10/26/11

The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It #6 - The Masque of Red Death (1964)

There's something magical about putting together Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Price. It's like peanut butter and jelly, Scotch and Soda, or the Captain and Tennille, two great tastes that taste great together. Pairing them is a debt horror fans owe to director Roger Corman and the fine people over at American International Pictures. Tonight's selection on The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It was Corman and Price's sixth venture into the macabre world of Poe, and many say it is the high point of their collaborations. Both star and director were at the height of their powers. and with the lavishly appointed sets and powerhouse co-stars, you have to wonder if it's really the work of ....oh, I dunno....Satan! Coming in at #6, all the flaming apes, single toned rooms, and Vincent Price extolling the virtues of the "Lord of Lies" in The Masque of Red Death (1964).

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) was an evil man before the Red Death started ravaging the village nestled in the shadow of his castle. When he uncovers the plague's existence, he gathers all his nobles within the castle walls where he promises to keep them safe and secure until the disease runs its course. He kidnaps Francesca (Jane Asher), a girl as pious in her Christianity as Prospero is in his Satanism, with the intent to break her will and bring her into his evil fold. Exposing the girl to the decadence of rich, their cruelty and torment of each other, the Prince begins to weaken her resolve. Little does he know that the coup-de-gras he has planned for his guests, a Masquerade, will also welcome an unwanted appearance by death. As this unfolds, a subplot follows Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and his love for dwarfish dancer Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw). Offended by Alfredo (Patrick Mcgee) striking Esmeralda, Hop Toad lures the noble into a deadly game.

The Masque of Red Death is a pastiche of two of Poe's stories, "The Masque of Red Death" and "Hop Frog". Reading "The Masque", it is quickly obvious that there is no misguided love story or red hooded figure dispensing warnings to villagers. Instead it is almost entirely about mood and tone. Poe sinks the reader into Prospero's opulent world devoid of compassion or pity, and, leaving the moral to the reader, he then kills off the Prince and his party. The 1842 story runs barely five pages in my well loved Poe collection, and it's something of a credit to screenwriters Charles Beaumont ("The Twilight Zone", Brain Dead, The Intruder) and R. Wright Campbell (Man of a Thousand Faces, Alice in La La Land) they so adeptly fleshed out the tale. One of the tools they used was to include "Hop Frog" as a subplot. Condensed from the story's seven victims to just one, the tale of a mean spirited joker getting what he deserves plays perfectly against the backdrop of the decadent excesses of heartless Satanists.

Much of the credit for the film's success has to be given over to Corman and Price. Roger Corman is thought of as something of a hack, but looking at the lush color palette and the lavish sets (borrowed from the filming of Beckett), it has all the visual brilliance of Blood and Black Lace or Susperia. Corman knew how to get the right people for the job, and the film's look wasn't hindered by cinematographer and future film director Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth). Corman also got some great performances out of his cast. Price is at his menacing best as the lecherous Satanist. He's so delightfully slimy that he practically oozes around the screen. Jane Asher (who was Paul McCartney's gal pal at the time and brought the then unknown (to Roger Corman) Beatle to the set) is the picture of loveliness, and her  decent into nihilistic numbness is well played and believable. The lovely Hazel Court appears as a would-be bride of Satan, but her plotline is disposable and the only part of the film that felt like padding. Skip Martin clearly has a good time playing the role of the vengeful dwarf, but it was Clockwork Orange's Patrick Mcgee who shines in their scenes. While Prospero seems the noble, refined devil worshiper, Mcgee's Alfredo seems only a hair away from being a snarling beast.

Much has been made of the meaning of Poe's story, though it seems fairly obvious to me. The rich can't hide from the problems of the poor forever. Someday, no matter how protected they feel, if nothing is done to change economic and social divisions, it will become their undoing. (Perhaps this should be the official horror selection of the "Occupy" movement.) It's interesting the screenwriters chose to cast Prospero as a Satanist because his self centered hedonistic worldview would be one shared by Anton LeVay in the Satanic Bible released five years after The Masque of Red Death. The story of "Hop Toad" also melds well with Prospero's fall. In the film, both Alfredo and Prospero are men undone by their cruelty and hubris and receive just rewards for their worship of the Lord of Lies.

That brings us to the end of another installment of The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It. I had a great time talking about The Masque of Red Death, but tomorrow we get down to the real nitty gritty as the Top 5 films begin to be revealed. Halloween is less than a week away, better go out and get some candy just in case the devil comes knocking on your door.

Stick around after the trailer for the next reader submitted list, this time from the Empress of Paracinema, Christine Makepeace!

Bugg Rating



If you're not reading Paracinema Magazine and you're a fan of The Lightning Bug's Lair, then somewhere along the way the Devil has lead you astray. Get yourself back on the straight and narrow and order a copy today, but until then check out these choices the Mistress of the Paracinemist (which is similar to firmament, but more suspenseful), Christine Makepeace. 

Devils and demons... That's a pretty big umbrella, and many varied things can fall under it. I had this super creative idea to like, make a list of my favorite minions. What fun is that though? I want to talk about the big guy himself! So here are my top 5 favorite films showcasing the dude below.

Legend - Arguably the best depiction of The Devil ever placed on film.

The Devil's Advocate - Al Pacino is a wild-eyed papa Devil. This is the film that made me start to question my Pacino allegiance. I can't deny the entertainment value it provides. (Editor's Note: This)

The Omen - The Devil is a sweet wittle boy! Yes, please!

Rosemary's Baby - The Devil (it wasn't just some lowly demon, right?) rapes Mia Farrow. That pretty much says it all.

Prince of Darkness - It's not a list without some Carpenter. Here, The Devil is a liquid. Yea. That's awesome. I like my Devil to be versatile.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent review! I just watched this a few nights ago and felt exactly the same. It was SO much better than I expected it to be, it being a Roger Corman film. Gorgeous colors and an excellent story.

    And the lovely Christine just made me realize I really should give Prince of Darkness another chance...

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  2. Loooove MASQUE, have always felt the story was an amazing and compact tale that created lush, vivid imagery and an unsettling dread without wasting a moment of time. I'm a huge fan of the colored rooms gimmick, and I always like the idea of nobles from across the countryside hurrying up and sacrificing any moral decency they have to seek protection behind Prospero's doomed walls. The movie translates it all in a fun way... Only thing is, I always thought all the other colored "death" figures at the end were kinda fuckin' silly.

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  3. Masque of the Red Death is the best of the Corman-Price-Poe films. I don't think much of Corman as a director—he's a better businessman than a creative type, and was better at picking the creative people around him—but this is definitely the finest work he did. The European filming location really shows; this is very close to being a Hammer film in its look.

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  4. I really do love this movie. It's one of my favorites.

    You can certainly draw parallels between Prince Prospero's antics and the political sideshow of today. Hell, when you think about it, this is possibly even more relevant today than it was back then! I also think that the Court scenes are important, at least when it comes to contributing to the overall mood of the piece (plus it's nice to get a taste of what ultimately awaits Prospero and most of his guests).

    Anyway, great review for a great film!

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