Sunday, October 27, 2013

Monster Serial: MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, 1964

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
- William Blake
Visit THE NITRATE DIVA for more Vincent Price this week!
This is absolutely true of MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which is curious given the balance shown by its lead, the magnificent Vincent Price.  It is a horror film in only the most superficial sense.  How do you film poetry?  Because even when Poe is writing prose, his work is drunk on language and metaphor.  Director Roger Corman very wisely eschewed literalism and looked to the more experimental directors of his time for inspiration.  In doing so, he may have improved upon them.  He begins the film with his tarot casting representation of the Red Death, and Corman ends it with that same figure.  Between, we take a more literal path of storytelling, but not without dream sequences and other moments of heightened narrative designed to convey a mood more than a story.  And that's fine.  At its heart, the film is a deeply existential debate on humanity's relationship with gods.  That it should end in an epic, modern dance sequence?  Just trust me; it works.

At the height of the Red Death, we meet Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, an unforgiving sadist who keeps his moneyed guests in his castle for his own amusement as much as for their own protection from the plague.  He takes with him a beautiful peasant girl, Francesca (Jane "Paul McCartney's Girlfriend" Asher), as well as her father (Nigel Greene) and her lover (David Weston)… the latter of whom are prisoners.  Prospero is revealed to be a dedicated, theistic Satanist, mixing Ragnar Redbeard with Dennis Wheatley.  As the story unfolds, he finds himself musing on the nature of fear, good, evil, pleasure.  This is all an attempt to educate Francesca, whose faith in Christianity is as firm (if uncontemplated) as his own confidence in the potency of devilish indulgence.  Ultimately, although he gains her acquiescence, he is foiled at his masquerade by the red death itself, striking all guests, who haunt him in an orgiastic dance.  In his attempt to escape, he is confronted by the actual Red Death personification, who explains that he is not Satan.  There is no God but what we fashion for ourselves.  Ripping away his mask, Price confronts his own face, stained red with the plague.  All he has wrought has been death and misery, and this consumes him as fitting justice.  We are left with the Red Death meeting similarly cloaked brothers as they discuss the various plagues they represent.  They march off to consume more of humanity with a joyless sense of inevitability. 

Eat it, Ingmar.  That's an ending!

Included in the mix is a fantastic subplot based on another Poe story that involves a little person burning an evil person alive in an ape suit.  Not enough?  Nigel Greene, one of England's best and most underused actors of the period, delivers a magnificently muted performance, representing a moral voice that has no sanctimony, only firm clarity and conviction.  You'll recognize him from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS as the Greatest Hercules Ever, as well as the deliciously smarmy master villain in one of the four greatest Matt Helm films, THE WRECKING CREW

It is obviously Vincent Price's vehicle, and he gives us one of his most focused and balanced performances.  Scripts and directors so often pulled upon Price's comedic aplomb… or his grave capacity for projecting utter malevolence. In this, he mixes both.  He is utterly ruthless and toxically charismatic; thus, it's easy to see why he has followers and why they humiliate themselves for his delight.  Much of the film has Price rhapsodizing on his philosophy of evil, knowledge, delight, and indulgence.  He makes a pitch that is wonderfully seductive and rational… up to a point.  Any other actor would have simply twirled a mustache and rolled his eyes.  Price, however, succeeds that most rare of acting challenges: acting grandeur with humane subtlety.

Charles Beaumont's script certainly doesn't hurt, nor does Nicholas Roeg's editing nor Roger Corman's confident, polished direction.  Along with THE INTRUDER, it is easily his finest work, and shows a vision and discipline equal to any studio's finest talent.  Of all of the AIP Poe films, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH stands as genuine art and genuine entertainment.  Like CASABLANCA, it is a film where every element works.  But beyond CASABLANCA, it is also a sumptuous and abstract meditation on huge ideas.  I have no doubt that it led generations of kids to ask their parents innumerable uncomfortable questions about gods, morality, metaphor, and responsibility.

Yet another reason why it stands as one of the finest films of its era… or any era. 

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation. 

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