Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Masque of the Red Death

When a terrifying plague known as "the Red Death" sweeps the countryside, the sinister Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) holes up in his extravagant castle. There, he throws a decadent party for surviving royalty, where murder, torture and Satanism are the main attractions.

"The Masque of the Red Death" is easily one of my favorite Poe stories, but one of the reasons I love it is because of how it seems like it could only work as prose, and not in another medium. It is short, light on plot and characterizations, and is the closest I've ever come to reading a horror story that is 100% atmosphere. It's not one of Poe's clever mysteries or elegant revenge tales, it's closer to a canorous but unsettling tone poem. Suffice it to say I was highly skeptical how well it would translate to film.

I'm happy to report that this was not only my favorite movie I watched for Time to Pay the Price, but also one of Price's best films, not to mention hands down the best Roger Corman film I've seen. And hell, while I'm at it, quite possibly the best Poe adaptation I've seen, even if it's not a very faithful one.

It's not an accurate representation of the original story, but so what? It takes some serious inspiration from the original story and spins it out into its own thing. At first I was disappointed by this, as the film didn't seem to understand what was great about the story. In particular, the castle, though faithful to the original description, stuck me as too bright and joyful, lacking the the subterranean menace of the story. No bother, it uses some of Poe's ideas to make a film of rich suspense and baroque horror, one that's probably the strangest film I've seen by Corman (with the possible exception of X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes).

As mentioned before, the Poe short story does not have enough plot for a feature film, so this tells the story of a demented Satanist who likes to play vicious games with his subjects in order to tests the limits of their morality. It also incorporates the excellent Poe story "Hop Frog" as a subplot. Price is heartless, but not a charlatan like in Witchfinder General, and this may be the first time I found him genuinely intimidating and scary. There are sequences of real suspense, such as a scene where Price forces two men to cut themselves with a series of knives selected at random, until one of them picks the blade that has been soaked with poison.

Best of all, though, is the lavish weirdness slathered all over the movie. Much of it is set at a strange and colorful masquerade. There are many unexpected sequences, such as a brutal murder by a bird of prey. And the physical incarnation of the Red Death, who periodically shows up, is a suitably ominous and mysterious figure. The final revelation of the nature of the Red Death and the bizarre dance of the dead that follows is the kind of delicious, satisfying absurdity that modern horror movies wouldn't even bother going for, for fear that people would find it corny. Nay, I say to that. This movie is awesome.

Grade:B +

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