Movie of the Month: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

masque
Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made James & Britnee watch The Masque of the Red Death (1964).

Brandon:
The Masque of The Red Death is one of eight films in the Corman-Poe cycle: a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by B-movie legend Roger Corman for American International Pictures. The Masque is widely considered the best of the Poe cycle as well as one of Corman’s best films overall, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. There’s so much about The Masque that’s firmly in my wheelhouse: over-the-top set design, an early glimpse of 60’s era Satanic psychedelia, Vincent Price taking effete delight in his own cruelty, a fatalistic ending that doesn’t stray from the pessimism of Poe’s story, Corman pushing the limits of what he can get away with visually on a shoestring budget. I love it all.

What struck me most on this recent viewing of The Masque is how well it’s suited for the Carnival season. With Fat Tuesday looming around the corner, it was impossible not to see aspects of Carnival in the masquerade ball hosted by Prince Prospero (Vincent Price). The cheap costumes & mockery of opulence is very much reminiscent of Mardi Gras parades. There’s even a scene where Prospero literally throws beads from a balcony shouting “Gifts! Gifts!” and scoffs at the greed of the people below. As the threat of The Red Death plague becomes increasingly severe, the masquerade takes on a “party while the ship is sinking” vibe New Orleans knows all too well. Horror films are usually tied to Halloween, but The Masque of the Red Death is distinctly akin to Mardi Gras in my mind.

James, do you also see Carnival in The Masque’s decadence, or does the Satan worship overpower that influence?

James:
Man, The Masque of the Red Death was awesome. The bold stylistic choices that Corman made on a limited budget and limited time (the final masquerade scene was filmed in a day) are astonishing. Some of the images in the film (The Red Death himself being the starkest) are mesmerizing. I think the film should also be noted for its pitch-perfect tone. Despite its macabre images, philosophical discussions of Satanism, and Prince Prospero’s nastiness, what could have been a dreary chore is instead a blast throughout.

In regards to the presence of Carnival in the film, I do think the masquerade ball scenes in particular have a very Mardi Gras feel to them. Masks with feathered beaks, gorilla suits, and a child masquerading as a little person don’t feel too far removed from the typical Carnival season debauchery. The Carnival feel also deepened a central theme of the film: lost souls celebrating a kind of momentary victory over Death. Ultimately, the film seems to have a nihilistic attitude towards Death, implying that the celebration is indeed a momentary victory and whether Christian, Satanist, or Atheist, we will all have to eventually confront an indifferent Death. But it also seems to find solace in our ability to shape our own existence while we are alive. This is echoed The Red Death’s climactic statement “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell.”

Britnee, what was your interpretation of the film’s philosophy on Death? Is it wholly negative?

Britnee:
This was my first time viewing The Masque of Red Death, and I have to say that I was blown away. Vincent Price as Prince Prospero was dynamite. I was so close to hiding under the covers during the close-ups of his signature evil stare, but seconds later, I was imagining what it would be like to have a conversation & afternoon tea with him in one of those seven colored rooms. Also, one of my favorite things about the film was the set and costumes. I know the look was supposed to have a Medieval vibe, but I really felt that I was at a Satanic drug dealer’s mansion party in the early 60s. All that was missing was the orange shag carpet.

As for my interpretation of the film’s philosophy on Death, I’m honestly not 100% sure. Death has always terrified/interested me, and I caught myself really falling into some deep thoughts about it while watching this film. The Christians and Satanists in Masque both experienced violent deaths, and neither of their higher powers swooped in to save them or give them a miraculous second chance. I guess the film is trying to show that Death cannot be avoided, regardless of power or faith. In the end when The Red Death states “Sic transit gloria mundi,” which literally means “Thus passes the glory of this world,” everything sort of hit me. Life can be very short & leave without warning, whether you’re a Christian villager living in poverty or a wealthy Satanic prince; it’s coming for us all!

Something else that stuck out was the interesting relationship between Prospero and Francesca. After sparing Francesca’s life, Prospero brings her to his castle to make her his consort and gives her a taste of his world. He becomes very intrigued with Francesca’s innocence and faith. As for Francesca, there are times where it seems as though she is giving in to temptation, but simultaneously she is in constant focus on her escape.

Brandon, what themes do the relationship between Prospero and Francesca bring to the film?

Brandon:
It’s reasonable to assume that Prospero wasn’t always the cruel tyrant we meet in the picture. He didn’t emerge from the womb executing peasants and cursing God. Prospero’s poisonous personality was likely the result of a gradual corruption of his soul, an evil born of his prosperous upbringing. Raised with untold wealth & influence, he came to rule over his fellow human beings like an unforgiving deity. Unsatisfied with the power his privilege as Earthly nobility affords him, he reaches even further beyond this realm and makes a deal with Satan in an attempt to overcome Death. Yet, there’s a little speck of good left in Prospero’s heart, which I think is what we see in his treatment of Francesca. At times he tries to prove that even her innocence can be corrupted because he wants to be assured that his own wickedness can be found in every person’s heart. He even asks her to join him in mocking the greed & decay in the guests at the masque, because he believes all people to be as amoral as he is. At other times, he goes out of his way to protect her and spare her life, an instinct that surprises even The Red Death. The only other glimpse of good we see in Prospero is when he asks his guards to spare a baby’s life at the gates. Although he is beyond redemption, (not that redemption matters in the eyes of Death,) Francesca affords Prospero his last chance to act like a true human being.

Then there’s the fact that the actress who plays Francesca, Jane Asher, was just achingly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that she was in a relationship with & at one time engaged to Sir Paul McCartney in the 60s. She was attractive enough to snare a Beatle during the fever pitch of Beatlemania, so surely a demented prince who can’t even cheat Death wouldn’t stand a chance against her charms. Perhaps simple lust spares her life. I think Francesca stands out here as a hip youngster (maybe it’s all in those bangs?) and helps add to that 60s drug dealer mansion party vibe mentioned above. So much of the film feels rebellious in an anachronistic way. Prospero’s philandering is out of control. Lines like “Satan rules the universe!” and “Each man creates his own god for himself” are pretty edgy for 1964, even coming from the villains. Keep in mind this is still years before the New Hollywood, a movement Roger Corman cannot be praised enough for influencing.

James, how do you see the balance between the movie’s setting and the era in which it was filmed?

James:
The movie definitely has an edge that makes it still creepy and blasphemous over 40 years later. I wonder how much Corman was in tune with the counterculture of the time because, despite it being a British production, the film feels more like a deranged product of the 60’s San Fransisco hippie movement, like a horror version of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; its macabre decadence fueled by lust and greed. It’s also most likely no coincidence that the epicenter of the hippie movement was the same place that the Anton Lavey established the Church of Satan in 1966. Themes like the destruction of social norms and an openness to sexual and spiritual experiences seem to be shared by The Masque of the Red Death, Satanists, and the hippies; “Each man creates his own god for himself” is THE basic philosophical statement of Satanism. I also think this is reflected in the dark, psychedelic imagery that The Masque of the Red Death and Satanist rituals share. (Photo for example)

satanist

Britnee, How strongly do you think the psychedelic aesthetic of the 60’s influenced The Masque of the Red Death? Any specific examples that stick out to you?

Britnee:
I think that The Masque of the Red Death was as psychedelic as it gets, at least for a horror film based in Medieval times. An example that really sticks out to me is the colors used throughout the film, most importantly, the use of red. Red usually represents blood, gore, and all the good stuff horror movies are made of, but when I also think of the term “psychedelic,” red is usually the color that comes to mind. After doing a little research, I found that the color red has a pretty long wavelength and very low vibration; this pretty much explains how the red tint that is present in multiple scenes really gives off this warm, draining feeling. Sounds a bit like the feeling you get after taking a hallucinogen or two, right? Also, all of those gaudy colors in the castle & clothing of Prospero and his pals can’t go without mention. While I’m not a Middle Ages expert or enthusiast, I’m almost positive that the colors of clothing and décor weren’t as bright and vibrant during that era as they are in the film. It’s obvious that the 60’s psychedelic aesthetic heavily influenced those hues.

Lagniappe

Brandon:
I’d just like to point out one last time just how early this film was released. A lot of what we think of as the hippie-dippie 60s came very late in the decade. The era-defining Summer of Love was in 1967, the same year Roger Corman dropped acid for the first time and fictionalized his experience in the film The Trip. The Masque‘s 1964 release positions the film as years ahead of its time. Corman was pulling off the Satanic psychedelia vibe the same year that Mary Poppins & My Fair Lady were huge cultural hits. I’m not saying Masque was particularly a major influence on the countercultural swell that was to come, but it at least was somewhat visually intuitive. And Corman himself did have direct influence on the later films that typified that counterculture, films like Easy Rider and Bonnie & Clyde. Even back then, when “don’t trust anyone over 30” was a motto to live by, he was the hippest geezer in the room and a filmmaking rebel.

Britnee:
After the discussion with The Swampflix Crew, so many ideas and thoughts about The Masque of the Red Death were brought to the surface. It gave me an excuse to watch the film a couple more times, and I fell in love with it more each viewing. The movie also got me hooked on the Corman-Poe films, so I’m currently trying to get my hands on all of them. The Masque of the Red Death was just a great balance of horror, suspense, and drama that gave me some really unsettling thoughts & a case of the willies. Great job, Corman!

James:
Really enjoyed the discussion of The Masque of the Red Death. Watching the film a second time and taking into account all the points you guys made deepened my appreciation and understanding of the film. Definitely want to see more Corman, especially the Poe films. As Brandon pointed out, Corman seemed to have his hand on the pulse of the counterculture and was always one step ahead of mainstream Hollywood. Truly a filmmaker ahead of his time.

-The Swampflix Crew

Upcoming Movie of the Months
March: James presents The Seventh Seal (1957)
April: Britnee presents Blood & Black Lace (1964)

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