The Freudian Dream
Corman’s Poe films have become famous for their dream sequences. The source literature revels in the possibilities of nightmares taking over the psyche so they seem an apt distraction for a medium that already adores the possibilities of dreams. The Masque of the Red Death perhaps contains Corman’s most effective and disturbing sequence; one of the few to also parallel the consequences within the narrative world in which it appears. It’s difficult to look at anything relating to dreams without coming up against the monolithic presence of Sigmund Freud but handily, this film’s dream sequence is a perfect summation of the psychoanalyst’s ideas.
Prospero’s lover, Juliana (Hazel Court) has been suggesting throughout the film that she is just as deserving of the dark power currently being worshipped in the castle. Part way through the film, she performs a ceremony, burning an upside-down cross on her breast. A long and protracted dream sequence shows the mental side of her initial conversion to serving Satan while at the same time, showing evil to be a remarkably Freudian concept.
Juliana finds herself in a dream, lying on a sensual bed. The bed is in a blue, hazy world that is at times queasy and almost migraine inducing. The bed, obviously a symbol of sexuality, traps her as she watches various figures dance and perform around her. These figures, who come one at a time, are all male and seem to be performing some kind of ritual themselves. The main figure carries a knife, soon to be shown as a phallic symbol as Juliana is repeatedly attacked.
The Freudian nature manifests in a variety of aspects. The dream itself, said to be a time when the brain relaxes allowing the ID to release all that is suppressed, is more interesting from the point of a feminine view. Juliana, in spite of being stabbed various times off screen, has her reaction shown but it is largely ambiguous; she could be in pain but she could equally be experiencing the ecstasy of pleasure. Freud believed that women suppressed their aggression which resulted in masochism being a female trait. Though this has been heavily debated over the years, this dream sequence plays fully into this idea with Corman blurring the line between Juliana’s pain and pleasure.
What Corman has done is to move Freud’s ideas into a form a ceremony, making the release of suppressed aggression a trait to be associated with evil and Satanism. Not only does this pave the way for Juliana’s demise but also puts the idea of evil forward as a purely masculine trait meaning that women must go through a process (in this case an aesthetic phase, excessive ceremony) to become evil. One weakness of this general reading is that Juliana’s dream of suppressed feeling cannot really be suppressed as her life with Prospero is one of evil excess in the first place.
However, this weakness actually backs up the argument that Juliana’s dream is part of a process of ritual – as much a journey towards Prospero’s end of the evil spectrum as it is a basic Freudian dream itself. As she wakes, she herself knows this already but is fooled into thinking that she has been accepted into the new role as Prospero’s equal. By initiating the ceremony, Juliana has fallen into a male trap; of assuming that, in this narrative world, a woman can truly serve evil. It is clear from Poe’s story and the rest of Corman’s film that this is not to be the case. As she leaves in glee, a bird swoops down and gouges out her eyes before killing her by ripping her neck making her initial freedom in the dream both the last place of pleasure and also the reason for her demise.
Corman’s Poe films stand out above their contemporaries for a number of reasons. Their colourful array of sickly, tortured worlds are as inviting as they are uncomfortable in spite of combining the rather warm, cosy worlds of Hammer Horror with wintery tales of evil. Part of their discomfort comes from their source material which was obsessed, perhaps even paranoid, with the dark side of inner psyche and the powers it could hold over social groups. The majority of the academic discomfort comes from a heavy leaning to philosophically heavy issues, some of which have been discussed here.
The Masque of the Red Death is not Corman’s best Poe film and yet the ideas it discusses are some of the most poignant and intelligent of horror films of the 20th century. Most other horror films take these concepts for granted, often using them as a basic starting point for the assumed reasons behind the horrific actions on display. Corman’s film reverses this and uses the actions of its characters to question the moral ambiguities in an excessive society making it an apt watch for the 21st century audience.