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The Masque of the Red Death

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The Masque of the Red Death was the third film of five that I made my first semester in film school in 1990. Of all the films I’ve made, it received the strongest and most negative reaction. I took this criticism to heart so when I transferred some of my Super 8 films to video in the nineties, Masque was not one of them. I almost immediately regretted this and have come to view Masque as being, in some ways, my best film.

Where did the idea come from? I’m not really sure. I do know that, unlike my previous film which had been completely improvised on the spot when an actor did not show up, and my next film, Rocketman, for which I shot a lot of footage without knowing what I would do with it, when I went off to the comic book convention to do the primary filming for Masque I knew exactly what I was going to do. Each time I was asked (and I was asked many times) what I was filming I answered, “A film that compares a comic book convention to Edgar Allan Poe’s story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death.'” The reaction? Always a blank stare. (Remarkably, I was never asked that question by a security person. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single security person at that convention. I had more trouble getting a shot of a construction site before being chased away by an angry foreman.)

I think the idea for the film began when I knew I was going to the comic book convention to see Stan Lee. (I had the choice of going Saturday, when Lee was there, or Sunday, when Jack Kirby attended. I never got to see Kirby and have regretted this decision ever since.) But I do not recall how Poe’s story entered the mix.

From my notebook, written before going to the Con:

Comics: two worlds: relationships between inside and outside

– ironic parallels

– the idea should have something to do with the way comic fans are generally ignorant of world news – it is really a total escape – but the question is: so what? Does it matter? – are they all suffering from The Peter Pan Complex?

– B/W = wasteland

– Cocteau: “Film shows Death at work.”

– Interviews: “What do you think of death?” Blunt, to the point – see if anything happens – if not, try another approach.

I didn’t do any interviews for the film, although I did record Stan Lee talk. (One of the things he said was that James Cameron had agreed to direct Spider-Man.)

– Death finally reaches the Con – enters unseen – people start fading away – again, unnoticed

– The comics remain, and in color – but the con is empty

– Escape from death – comic book con = womb

The notes suggest that I intended to make a film that’s a critique of comic fans. This was not my intent and I don’t think that’s the point of the finished film. This is why it does not end at the convention, but outside it with everything colored red. (If I were to make a film about comic book culture today I would emphasize the positive utopianism of its alternative reality imaginings.)

Here’s the “script:”

Before the class screening I showed a rough cut to two friends who were also in the class. One of them, Elliott, said, more or less, “You do realize that you are going to be raked over the coals for this?” He was more right than he knew.

You can read the comments by the class and teachers on the finished film here. The comments from the main teacher, Russ,  come near the end of the file and the other teacher’s comments, unsigned, come just before that one. (The best way to read the file at the link  is to click on the full screen icon at the bottom right of the screen.)

Technical note: I transferred the film to digital format by taping a Super 8 projected image with a digital movie camera, except for the cartoon section which comes from a tape produced by a professional transfer house. (I had separated the cartoon section from the rest of the film.)

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Written by David Kilmer

June 17, 2010 at 10:50 am

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  1. […] My USC Film School adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” can can be viewed here. […]


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