By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Vincent Price, Jane Asher, Hazel Court
Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell, Edgar Allan Poe
Produced by Alta Vista Productions
That’s right, you read that right. Roger Corman’s 1964 Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price is the feel-good comedy of 2020, and not just for people who are tired of seeing Cov-idiots not taking the pandemic seriously enough. No, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is actually an anti-nihilistic fable about the value of belief, the triumph of good over evil, and the triumph of the common good over the cruel. It’s also corny as hell, but what else could you possibly expect?
Let me address the elephant in the room first: this is not the Poe story you read in high school. No, in Corman’s film, Prospero (Vincent Price) is not just a cruel nobleman who parties in isolation while the commoners surrounding him are picked off by a disease; he is an agent of Satan himself, his sole devotee who seeks to corrupt and sacrifice those around him for no other reason than sheer, nihilistic joy. Moral relativism is his code, the lives of his fellow men meaning nothing to him; and while he is able to assume a veneer of politeness while attempting to persuade others to accept his way of thinking, he is also capable of unique cruelty, commanding his guests to act like animals and shooting a man he calls his friend before telling the man’s wife to kill herself. Yet he promises his supporters that they will be immune to the red death, unless they displease him; all the while, he is aware that they will not survive and is actually preparing them as a sacrifice en masse to his Lord, in exchange for Satan’s favor and a guarantee of his safety. The characters who make up “the resistance,” Gino (David Weston) and Francesca (Jane Asher), refuse to bow to Prospero even when he takes them under his wing to be used as playthings; he intends to corrupt both of them and is unsuccessful, as both hold to their idealism and their faith respectively and are spared by the red death.
“I was expecting MASQUE to be a serious, sober minded take on class warfare and the inevitability of death, and that’s my own fucking fault.”
Here’s the thing: for once, I kind of wish they’d left Satan out of it. Every time I heard Prospero monologue about how much he loved Satan, I busted out laughing. It’s also kind of rudimentary, equating the kind of evil Prospero represents (cynicism, amorality, nihilism) with the devil, especially when Francesca (who appears to survive out of sheer naivete) can’t argue effectively with him. Gino had a much better character arc, begging his fellow villagers not to ask Prospero for mercy, refusing to bow to Prospero even when offered mercy, and standing by while the red death did its thing. On the plus side, the surreal visuals were astounding, especially considering the time period: the climax of the film, where Price gets caught up in his supporters’ dance of death, is visually breathtaking even now, strange and appropriately menacing. Corman also took full advantage of the unique visuals from the story, recreating the many-colored chambers, Prospero’s ostentatious castle and costumes, and the opulent debauchery of the ball; all serving to make the cold nights the commoners experience even colder, and the darkness of Prospero’s final chamber ever more ominous. There’s also a curious dream sequence where Juliana (Hazel Court) gets married to Satan by getting beaten and sliced by various caricature-esque figures from history. I haven’t the slightest idea what that might mean (or if it’s vaguely problematic), but it remains unique and impressive for the time. Speaking of problematic, (and I have to point this out) Hop-Toad’s character arc seems a little off and, well, needless? I’m talking about the part where Price’s asshole compatriot puts on a monkey suit and pins a woman down on the ground, groping her, while Hop-Toad whips him and calls himself an “African animal tamer.” Hmmm. HMMMMM. Yeah, there are things about this film that probably haven’t aged too well.
So, did I enjoy MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH? The answer is yes and no. Vincent Price is always a pleasure to watch, but I felt like I could have done without his character’s transformation in this film into a younger Papa Emeritus One, and I found it difficult to care much about many of the other characters. I also went into this film looking for a dark, slightly more self-serious film about class warfare and the eventual downfall of the upper class, which was my own fucking fault. Truthfully, I think this film can be a lot of fun despite its problems (looking at you, Hop Toad); and even though I didn’t much like Gino and Francesca or the film’s extra-cheesy take on Satanic horror, the film’s message of “hold on to hope, the bad guys will get what’s coming to them if you just hold on,” (while maybe a touch over simple) is certainly one I can appreciate in these times of turmoil.
If you’re looking for campy pandemic fun with damsels in distress and a couple of good Hail Satans, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH might be just the film for you. I’m giving it a 7. And look, Corman’s adaptation might not have been exactly what I hoped for, but it’s still solid in it’s own right; that, and you readers know that I have a special place in my heart for Satanic horror. I imagine MASQUE will grow on me in time.
Till then, I guess don’t stop believing?