawyers might want to consider. Have not those European and comparatists who have believed in the European project founded their beliefs on the perfectly rational premise of European transnational cooperation and legal harmonisation? What Robert Wise’s film suggests to us is that rationality is based on assumptions and the problem is that those assumptions can be proved wrong by facts (or ‘events, dear boy, events’ as Harold Macmillan supposedly said, although probably did not). In Europe we are seeing this now. The fact of the Corona virus is revealing that European cooperation is at best questionable and at worst so weak that the EU, and the Euro, might well not survive as viable entities. Indeed can the Union survive politically with some members using the virus now openly to embrace dictatorship? Or, if not dictatorship, what about the members who display a concern only for their own national and economic interests? Prospero’s pact with the devil collapsed in the face of the Red Death and rationalised American science in The Andromeda Strain collapsed with the speed and unpredictability of fact. Again, sadly, all that one can say is sic transit Gloria Mundi.
On the positive side (well, all things being relative…), Roger Corman, perhaps if he were a bit younger, would be out there — or if not him at least some of his protégés — making films to suit our present Zeitgeist. One can imagine the titles (after examining the Corman filmography): Attack of the Virus Mutants, It Conquered the World (Part II), The Undead (Part II), The Day the World Ended (Part II), The Little Supermarket of Horrors, The Last Woman on Earth (Part II), The Secret Invasion (Part II) and so on. Depressing for some, perhaps, but the Corman films are at least fun, to say nothing about some of the stuff produced by his protégés: Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel) apparently made five to eight million dollars at box office, only costing about half a million to make, and has even inspired a remake. Sic transit… And if you like Jonathan Demme (1944-2017), you should see some of his early stuff… Or, perhaps not. Maybe Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music is what we Europeans now need to cheer us up. Sic transit… or, more cheerfully, ‘The Hills are Alive…” (but with what?).
Posted by Professor Geoffrey Samuel (Kent)