I’m sorry, everybody. Octoberween’s still weeks away, but I just can’t wait. I’m totally psyched out for Halloween this year, even though I have nothing going on and won’t be doing anything at all except sitting at home with my obscenely large LaserDisc collection. The air has cooled down, the leaves are dying, the sky is grey; we’re getting there. Besides. Vincent Price is an always food.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The Plot: Everything is fine and dandy in the happy little medieval village of—ah wait, crap. Nothing’s fine or dandy: it’s a medieval village. Things get even worse when a mountain-dwelling holy man foretells the villagers’ deliverance from evil. The deliverance? The terrifyingly unpleasant Red Death plague. The evil? The Satanic Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) who reigns over them. With the Red Death tearing up the countryside, Prospero invites all the nobles to his castle for refuge, zany parties, and possibly a mass sacrifice to Lucifer, but he’ll never tell. BEHOLD THE DEVIL IN ALL HIS GLORY:
Roger Corman directs Vincent Price in an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of terror. Interested parties might also consider The Haunted Palace, which is really a Lovecraft adaptation passed off as a Poe, but hey, it was the ‘60s. People got up to all sorts of crazy stuff. Like planning a mass sacrifice to Satan. Price’s performance as the evil prince is spot-on. He absolutely nails the menace, the charisma, the devotion, and of course the ham. He takes that ham out. Is this his hokiest role? Good Lord, no. This isn’t The Abominable Dr. Phibes or Much Ado About Murder, an unparalleled masterpiece that everyone should see. Nah, the nice thing about Masque, and about Haunted Palace, for that matter, is that despite the brutally melodramatic screenplay, he takes his job seriously. Why does he perform with such conviction and fortitude? Because he loves Poe. Huge fan. He actually edited and wrote the introduction to the copy of Poe’s short fiction that I have.
What’s weird about this is that he ends up, despite being pretty hammy, delivering some considerable performances. In The Haunted Palace he plays two subtly different characters, and does a fabulous job switching back and forth between them, demonstrating the differences in body language, inflection, posture, and the like. Well, here he takes that same gravitas and embodies a legitimately scary Satanic royal. Prospero is as devoted to the Devil as Price is to his craft. He clearly channels that. He knows what it’s like to A) Love something that scares other people, and B) Love something that other people don’t respect. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel like Corman and Price are bringing about a horrific vengeance on the decadent Hollywood starlets who so readily poo-poo the horror genre.
Of course, I can’t give a solid review of this film without mentioning another pleasant surprise: an actually good performance from a secondary character. Wha? The film features a subplot about a dwarf named Hop Toad (Skip Martin), scheming his escape from Prospero’s servitude. His plan requires a great deal of devilish conniving, some stellar Iago/Richard III moments, and some touching instances of humanist compassion for his fellow captives. Of course, he later hangs someone and then burns them alive, but hey, who hasn’t? Who are we to judge?
The set design sports a magnificent mid-‘60s Gothic with a sort of faux-medievalist costuming to back it up. Corman sticks to his own seven-minute rule (that is, something scary needs to happen every seven minutes), so the film is packed with either horrific images or little jump-frights intended to keep the audience gasping. The effect is ultimately lost in the folds of Vincent Price’s captivating magnetism, which is barely a fault. The fact of the matter remains that by now, none of it would have been scary anyway.
In the end, they wind up doing some reasonable justice to Poe’s source material. I have no idea how much influence Price had on the production, but regardless, amid the Satanism and corny romances, there’s a fine adaptation of a magnificent short story. They honor Poe’s themes of the inevitability of death, and it’s cruel, apathetic, amoral, indiscriminant nature. In the end, it finds everyone, and there’s no making deals to get out of it. Classic Poe. Did anyone rock morbidity quite the way he did? I think this Octoberween I shall revisit Poe and his wonderfully macabre sensibilities. Fortunately for me, there are many more Vincent Price movies based on his work for me to watch… and I own quite a few of them on LaserDisc.