The Masque of the Red Death – 1964 – dir. Roger Corman
Before he was crowned the all-time campy Master of horror schlock, the incomparable Vincent Price had already carved out for himself a distinguished career in Hollywood that would have been the envy of any actor of his time. Such film classics as Laura, The House of the Seven Gables, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Ten Commandments, Leave Her to Heaven and many more were graced with his formidable skill and presence.
Director Roger Corman, christened “the King of the Bs” due to the slew of low-budget, some might even say ‘corny’ movies he cranked out beginning in the 1950s, mans The Masque of the Red Death with as sure a hand as he brought to all his projects, creating springboards for such stellar artists-to-be as Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, and turning out what has become a body of films many of which are today considered true masterpieces of the genre.
Based upon the Edgar Allan Poe tale, Masque of the Red Death tells the story of Prince Prospero (Price) who, when a great plague descends upon his village, allows a select few of the villagers to take refuge inside his castle where, after a while, they begin to wonder if they wouldn’t have had a better chance against the plague, so relentlessly does Price subject them all to humiliation, terror and death.
Make no mistake about it; Masque is pure and deliberate camp, as were other famous Price vehicles like Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, The Wax Museum, Tale of Terror, Scream and Scream Again. These movies hold up today due to the glue of expert acting and directing Price and Corman applied to them and due, in great part also to the timeless quality of camp which, if done well, raises a film out of any particular decade or era and freezes it in its own Universe. This is why and how good, deliberate camp works; in refusing to take its characters and storyline too seriously, it adds another layer to the cake of movie-making so that years and years later, more than crumbs remain. Price knew this; in interviews he says, “I knew I wasn’t playing “Hamlet”, but Ham, slightly overdone.”
It is easy for some critics to dismiss the fluorescent, runny colors of the movie (courtesy of Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography) as “excess”; easy to poke fun at the hokey nature of the dialogue, the cheaply-made (to save money) sets. Why then, if so silly, do these movies still have the power to scare us, 40 years later, and scare us they do! Because, dear fellow movie lovers, the acting is nothing short of superb. Price is a miracle of skill — his Snidely Whiplash sneer, the arched eyebrows, his blearing eyes filled with deceit, or schemes, or real sorrow. He also cut quite a dashing figure in period medieval costumes, the caps and turbans and sabers, and seems perfectly at home playing characters from another time and place, making them real.
In private life, Price (like his equally creepy colleague, Boris Karloff) was nothing like the ghouls he played on screen but rather a gentleman of refinement, culture and taste, an art collector and gourmet cook; further proof of his acting acumen when called upon to play the villain.
Villain supreme he is in Masque. He and Corman have stirred up a hot cauldron of thrills and chills to scare you good in this 2009 Hallowe’en season. Boo!!