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‘Masque Of The Red Death’ Is Finding Renewed Relevance In 2020

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For the dozens-upon-dozens of productions that bear Roger Corman’s name, he remains (at least for me) the guy who made eight adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories in the course of one breathless five-year glut from 1960 to 1965. (Well, actually, seven; one of them, The Haunted Palace, just bore the title of a Poe poem while being based on a short by H.P. Lovecraft) Seven of these minor masterpieces starred the inimitable Vincent Price. Taken as a cycle, they reminded me as a child of the Hammer Horror films I’d just been getting into: stylish, kinky, lurid in a way not unlike the EC Comics that I’d coveted and, eventually, collected. They were arch moralizers that wallowed in the behavior of low men: Here’s what happened when you sinned; and here’s the sin in graphic, sweaty, gore-drenched detail. Lest one forget, the “E” in “EC” stood for “Educational.” Corman’s Poe films were exactly my speed and, as it happens, I’ve never quite grown out of them.

Take The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the seventh of the eight and if not necessarily the greatest of them (arguably the first, the moody smash The Fall of the House of Usher is the greatest of them), is at least the most prescient of them. It’s so wrathful in its scorn for the excesses of the bourgeoisie that it actually makes Satanists of the ruling class. Poe’s short story, from which the film gets its title, is a pastiche more than a narrative. In its very few pages, we meet mad prince Prospero (Price in the film) who, in the fifth month of a plague, locks his palace to his people and throws a series of wild bacchanals for his rich buddies in defiance of the Red Death ravaging his kingdom. If possible, the current plague sweeping through the White House is even stupider, driven as it is not by hubris (as many are saying) but by deep, belligerent stupidity.

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Prince Prospero believes the plague exists and locks out the afflicted: our Dear Leader has shown no such awareness. He’s a fool. Where the film gains its profundity is its portrayal of Prospero’s enablers: that gaggle of the larded, the sycophantic, the privileged who happily play the worm or the swine at Propero’s gentle urging. The worst of the bootlicks is wormtongue Alfredo (Patrick Magee, the originator of the Marquis de Sade character in “Marat/Sade”) who is as savage as he is perverse. It’s Alfredo who backhands sweet Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw), a little person in Prospero’s court who accidentally spills a glass of wine on Alfredo’s silk slippers. And it’s Alfredo upon whom Esmerelda’s companion Hop-Toad (Skip Martin) dresses as an ape and sets on fire to the delight and fleeting horror of Prospero’s party.

Yes, The Masque of the Red Death is also an adaptation of Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” one of the author’s revengers about a dwarf lighting a corpulent monarch and his cabinet on fire in a fit of righteous fury. The hero of the piece, however, although she’s forgotten for much of its climax, is peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher), taken by Prospero as prisoner to serve as plaything forced to choose between the lives of her father and revolutionary-minded lover. She shields her nakedness during a forced-bathing sequence, serves as our surrogate during a fright-house walk through Propero’s dungeons, and provides the picture its Ariadne traversing the labyrinth of the Minotaur. She is the prototype for the “final girl” archetype of the slashers that would proliferate just a few short years later, and her freshness in the face of Price in all his glory is provides tension that is effective still.

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THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, Jane Asher, 1964
Photo: Everett Collection

She earns the jealousy of Prospero’s consort Juliana (Hazel Court) who, after drinking a potion, is the projector of the film’s extended, color-filtered dream sequence full of vaguely sado-masochistic imagery and a disquieting Orientalism. I mention this because Prospero’s excesses have about them a Weimar-sense of decadence that include among its desperate distractions the fetishization of difference. The film, of all the things it satirizes, in this way suggests an awareness in 1964 of how the idylls of the rich are so often just the demonization of the things they fear the most: physical disability, immigrant cultures, poverty and unfettered female sexuality. It is the GOP platform in precis.

The director of photography for The Masque of the Red Death is legendary filmmaker Nicolas Roeg. You can see in his work here the seeds for scenes in — in particular, his The Man Who Fell to Earth and Performance — while the final reveal of a monster in red presages Roeg’s memorable, and memorably diminutive, phantom from Don’t Look Now. Roeg gives the film a color-saturated, drug-trip feel. Watch as a woman is killed by a falcon – the way the camera moves in sympathy with the slashes and in tension against her terror. It’s a superlative entertainment, in other words, as artful as it is incandescent in its fury.

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Both “Masque” and “Hop-Frog” are about Poe’s rage at a ruling class that is blithely, murderously oblivious to the suffering of their subjects, but the film, while carrying some of that indignation, is more outraged by the coterie of lampreys hanging both limply and tenaciously from the belly of their great white shark: dumb and hungry. When the plague comes for them as plagues do, it comes not at the biological imperative of an apex predator finding a host, but anthropomorphized as a line of robed, Bergmanian metaphors, seeking to level the playing field by planting even the aristocrat class beneath it. The Masque of the Red Death is about violent revolution, appearing just before our last summer of progressive feeling and fervent protest, and finding a second life now in the middle of our current one.

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is due in 2020. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.

Watch The Masque Of The Red Death on Shudder

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