Thursday, April 21, 2011

Price is Right

Film: The Masque of the Red Death
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

There are a few names that are natural to the idea of horror. Edgar Allan Poe is one of those names. Another is Vincent Price, who made a career for himself for a number of years by being really creepy in low-budget horror films. There’s something particular about a Vincent Price performance. Much of this came from his distinctive voice; Price had an untraceable accent, which is quite a feat for a guy born in St. Louis.

Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death is based on the Poe short story of the same name. In Poe’s story, a wicked, dissolute prince holds a masquerade ball during a time when his lands are ravaged by a terrible illness called the red death. As penance for his terrible crime, a figure appears at his ball disguised as a red death victim, who then proceeds to infect the entire party, killing them all horribly. It’s a great story, one of my favorites from Poe’s pen.

The operative word in “short story” is “short” in this case. What this means for us as the audience is that Corman had two choices—make a really short movie or add a whole bunch of new stuff to make the tale even more lurid. Fortunately for us, Corman went with option two. In addition to putting his own stuff into this already fairly lurid tale, he included elements of another of Poe’s tales: “Hop-Frog.”

Wicked Prince Prospero (Price) rules an unnamed land cruelly. While driving through one of his towns, his cart nearly tramples a young child, who is saved at the last moment by a peasant named Gino (David Weston). Gino confronts the wicked prince, and is thus taken prisoner to the castle along with Ludovico (Nigel Green). Prospero is swayed from killing them both outright by Francesca (Jane Asher), who happens to be Ludovico’s daughter and Gino’s love. It’s at this time that a prophecy that happens at the start of the film seems to come true—an old woman who was told that deliverance from Prospero was at hand. Well, her deliverance comes painfully—she is stricken with the red death.

Segue to the castle, where we discover just how degraded Prospero and his people have become. In particular we meet Alfredo (Patrick Magee), who appears as interested in death, pain, and killing as Prospero. We also met Juliana (Hazel Court), who will do anything to possess Prospero for herself. It’s at this time we learn that Prospero is not a man of God, but worships Satan. Juliana gives herself over to a ceremony to become one of Satan’s handmaids. Gino and Ludovico will be forced to fight each other to the death by way of entertainment. Oh, and there are a couple of dwarf entertainers in the court—Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw) and Hop-Toad (Skip Martin, who is sadly underrated). During the entertainment, Alfredo slaps Esmerelda, which sets this secondary plot from Poe’s other story in motion.

Of course, since this is a mid-60s horror film, a number of things should be known going in . First, anyone who professes his or her evil or allegiance to Satan is not going to walk out of this film alive. That’s a given. Since this is a low-budget horror movie, and a film by Roger Corman, we should also expect that much of what will be depicted here will be 1960s-style lurid.

There are some really exciting things here. If you were ever a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, you’ve seen more than your share of Roger Corman’s oeuvre already. While still low-budget in general, it’s very high budget for Corman. It also came with a much longer film schedule, which allowed (one presumes) for reshoots for shots that didn’t work. The costuming here is quite good for a Corman production, and the sets might actually be described as “sumptuous.”

But the great sets and impressive costumes are just a small part of the sell here. What really sells this film is some of the most impressive scenery chewing of Vincent Price’s long and storied career. Prince Prospero is evil incarnate, and Price appears to absolutely revel in a role that allows him to be as evil as he can set his mind to being. And he is here—Prospero is cartoon villain evil, and he makes it work like few other actors could. For instance, when Prospero announces to Francesca who his master is, he intones a series of names by which Satan goes, and says them with such relish that it’s a joy to behold, and follows this with a wonderful act of cruelty that he enjoys just as much.

I also greatly appreciate the fact that Corman added most of the elements of the story “Hop-Frog” to this film. It’s a lesser-known Poe work, but one that I happen to like quite a bit. Like a lot of Poe, it’s disturbing, involves terrible revenge, and ends with a horrible death (in the original story, it was eight or nine horrible deaths). I love seeing it here, and seeing the skill with which Skip Martin handled this role makes me want to find other movies he appeared in.

This is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s far too extreme, far too weird, too garish, too Roger Corman-y to ever be considered as one of the greatest films ever made. But boy is it fun! There’s nothing like watching people getting their freaky-deak on, and this one brings it. I’m not in love with the last fifteen minutes, which play like bad musical theater in a way, but even this can’t stop this movie from being the kind of entertainment that made Svengoolie and similar late-night “scare” mavens so much damn fun.

Why to watch The Masque of the Red Death: Vincent Price at his evil, scenery-chewing best.
Why not to watch: The fact that it’s Roger Corman’s best doesn’t really say much.

4 comments:

  1. Corman's Poe adaptations will always hold a place in my heart because I can remember seeing them in theaters. Spending half a day watching these tales unfold in double bills, triple bills and even quadruple bills. My dad dropped my brother and I off at the theater, and came to pick us up about 8 hours later. Gosh, that was a blast. "Hop-Frog" has been a personal fav of mine for many years and congrats on recognizing it in this title.

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  2. I was physically a "late-bloomer." I was 5'2" as a freshman in high school and was about a year younger than most of my classmates to boot. "Hop-Frog" is about a little guy getting revenge on the big guys. How could I not love it?

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  3. It's almost got a Rocky Horror Picture show thing going on - but with less music and more death. Vincent Price is terrific in this film - which is wonderfully garish.

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  4. I found it evident that Price was really enjoying himself throughout this film. I'll take your word on the Rocky Horror connection. I freely admit I've never seen that film, and it's one I fear a little.

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