Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death - 1964

"The Masque of the Red Death" - 1964
Dir. by Roger Corman - 1 hr. 29 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Masque of the Red Death" is one of eight movies that Roger Corman directed based on Edgar Allan Poe's stories over a span of five years in the early sixties.  This, and all but one other, starred Vincent Price.  I know that Corman has a reputation for being something of a low-budget king, but you might not know that from watching this film.

Being based on Poe's work, you know the story is going to be somewhat macabre.  It's set in the 12th century, in the middle of an outbreak of a plague called the red death.  Vincent Price plays Prince Prospero, a satanist with a giant castle, in which the fortunate are allowed to stay for their own protection against the plague.  Their only form of amusement are debauched balls, where pretty much anything goes (being shot in the early 60's, the sexual content is largely implied, although heaving bosoms and dancing ladies are plentiful).  Prospero is transported through a village where an old lady has died from the red death.  One of the villagers mouths off to Prospero, the result is that he, his wife, and her father are taken to the castle for Prospero's amusement while the village is burned to the ground.  The men are locked in the dungeon, and are to be pitted against each other in battle; Francesca (Jane Asher) becomes something of an obsession for Prospero, he wants to corrupt her from her devout Christian ways.

Francesca is cleaned up and introduced at one of the balls, where Prospero humiliates his minions by demanding each one conducts themselves as animals (which doesn't actually humiliate the revelers - the implication being that they've traded their dignity for their safety inside the castle).  Prospero demands that Juliana (Hazel Court) show Francesca the ropes, she does the bare minimum.  Juliana has other things on her mind, deciding to betroth herself to Satan, something that she'd been reluctant to do before the younger Francesca showed up and clearly caught Propsero's eye.

There's a fair degree of camp to this story; it's clearly the product of another era of film-making.  Actors talk with that bizarre actorly affectation, and carry themselves similarly.  But while the acting has a high level of artifice, the setting is ornate and lush.  The inside of the castle and the costumes are fantastic, and the entire setting seems like it's from an entirely different world.  In a movie now, any crowd scene would include a bunch of dressed-down schlubs, that's simply not the case here.  Honestly, much of what made this movie enjoyable was a peek into a different era.  The super-widescreen shots taking in the scenario, used instead of close-up camera work (seriously, I think I've seen up every modern actor's nose into their skulls at some point), great use of the setting, themed stage costumes.  It's a product from when movies were supposed to grand, even if they were about a satanic prince trying to seduce a Christian to the dark side.

Even more fun: listening to Vincent Price deliver lines like, "The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness."  That alone makes me curious about checking out some of the other Poe films that Corman and Price did together.  There were a couple of somewhat literary visual things that are worth noting, as well.  Red Death was actually a character in the movie, a man cloaked in red.  At the end of the film, he re-united with his brothers, other color-themed plagues.  That, and the series of color-themed rooms inside the castle that ended in a black and red room housing a Satanic altar were touches that feel literary and look fantastic.

I found "The Masque of the Red Death" to be pretty enjoyable, not entirely because of the plot.  If you're accustomed to current films, this is going to feel like aliens dropped this thing off without any explanation.  It's literally contrary to every current film-making trend, from the lush colors (as opposed to the de-saturated look common now) to making the most out of one setting, an admittedly awesome castle.  So even if you're not into the somewhat simplistic plot, you can kick back and enjoy the visual treat in front of you.

3 / 5 - Streaming

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