Thursday, August 9, 2012

"How Like a Worm You Are. Be One."

My earliest memory of Vincent Price was his appearance on The Muppet Show (see below), and not too long after, his voice appeared for the ghoulish narration at the end of Michael Jackson's Thriller, which I received for Christmas in 1982.  And over the years, I was aware of who he was, and what he was known for, but somehow I never really caught up on actually watching his films until I got older.  The hilarious part then was finding out that he'd played in a variety of films before landing firmly in the familia horror niche.  Even more surprising was his avid art collecting.  In any event, I've slowly sought to rectify this gap in my visual consumption.
A favorite image long before I saw the film
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) was the seventh of Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe for American International. It stars Price, of course, Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee, and English actress Jane Asher. The film concerns an exclusive party thrown in a remote castle by the satan-worshiping Prince Prospero while a mysterious plague, the Red Death, ravishes the villagers of the surrounding countryside.  The film not only relates the Poe story, but also wedges in another minor Poe tale, "Hop-Frog", as a subplot.

Price is deliriously decadent as the Prince, with nary a trace of the comedic ham he sometimes sprinkled into other horror roles.  His presence fills the screen and his voice delivers lines with not a few thrills and the occasional chill, as it were.  The other nobles, with the exception of Magee, become something of a faceless mass of revelers, which is fully appropriate as that's what they were.  It conjures up a vision not unlike the stories of Roman debauchery from the histories of Suetonius where the Emperor du Jour led ta mass of nobles and courtesans in sadistic charades.  Magee, as I mentioned, though in a fairly small role, stands out as that guy at the party who can't quite fit in, and despite all the excess still wants more.   Asher, on the other hand, need do little more than look the part of the frightened, innocent virgin for us to mourn her slow transition to darkness, and she succeeds.

American International Pictures was largely known for throwing together low-budget exercises for teeny-boppers in the 50's and 60's, but thanks to Corman's success with the Poe material, the shoestring budget seems little in evidence here.  (Apparently, Roger got an opulent, by AIP standards, five weeks to shoot Masque).  The sets, many reused from the Richard Burton vehicle Becket, give a sumptuous feel, and though the costumes have that older movie feel, there's a lovely nostalgia to their glamor.  Corman, it probably goes without saying, keeps the movie moving at a good clip and is able to layer in some fine atmosphere and a few solid surprises.  The orchestration of the climatic finale hasn't aged so well, but was a fitting theatrical finalĂ© to what had come before.

I was surprised at the heavy use of the Satan-worshipping element of the plot.  Granted, in old Hollywood fashion, you can't help but see the mechanics of the morality play that will eventually deliver the goods to the baddies, and yet, I was still surprised at the frankness of the depiction.  Although, I guess it shouldn't be all surprising, it was about this time that Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey would become something of a Hollywood scenester and a regular talk show guest.  But it still seems strange that the children of the 60's seeing this would become the paranoid parents of the 80's crusading against heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons. (Then again, parents often have a knack for denying teen proclivities like sex despite what they and their friends got up to in their own youth.)

In all, for a fun night at home, particularly in the fall, I think you'll find The Masque of the Red Death and some popcorn a fine way to spend an evening with the late, great Vincent Price.