Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Roundup, Instant Play Edition #3: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

What's the story? That with his Poe films Corman went from a one- to two-week shooting schedule and suddenly felt like an auteur? How true does that have to be for The Masque of the Red Death to hold our attention? Poe certainly inspired Corman to ease up a bit on his mad huckster's pace, to give Vincent Price the opportunity to re-invent himself as the first straight-faced camp actor, to drench the screen in color with House of Usher four years before Mario Bava saw the palette possibilities of Blood and Black Lace.

And mentioning Bava and The Masque of the Red Death in the same breath is fitting: Both Blood and Black Lace and Corman's picture were released in the same year, 1964, at the the cusp of a shift in American movies, a lurid path leading to Bonnie and Clyde and George Romero and the MPAA ratings. And both find enclosed worlds--couture for Bava, Prospero's multi-colored palace for Corman--to indulge their unsavory cravings in relative privacy. Most of all, the two films play at Ten Little Indians-style elimination rounds, relishing each new demise, snickering at the losers--maybe Masque more than Blood and Black Lace, thanks to Price's Prospero, who takes stage center, no mystery here as to whodunit, the culprit bowing and smug.

By the time the Red Death shows up, each bright and ugly room taking its turn, the last of the guests swept out of the way, Masque can moralize all it likes: It's already had its fun, and given us permission to giggle and grimace our way through the most flamboyant Halloween ball this side of Castro Street. Maybe it's that mustache, but Price certainly seems ready to play for whatever team will have him--until it's too late for games as the morality of melodrama catches up with him.


  1. I'm glad you mentioned the Bava/Corman connection. I had similar thoughts just last night while watching THE PREMATURE BURIAL, with its no-budget atmosphere and dreamlike aura spun from the most threadbare of trappings (namely, fog and prop trees). Both men were able to make very little go a long way.

  2. Even in B&W, Frank B, Bava got it done: "Planet of the Vampires" is the gold standard for this (available on disc from Netflix). When I was 12 or so, I think I saw it on TV--or did I dream it? Well, there you go!

  3. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES is one strange dream, all right -- but so is your childhood memory of monochrome, because the film is in glorious, freaky Bavacolor:

  4. Hmmm ... so it is. You may be right about "childhood memory": for years all I knew of the film was a few words and a single, haunting (B&W!) still in "An Illustrated History of the Horror Film" by the irreplaceable Carlos Clarens.

  5. It's worth watching again, if only for its influence. Let's just say there's no way in hell Dan O' Bannon and/or Ridley Scott haven't seen it.

    As a kid, I saw a clip of those dead spacemen tearing their way our of their plastic shrouds, and I never forgot it. Dig those leather spacesuits, too. Only the Italians!