Thursday, August 2, 2012

Masque of the Red Death

Vincent Price was one of history's greatest humans. Naturally, one thinks first of the breadth and depth of his acting career, which spanned high-end costume drama (Elizabeth and Essex, Song of Bernadette), noir glamour (Laura, His Kind of Woman), sci-fi paranoia (The Fly, The Last Man on Earth) and horror from the literary (The Fall of the House of Usher) to the historical (Witchfinder General) to the schlocky (The Tingler) to the psychedelic (The Abominable Dr. Phibes). He was also a Yale graduate, accomplished chef and gourmand (he wrote cookbooks and hosted a cooking show) and was universally beloved by everyone who knew him. Literally: In all of the vast and extensive reading i have done about Hollywood and it's denizens, i have yet to find a single unkind word about Vincent Price. Hell, i have yet to find anything but glowing praise for the man. It's hard to choose a favorite Vincent Price horror film, but Theatre of Blood and Masque of the Red Death are ones i tend to come back to repeatedly.
Part of the Poe series Price did with Roger Corman, Masque of the Red Death is an easy story to film because it's highly descriptive and has a clear, simple narrative. It's also hard to film because there's only one real character and basically only one thing happens. And so our story gets a bit fluffed up with subplots, extra characters, prologues and epilogues.
So, death in a red hooded robe -- so as to distinguish Corman's Death from Bergman's Death -- scares an old lady. Then Vincent Price in a gold lame tunic and velvet pimp hat rolls up on the peasants, bitch-slaps Paul McCartney's girlfriend and burns down Peasantville. Da Villain's in da house, y'all! Yeah, sure he's burning it "because of the plague," but you get the feeling he had the torches ready even before grandma perished of boils, pustules and full-body bleeding.
Then it's back to Price's palace -- he's planning a big party for all of the nobility, which has now turned into some kind of plague bunker house party. He figures McCartney's Trim will be good for some kind of entertainment and totes along some extra leverage in the form of Trim's father and boyfriend. (Not Paul -- the saucer-eyed, wide-nostriled ingenue of this gig is played by Jane Asher, who was Paul McCartney's girlfriend at the time so, alas, Paul will not be getting stuck in a dungeon or threatened with execution.)
After Trim gets the peasant filth scrubbed off in a glorious gilded swan tub worthy of Catherine the Great or Lola Montez, it's down to the party, which is in full swing. Vincent Price greets a roomful of swingers clad in their best RenFest rainment. Price has hired up a pair of little people to amuse his guests -- and if you're at all familiar with Poe's work, you'll begin recalling "Hop Frog." One of the nobles leches out hardcore on midget lady (and yes, midget lady is extra creepy because she's played by a child with a dubbed adult voice). Price struts around sipping from his pimp cup, being snide and snarky, eventually getting all of the nobles to pretends to be pigs, worms, jackasses, etc. Somehow I cannot help but think that this is what a weekend at Kanye's is like.
And so we fall into the doldrums of the film, the part where the plot gets padded out. McCartney's Trim and Vincent Price debate the existence of God (she's pro, he's con) over and over again. Although he does give her a nice tour of his castle, like any proud host -- yellow room, red room, blue room, white room, etc. Even more time is wasted on McCartney's Trim wandering around the castle at night looking surprised. Vincent Price's ladyfriend, feeling slighted by his interest in McCartney's Trim, begins invoking Satan's help, which seems to take the form of a Kenneth Anger-inspired gang bang by a bunch of Aztecs, Egyptians, Druids and what I think are Navajo showgirls. Yeah, the castle is full of Satanists who are probably doing wild, crazy, fun stuff right now and we waste most of our time watching some bimbo looking for the bathroom. We do get a trippy dream sequence, but even that is more slow-motion blue swirl than exploding crimson hellfire.

So, it's finally time for the masked ball, or Vincent Price's Super Sweet Sixteen. Everyone is in costume: witches, Vikings, owls, Orcs, apes, McCartney's Trim in some kind of Bollywood drag and Vincent Price is dressed up as Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. He has some more peasants killed as a throwaway opening act, the ape gets set on fire. At the climax of the festivities, a red-robed figure appears and guess who it is!
"Where is your God now?" asks Vincent Price, more than once. Where indeed? We hear a lot about God and Satan in this film, but the only power that actually appears or has any impact on anyone or anything is death, red bathrobe and all. Which is pretty much the way it really is anyway. At the end, the Red Death returns to the countryside, where he meets up with Black Death. Then all of the other colors of death show up. I figure the yellow one is yellow fever, but what about the orange one? Is the Blue one supposed to be depression? Did the Pink Death of breast cancer show up late and what color is liver failure?

So, in the cons column, we have a padded-out plot that leads us to linger too long on weak characters (Cough... McCartney's Trim, cough cough....) For the pros, we have eerie atmosphere, stylish cinematography (by Nicholas Roeg) some interesting design -- the use of color is especially well thought-out -- and a stellar performance by Vincent Price. Prince Prospero is supposed to be a sympathetic villain, a wicked man with a soft heart, alternately pardoning and executing -- the sort of character that would be maddening and ridiculous if played by anyone but Vincent Price. The Masque of the Red Death is a nice watch on a spooky night -- just make sure you get the Price version, not the Frank Stallone one.

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