Robbing William Castle’s Grave: The Slow Decline of Nu-Metal Horror

From the top down, it’s such a great time for horror cinema, big-budget & small, that it’s difficult to remember how grim the genre was looking in not-too-distant memory. Wes Craven reinvigorated the horror movie industry with Scream in the mid-90s, unwittingly giving birth to a new wave of slick, big-budget, teen-marketed monstrosities with nu-metal tie-in soundtracks that festered on the big screen until the (even worse) trends of found footage cheapies & torture-porn gross-outs took over a decade later. Occasionally, an interesting deviation within the big budget nu-metal horror trend would amount to something novel (Final Destination, The Craft, The Faculty, Valentine) but it’s a genre that’s more so typified by slickly produced, routine dreck (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior, Urban Legend, Halloween: Resurrection). I was the exact right age to appreciate the 90s teen horror cycle while it was still fresh in the theaters (including the worst of the dreck), but just like how nu-metal rotted on hard rock radio long after it was culturally relevant, its cinematic equivalent stuck around long after I grew out of it. Part of the reason I’m so pleased with the state of recent major studio horror releases like A Quiet Place, Split, and IT, is that there was a period of nu-metal hangover in the 2000s when most well-funded horror films in wide release were about as appetizing as room temperature oatmeal. I was mentally transported back to this time in my recent (re)discovery of a string of nu-metal era William Castle remakes produced by Robert Zemeckis & Joel Silver under the label Dark Castle Entertainment. In the span of just three William Castle remakes, Silver & Zemeckis covered the entire trajectory of big-budget 90s horror’s descent from slick slashers to torture porn grotesqueries & beyond, all while maintaining a distinct nu-metal tinge.

The first film in the Dark Castle remake trilogy starts off as a perfectly distilled mission statement of what Silver & Zemeckis were attempting to accomplish. 1999’s House on Haunted Hill remake stars Geoffrey Rush as a William Castle type in broad Vincent Price drag (in a role originated by Price). An eccentric millionaire amusement park owner, Rush’s evil horror host offers a million-dollar prize to any party guest who can survive the night in his recently purchased old-timey L.A. mental hospital (which is, naturally, haunted by the ghosts of past patients). An art deco space flavored by dramatic organ music & matte painting backgrounds, the house in question is a wonder of detailed set design, a perfect application of Robert Zemeckis’s career-long obsession with special effects wizardry. Rush is also a great heel for the scenario, going big as a carnival barker-type huckster who turns the “haunted house” into a spooky amusement park rigged to scare off his guests – only *gasp* some of the scares are revealed to be “real” and the guests start dying off one by one, not by his hands. This self-described “spook house boogey man bullshit,” combined with Rush’s campy combo of Vincent Price & William Castle showmanship and 90s-specific casting of actors like Taye Diggs & Lisa Loeb, should make for a perfectly entertaining big-budget diversion. Yet, House on Haunted Hill somehow manages to shit the bed. Watching the film devolve from delightful novelty to miserable mess is like watching the 90s die onscreen in real time. Rush’s caustically bitchy rapport with his gold-digging wife (Vera Farmiga) sours the fun early on, a hint of nu-metal era misogyny that’s only intensified by the film’s open leering at gratuitous nudity. Most notably, there’s a terribly rendered Rorschach Test-shaped CGI ghost made up of greyed-out naked women that only exists because the presumed audience is ten-year-old boys starving to see some tits by any means necessary. It’s a bafflingly juvenile choice that’s somehow even more boneheaded than having a CGI Chris Kattan ghost save the day (seriously), the exact moment you’re reminded that Zemeckis’s special effects obsessions are most often used for Evil, not Good.

While House on Haunted Hill starts with the potential to succeed as an over-the-top horror diversion before it devolves into juvenile misogyny, its follow-up begins & ends completely within the bounds of that film’s worst tendencies. 2001’s Thir13en Ghosts (ugh, even the title is miserable) is a relentless assault of all the worst CGI grotesqueries & slack-jawed leering that gradually sinks its predecessor. Matthew Lillard revives his Scream schtick as an overly enthusiastic ghost hunter who attempts to guide several unwitting inhabitants of a haunted house through a night of supernatural terror. A slumming-it Tony Shalhoub, professional Jessica Biel understudy Shannon Elizabeth, and rapper Rah Digga constitute most of the cast of unfortunates under Lillard’s wing, each to varying levels of embarrassment. The underlying tones of racism, misogyny, and general misanthropy that gradually sour House on Haunted Hill are on constant, full-volume blast in Thir13en Ghosts, making for a miserable experience throughout. There’s an early potential for winking, William Castle camp in the film’s setup of an eccentric adventurer/ghost collector who wills a haunted house to his family (another role originated by Vincent Price, naturally), but the film’s hideous CGI, hyperactive editing, and amoral nu-metal aesthetic pummels that glimmer of hope out of existence at every turn. As with House on Haunted Hill, THir13en Ghosts is a special effects wonder of over-the-top, detailed set design – containing all of its haunted house mayhem inside an impossible mechanized structure that resembles a blown-up version of the Hellraiser puzzle box. It even improves on the CGI Rorschach ghost of the previous film with a cast of undead characters that, when not sexually objectified even in their bloodied state, strike a distinctly spooky image worthy of a high-end haunted house attraction. The problem is that any minor progress in production design is drastically outweighed by the film’s hideous nu-metal aesthetics, most notably in hyperactive editing & CGI camera movements that exhaust more than delight. The worst part is that haunted house tour guide Matthew Lillard is on hand to constantly remind you how far this mainstream horror cycle had fallen since its Scream roots.

The third William Castle remake from Dark Castle’s early run stretched beyond the outermost boundaries of the nu-metal teen cycle to spill into the found footage & torture porn aesthetics it replaced. It’s also, confusingly, the best film of the batch. 2005’s House of Wax remake starts like a conventional post-Scream slasher, with the world’s most hateable group of college-age idiots being stalked & hunted by local yokels while camping in the woods. The ways the film attempts to update the 90s slasher aesthetic for the evolving post-90s landscape are universally embarrassing: mixing in shaky-cam found footage techniques to adopt a Blair Witch patina, constructing elaborate torture devices to feed off the popularity of titles like Saw & Hostel and, most cruelly, stunt-casting Paris Hilton as one of the victims only to exploit her real-life tabloid persona by matching the night vision digicam footage of the 1 Night in Paris sex tape that helped make her notorious. The film doubles down on its juvenile titties-leering and even adds casual homophobia to Dark Castle’s list of moral shortcomings in a nonstop barrage of no-homo style jock humor. These are a few of the many sins weighing against House of Wax, but I can’t help but consider it the best of its studio’s big budget William Castle remakes, the only one I’d even consider solidly entertaining. If there’s anything these films share as a common virtue, it’s that the set design of their respective haunted houses is admirably detailed & wonderfully bizarre. House of Wax is the only film of the batch to fully exploit that asset for all it’s worth, accentuating the amusement park quality of its titular attraction at length. Recalling the horrifying 70s curio Tourist Trap, the film is set in a fake town populated almost entirely by wax figure statues, the centerpiece of which is a mansion-like museum entirely made of wax. The Zemeckis special effects machinery is pushed to its most glorious extreme here, with all of the wax figures and the titular wax house of its setting warping & melting in a climactic fire that transforms the amusement park-like town into a cartoonish vision of Hell worthy of both Dante and Joe Dante. House of Wax is far from a great film, but it’s weird enough to be an entertaining one and, although it suffers the worst trappings of its era in mainstream horror, it leans too hard into its strengths to be fully denied.

I obviously wouldn’t recommend that anyone repeat this journey into Zemeckis & Silver’s nu-metal era William Castle remakes; of the three films in the bunch only House of Wax squeaks by as satisfactory entertainment (and then just barely). However, I did find the experience illustrative of mainstream horror’s transformation in the past couple decades from slick post-Scream slashers to more adventurous, thoughtful experiments in genre. House on Haunted Hill devolves mainstream 90s horror from delightful camp to CGI-leaden misanthropy over the course of a single picture. THir13en Ghosts gleefully revels in the Hellish depths where that first film sank, indulging in the worst nu-metal hangover sins of horned-up male angst & hyperactive editing booth antics. House of Wax starts as a desperate attempt for the genre to stay relevant by coopting tropes from its found footage & torture porn successors before instead pushing through to find new, weird territory in its Zemeckis-flavored special effects majesty. It’s with that film that Dark Castle Entertainment abandoned its original mission of robbing William Castle’s grave to instead fund better, more modern pictures. House of Wax director Jaume Collet-Serra even went on to direct Orphan (the to-date best film of his career) for the same company just a few years later, a bizarre-free-for-all that feels much more up to date with the creative mainstream horror boon we’re living in now. You can even feel the nu-metal aesthetic struggling to hold on in the House of Wax’s soundtrack, which interrupts mainstay modern rock knuckleheads like Marilyn Manson, Deftones, and Disturbed with jarring sore-thumb inclusions like Interpol, Joy Division, and Har Mar Superstar. As a collection of big-budget horror remakes of once-campy cult classics, Dark Castle’s initial run of William Castle remakes is a grim, grueling experience. As a snapshot of how post-Scream mainstream horror gradually transformed into the spoil-of-riches horror media landscape we’re living in today, however, they’re extremely useful, functioning practically as a step-by-step guided tour of the nu-metal 90s dying out & fading away. Just like how many corners of modern rock radio are still stuck in this exact nu-metal rut, you can still find modern movies that revert those old ways, but this damned trio paints a picture of a time when this was the majority & the norm – the nu-metal Dark Ages.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: The Fly (1958) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

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I was recently invited to join in on an episode of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the iconic 1958 Vincent Price sci-fi horror The Fly. It’s always great to have a chance to talk about the original version of The Fly, which is generally overshadowed by its wonderfully grotesque Cronenberg body horror remake, because has its own merits & idiosyncrasies that can often be too easily dismissed or misremembered. On a more personal note, though, it was also just fun to join in on a podcast I listen to regularly as a fan.

It’s already pretty rare to find a podcast as in tune with my own taste in film as We Love to Watch, but the show is even more remarkable in the way it approaches its selections from an honest & receptive place. Co-hosts Pete Moran & Aaron Armstrong have the easy chemistry of long-time friends, which makes for a consistently pleasant listen, even when they disagree or digress at length. More importantly, though, they discuss all films sincerely and humbly. They always looking for the legitimate value in a work, no matter how prestigious or seemingly insignificant, instead of an excuse to tear it down, which is exactly the way we strive to approach criticism in our own reviews on this site.

Give a listen to We Love to Watch’s episode on The Fly below! For fans of the Cronenberg remake, check back with them next week for an episode on that practical effects masterwork as a point of contrast. You can also dig through old episodes & clips on their blog & their YouTube page if you like what you hear. They tend to cover a lot of the same territory we do here, both on our own podcast & in our reviews (The Thing, Southland Tales, Possession, High-Rise, Phase IV, etc.), often with a completely different, playfully enlightening take on the material. Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #13 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Flesh Eaters (1964) & the Dual Franchises of The Fly

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Welcome to Episode #13 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seemingly doomed, much-delayed thirteenth episode, Brandon discusses all five entries in the 1950s & 80s versions of The Fly with Wisconsin-based critic Dustin Koski. Also, Brandon makes special newcomer co-host Bill Arceneaux watch the early gore horror landmark The Flesh Eaters (1964) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Gin Mittens.

-Brandon Ledet & Bill Arceneaux

Shock (1946)

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Like a lot of people, I always picture Vincent Price as an older man when his name comes up, as if he were air-dropped into the world as an already-established horror legend in the 50s or 60s. The truth is that Price toiled away as a workman character actor for decades before he was really set loose to chew the scenery in pictures like The Abominable Dr. Phibes & The Masque of the Red Death. One of the earliest glimpses of the Vincent Price that was to be came in the form of the 1940s tawdry noir thriller Shock. A subpar Hitchcock descendant that functions entirely within the rigid boundaries of its genre, Shock is a fairly standard sample of in-its-prime noir, one that might not be especially worth digging back up from its ancient cinematic grave if it weren’t for Price’s villainous performance. The babyfaced future-legend is a lot more measured here than he would become at the height of his onscreen treachery, but there’s enough mad scientist stirrings in this early performance to telegraph the weird, wonderful trajectory his career would eventually take. If you’re a fan of Price’s horror work, this early landmark should not be casually dismissed or overlooked.

A soldier returning from deployment in World War II discovers his wife is frozen in a state of stone-faced shock, despite seeming healthy over the phone mere hours before his arrival. Her doctor passes this catatonic state off as a symptom of stress due to her husband’s delayed return from the war. The truth is that the woman witnessed the doctor (played by Price) murder his own wife through a hotel window in a fit of rage. In order to cover his tracks the doctor holds the woman hostage in a mental institution, attempting to convince her & anyone who’ll listen that she’s crazy & the murder was a hallucination. With the doctor’s mistress whispering in his ear & the patient’s husband becoming increasingly skeptical of the diagnosis, the walls start to close in on the dastardly cretin and his cruelty grows in its self-preserving wickedness. Will his evildoing be exposed before his unnecessary shock treatment procedures forever destroy the mental stability of his victim/patient? Surely, if you’ve seen any thrillers from the era before you know the answer to that question, but the because this film is built on suspense instead of mystery, the fun is in the performances & the melodrama, not in guessing what happens next.

Hitchcock expertly, leisurely surfed the balance between trash & art and this knockoff certainly falls on the less prestigious side of that divide. Even 1940s audiences bristled at its tawdry insensitivity, especially miffed that it exploited shock treatment & PTSD, which were hot topics on the heels of WWII, for cheap dramatic weight. In a modern context these transgressions play more entertaining than they do offensive.The film’s mental health mumbo jumbo is quaintly (if not horrifyingly) out of date and it’s actually fairly easy to accept the way it sleazily turns real life issues like women wrongly committed to mental institutions & the real world practice of insulin shock therapy into tawdry thriller fodder, thanks to its distance in time. There’s actually an almost progressive, Rosemary’s Baby type criticism built into the story about the way women are manipulated & institutionalized by men who patronize & refuse to believe them (not that shrieking, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” helps at all in this particular case). There’s one specific moment when the victims’ soldier-husband confides to Price’s wicked doctor, “She’s out of her head. She’s got a crazy idea that she saw a murder. I don’t know what to do,” that had me screaming, “Well, did you try believing her?!” and I assume that was an intentional effect on the movie’s part. There’s plenty to pick at here, misogyny-wise, especially in the way that it’s only the women’s lives that are ever threatened & the fact that the doctor’s heartless mistress manipulating him with her womanly ways is largely to blame for the villainy, but Shock does have its surprising moments of feminist critique peaking through some of its thick noir sleaze.

Like I said, you’re not going to get much out of Shock that you couldn’t find in some other trashy thriller of the era, except if you look to Vincent Price’s performance as the wicked psychiatrist. There are a few moments of post-German Expressionism weirdness in the imagery, but they’re mostly relegated to a single dream sequence featuring the troubled protagonist running in a strange void & a passage of time montage steeped in calendar page-turning noir cliche. A young Vincent Price stands as the film’s sole beacon of distinctiveness, but he delivers in an uncharacteristically dialed back, measured performance that becomes increasingly ridiculous as his rash decisions reflect the walls closing in around him. The movie serves as a sort of bridge between two eras of the iconic actor’s career, starting with a dramatic stage play seriousness, but ultimately touching on some distinct mad scientist vibes by the time he attempts to erase the woman’s memory (and possibly her existence) through overdoses of insulin & hypnosis. Price’s performance makes Shock more than worthwhile as you watch the early formation of a distinct onscreen personality that fully blossomed in the decades that followed, but is rarely seen with such grounded dramatic weight & dead-serious delivery. The campy impulses in me might’ve wished that he went even more over-the-top with the role, but by toeing the line between those halves of his career, he delivered something much more special, something you can only find in Shock.

-Brandon Ledet

Theatre of Blood (1973)

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I’d love to live in a world where Vincent Price is considered “the world’s greatest actor”, but not like this. Not like this. Theatre of Blood is a puzzling meta horror vehicle for Price, both striking in the range it allows for the B-movie legend to chew scenery (plus its gore grotesqueness his films don’t usually approach) and disappointing in its lackluster execution. By all means, this gimmicky revenge thriller should be the exact kind of genre trash that has me head over heels, especially considering how unhinged Price manages to be in his lead performance, but by the end I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for what I had seen. This is decent schlock, but it had the opportunity to be much more significant than that. I didn’t hate it, but I really wanted to love it.

Price stars here as “the world’s greatest actor”, Edward Lionheart, a true thespian of the stage who refuses to take on any role unless it’s the lead part in a Shakespeare production. Fans agree that he is truly the world’s finest performer, but theater critics lock him out of all accolades due to his Shakespearean limitations. After a failed suicide attempt the bitter actor comes seemingly from beyond the grave to make each critic individually eat their own words (and, in one particularly brutal case, their own dogs) by killing them in elaborate ways that recall Shakespeare’s most notable works. There’s great subtext here about Vincent Price himself getting revenge on his own critics for brushing off his work as genre schlock by proving he’s at ease with difficult classical works, but for the most part the film is only exciting for its dozen or so brutal murders, which reportedly required six gallons of fake blood to bring to the screen.

What most confuses me about Theatre of Blood is its 96% approval rating on the Tomatometer. The film was a personal favorite for Price because he enjoyed being able to make money performing various Shakespeare monologues instead of pure horror cheese, which is totally understandable (if not more than a little sad). The truth is, though, that when Price isn’t performing these soliloquies or murdering his critics for an audience of Mortville bums, the film gets very one-note & boring, playing at best like a televised police procedural. It’s likely that people had fun with the film’s very campy tone & I’ll admit that the novelty of a grindhouse-esque work from Price that manages to be this silly is enjoyable in & of itself. I especially love its alternate title, Much Ado about Murder, as a note of exceptional  goofiness. However,  the film has nothing on similar revenge-minded works from the actor’s catalog like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, so there’s an oppressive cloud of seen-it-all-before hanging over the production. It’s at best on par with his other middling 70s meta horror, Madhouse, which isn’t too great of a position to be in at all.

Theatre of Blood is a serviceable Vincent Price flick probably best enjoyed in YouTube clips compiling its various gimmicky kills instead of watching its rough around the edges totality. As a critic, saying this might be inviting Price to rise from beyond the grave to smite me, but I’m okay with that. There are surely worse ways to die.

-Brandon Ledet

Madhouse (1974)

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One of the most depressing questions I encounter in everyday conversation is “Who is Vincent Price?” It comes up more often than you’d expect. I got it when I dressed as Price’s version of The Red Death last Mardi Gras. I got it when I was working at a movie theater with a bunch of skateboarding goofballs over the past year. It’s far from cool of me to have Kids These Days moments like this when I’m still just shy of 30, but what is the deal with kids these days anyways?  What are they teaching these whippersnappers in school? Surely there’s room in the curriculum for a little Vincent Price 101. Also, I remember the days when Vincent Price movies cost half a nickel and get off my lawn.

Madhouse would be far from my first choice for titles to show the young & curious who Vincent Price was, but it is an interesting addition to the horror giant’s resume because it’s explicitly about his own celebrity. Basically playing a fictionalized version of himself, Price appears here as the aging star of a horror series centered on the wicked Dr. Death. Relying on old clips mostly pulled from Price’s collaborations with Roger Corman in the B-movie legend‘s infamous Poe Cycle (which shared a producer in Madhouse‘s Sam Arkoff, naturally) the meta horror of this film is a little weak in that it constantly reminds you of the superior work Price made in his heyday. There’s a lot of interesting details in the film’s set-up, including Hollywood satire & the idea of a masked killer framing the “real” Dr. Death by recreating kills from his various films, but that novelty eventually wears off (in favor of a Brannigan-esque trip to London) and large stretches of the movie ultimately feel punishingly dull. Anyone with a vested interest in Vincent Price’s career (or meta horror in general) might get a kick out of Madhouse, but that appeal is unlikely to be universal.

That’s not to say that the film is stylistically lacking. Madhouse seems to intentionally ape the style over substance mentality of the giallo genre, even daring to lift images directly from the works of folks like Dario Argento & Mario Bava. A gloved hand enters from off screen wielding a shiny knife intended to slash a young woman down. The faceless mannequins of Blood & Black Lace appear for an odd jump scare. A trench coat, fedora, and mask combo shroud the identity of the killer to make for a sort of murder mystery where the murder is obviously more important that the mystery. Like the giallo it mimics, Madhouse exists as a sort of proto-slasher that would predict many horror trends of the late 70s & 80s to follow. It’s just unfortunate that the space between the kills feels so dull, especially once the Hollywood satire & meta horror fade to the background.

As much as I feel deeply dispirited when one of These Damn Millenials™ doesn’t know who Vincent Price is by name, here’s where I have to admit that I don’t know much of anything about the actor outside his onscreen roles. For instance, I always assumed that he was exclusively homosexual, based mostly on his campy, fey way of performing. Although a public ally to the gay community, Price apparently was married to several women & fathered multiple children. As a fan not previously in the know about this aspect of his personal life, my favorite parts of Madhouse were the ones showing Price’s fictional surrogate interacting with women, who are driven absolutely mad with lust for him. At the beginning of the film he’s depicted as an aging, wealthy actor engaged to marry a young porn star. Late in the proceedings he develops a weird sort of domesticity with an insane woman who raises hordes of spiders as her “babies”. In between these connections there’s several young groupies fighting for the chance to be near him. What’s odd about this is aspect is the way the film criticizes the film industry’s misogyny problem while also participating in it (as most slashers do by nature). In one breath Madhouse will criticize the way young women are left by the wayside at the wrong end of slut-shaming or mere aging. In the next the film will follow that sentiment up with wonderfully bitchy exchanges like “You scared the pants off me.” “Who hasn’t?” It’s an uncomfortably compromised balance, but it does reveal aspects of Price’s personality/sexuality that I was previously unaware of, a detail I appreciated greatly.

I enjoyed Madhouse well enough as a silly little meta horror with taglines like “Lights, Camera, Murder” & as a reflection of who Vincent Price was as an oddball celebrity, but I don’t think the film would hold the same level of interest for those not already predisposed to enjoy the actor’s work/aesthetic. For folks seeking a better introduction I’d recommend checking out pretty much any one of the Roger Corman classics this film tries to pass off as Dr. Death flicks (except for maybe the incomprehensibly inept The Raven; yikes!). The man had a massively impressive career with dozens of titles that help define the best classic horror has to offer as a genre. Unfortunately, Madhouse is more of a distant echo of those works than an active participant, interesting context or not.

-Brandon Ledet

The Other Vincent Price Masque: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

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Vincent Price’s fey, effete, menacingly campy persona made him a natural for old-school horror. It was a persona he intentionally cultivated. In his transition from 50’s monster movie classics like House of Wax and The Fly to the 60s Corman-Poe Cycle that made him infamous, he gradually ramped up the eccentricities in his voice & mannerisms that established him as a horror staple. By the 70s Price had devolved into delicious self-parody. His playful demeanor was perfect for the horror genre: his characters were not only evil; they took great delight in their wicked deeds, proudly snickering at the depths of their own cruelty.

It was this persona that made Price perfect for the Prince Prospero role in February’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death. The film’s masquerade setting not only afforded Price the chance to be sadistic to a large group of costumed guests, it also gave the sadism a party setting. That mischievous combination of pleasure & pain was positively ideal for the Vincent Price aesthetic. The masquerade setting was so perfect for Price, in fact, that it was recycled years later in another one of his iconic roles: 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

By the time Price starred in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, he was in full self-parody mode. Where Corman’s Masque is a trippy horror show with occasional, unsettling touches of humor, Dr. Phibes is a full-on horror comedy. Price’s Phibes is a horrifically scarred car crash survivor hell-bent on avenging his wife’s death against the surgeons that failed to save her life. The pattern of his revenge mimics the seven Biblical plagues. Despite that disturbing premise, it’s a deviously fun film and one of Price’s most memorable performances. Phibes himself wears a prosthetic mask to hide his facial scars, but that’s not the common thread it shares with Masque. In the film’s best scene (or at least my personal favorite) Phibes offs one of his deceased wife’s doctors at a masquerade ball. His murder method? He supplies the doctor with a mechanical frog mask that crushes his head. The frog mask is not only a beautiful work of art; it also cleverly fulfills the frog plague requirement of the film’s premise.

The masquerade scene in Dr. Phibes is brief, but beautiful. It not only echoes Corman’s Masque in the setting, but also in the gorgeous saturation of color and in the other guest’s nonchalance at the frog-mask victim’s pleas for help. Just as Prospero laughs cruelly at his party guests’ demise, Phibes casually looks on from behind a crystal chandelier as his frog mask contraption exterminates his prey. The two films are tonally different works from two opposing phases of Vincent Price’s career, but in the brief moment at the masque in Phibes, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes are spiritually linked.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, visit our Swampchat on the film, the round-up of its dueling 1989 knockoffs, and last week’s photos of The Red Death at Mardi Gras. Coverage of our next Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, begins early next week.

-Brandon Ledet

The Masque of the Red Death (1964) on Mardi Gras Day

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In our Movie of the Month conversation about the deeply strange, beautiful and undeniably ahead-of-its-time The Masque of the Red Death, I pointed out how much the movie reminds me of Carnival season in New Orleans. I wrote, “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.” In an effort to put my money where my mouth is, I took the Movie of the Month out into the streets on Mardi Gras, masquerading as The Red Death himself. Here’s a few pictures of the costume below to help solidify the memory.

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I hope everyone had a great, safe Mardi Gras and maybe even costumed as their own pet obsessions, movie-related or not. It’s certainly been a fun Carnival season on my end and I was glad to take a little bit of Swampflix with me into the Quarter on Fat Tuesday. I might even do it again next year!

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, visit our Swampchat on the film and last week’s round-up of its dueling 1989 knockoffs.

-Brandon Ledet

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

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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)