Monday, October 30, 2017

13 Nights of Shocktober: Masque of the Red Death (1964)

by A. J.

This is my favorite time of year, second only to Christmas. Autumn has arrived, the weather is cooling down, and October becomes the month-long celebration of scary movies called Shocktober. There are a lot of horror movies out there, but as a genre, horror is still looked down upon by some mainstream critics and moviegoers. It doesn’t help that, admittedly, there are so few quality horror movies made but, like comedy, it’s a very difficult and subjective genre. So, in the days leading up Halloween I’ll be posting some recommendations for scary movies to help you celebrate Shocktober.

Night 12: Vincent Price Night
The Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
You never know what you’re going to get from a Roger Corman movie. He has produced an incredible number of movies of wildly varying degrees of quality. This includes the films he directed himself, such as this one. You may get absolute dreck (prime fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000), an enjoyable but campy B-movie, or you may get a genuinely good film. Masque of the Red Death falls into the third, and smallest, category.
Vincent Price stars as the villainous Prince Prospero, a tyrannical medieval lord that worships the devil. He is passing through a village when he is confronted by two of the angry and poor villagers. Prospero sentences them to death but Francesca (Jane Asher) begs for their lives because they are her father, Lodovico, and her lover, Gino. Prospero takes them all to his castle and orders the village burned to the ground when the plague known as the Red Death is discovered there.
Lavish, decadent parties are the order of the day at Prospero’s castle. At these gatherings Prospero humiliates his guests by commanding them to act like animals and even kills people without a second thought. While Francesca is taught etiquette by Prospero’s consort, Juliana, Gino and Lodovico are forced to train to fight each other to the death. Prospero gives Francesca a tour of his palace and its different colored rooms. One room is solid yellow, another is solid purple, another white, and so on. Everything in each room is the same shade of color making the rooms look unnatural and surreal. The colors of the sets and costumes are rich and bold and easily capture the eye. The sets look artificial but this only adds to the surreal, gothic atmosphere of the film.
Vincent Price is excellent as the evil Prince Prospero. He plays his villains as characters that know they are bad and enjoy being bad, or he plays them as sympathetic, tragic figures forced to do villainous deeds. Prince Prospero is firmly in the former group. Price is the rare kind of actor that always knows exactly what kind of film he is in and attunes his performance accordingly. Because Price allows himself to have fun with his performance it allows the audience to enjoy the villain and the film completely. 
Masque of the Red Death is based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, and also has a subplot based on Hop-Frog. It also includes references to other Poe stories like The Raven and The Pit and the Pendulum. The screenplay was co-written by Charles Beaumont, who also wrote many of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. As you might imagine, the film greatly expands upon Poe’s short story but the chilling touch of Poe is never lost. This is one of several films based on Poe stories that Roger Corman and Vincent Price made together and it is widely acknowledged as one of, if not the, best.