Sunday, October 23, 2011

Get To Know A Horror Classic: Masque Of The Red Death

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Starring: Vincent Price, no one else of consequence

Director: Roger Corman

Before last night I'd never watched a Vincent Price movie (I'm assuming Edward Scissorhands doesn't really count) nor had I ever seen a Roger Corman movie. So, I figured what better way to start off than with a movie from both men, an adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death."

In Poe's version, the hedonistic Prince Prospero holes himself and one thousand of his courtesans in his palace to ride out the Red Plague, a disease that, over the course of about 30 minutes, kills its victim and leaves their face a deep, blood red (hence the name). Anyone familiar with Poe's work can probably guess that the plan doesn't go particularly as planned.

I was a little apprehensive about how Corman's take would stand up to the original story. I'd heard that Corman's modus operendi is to shoot a movie as quickly and as cheaply as possible, so my hopes weren't too high that I'd be in store for anything more than a campy laugh. And the trailer doesn't do much to quell those fears.

On one hand, I wasn't surprised to find that Corman takes quite a few liberties with the script. While Poe's version of the story is very single-minded in telling the story of Prospero's party and the lead up to the court's inevitable destruction at the hands of the Red Death, Corman's version pads the tale by creating an antihero out of Prince Prospero, a Satan worshipper, peasant-torturer, and all around prick. Corman also adds a hero in Gino, the young peasant trying to rescue Francesca, another peasant kidnapped by Prospero. Oh, and for some reason there is a dwarf named Hop Toad who has a completely separate subplot going on with Alfredo, a less-powerful but no less douchey member of Prospero's court who slaps Hop Toad's lady friend around just to prove how douchey he is.

On the other hand, I think Corman was very faithful and effective in producing the same sense of unease the Poe creates in the original story. Poe always preached the need to produce a singular effect in a lot of his work, but I always thought a lot of his work was too busy trying to sound smart to truly create its intended effect. "Masque," however, is perfect because it is succinct, with every word adding only to the effect of giving the reader a a sense of impending doom.

Even with all of it's added subplot, Corman's version accomplishes the same effect. For every atrocity that Prospero commits or every selfish excess played out by members of his court, you know their all getting closer and closer to much-needed retribution. The main difference in the movie is that the audience is likely cheering on said retribution a bit more than they would be in Poe's version. Especially in the case of that douche Alfredo.

One area that did disappoint me was how Corman handles the seven colored rooms in Prospero's palace. In the short story, Poe describes seven rooms, each one designated with a color: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black. Unlike the other rooms that had windows colored in accordance with the rooms's tint, the window's in the black room were colored crimson red (I wonder what the symbology is there?). I always pictured these rooms as large, almost sublime works of architecture that overwhelm you at first glance But I think Corman's shoestring budget really hurts him in depicting these rooms.

For one thing, there are only four rooms. Green, orange, and violet get the shaft entirely. And the rooms that are depicted are small, half-assed versions of what Poe describes in his story. I'm guessing a few stage hands just took a morning to spray paint 4 stock rooms one color and called it a day. This may not have been as big a deal if not for the fact that the rooms are part of what creates that sense of impending doom.

Cheap sets aside, I was actually pleasantly surprised by Corman's version of Masque. It had a little bit too much melodrama to really ever scare me out of my seat, it did effectively give me the creeps by going down some roads that were darker than I figured a Vincent Price vehicle would be willing to go. It's a good watch for the halloween season, and a great companion piece to Poe's original.

Oh, and because I can't think of Vincent Price without thinking of his "guest spot" on the Simpsons, here it is!


  1. I love Poe and Vincent Price but the two of them didn't always work well together! The Pit and the Pendulum is another one I remember.

    Anyway, on this one I think the costume budget meant that they had to skimp on everything else.

    What's your favorite Vincent Price movie? Hard to say but House on Haunted Hill and The Abominable Dr. Phibes have to be up there. Plus the original of The Fly. I'm going to have to do a VP marathon to figure it out!

  2. As far as the rooms it was a tight budget and there wasn't a sale on paint anywhere. The trailer was a campy hoot!

    Without a doubt The Fly is my favorite!

  3. Tom...Sadly this is actually the very first VP movie I've seen so I'll have to watch a few more to get a basis of comparison. I'm looking forward to giving House on Haunted Hill a try.

    Anonymous...I'm worried that after seeing the David Cronenburg version of The Fly, VP's will seem a bit tame.

  4. Have a look at report back! It actually is probably a good study in how "horror" changes over the years. The original Fly is black and white and the basic plot is quite different. And there's no sex.

  5. To be honest I've never seen the remake, but you have to watch The Fly realizing the time it was made. For that time it was a really good movie.