Tuesday, 21 December 2010
The Masque of the Red Death
(Roger Corman, 1964)
“The doctor dances in the white room… but I passed close by him. Truly Prospero, do you not know me?”
Until I acquired a new copy on DVD last year, I’d built up “Masque of the Red Death” to near-mythical status in my own mind, based on catching it randomly on TV a few years ago – an event that was perhaps responsible for triggering my whole love of ‘60s gothic horror. The rich, overwhelming colours, the swirling shapes of the dancers, the suffocating, decadent evilness of the whole venture – Corman’s vision may have had little to do with the blacks and blues and empty, echoing stone chambers that Poe’s writing has always communicated to me, but on its own terms it was a real aesthetic mind-blower – a mixture of psychotropic ‘60s excess and esoteric medieval grue in Hollywood drag, fusing the core themes of Poe’s story to the more extreme accruements of its own era, like, I dunno, Kenneth Anger meets Torquemada on the set of a ‘Robin of Sherwood’ movie or something.
So naturally when it came to revisiting it, my expectations were high. And as ever with high expectations, I was slightly disappointed. Having familiarised myself in the meantime with the work of Mario Bava and Terrence Fisher, of Rollin and Margerheti and all the other masters of weird cinematic gothic, “..Red Death” made less of an impact on me than it did the first time ‘round. Nicolas Roeg’s dazzling colour-coded cinematography and Daniel Haller’s otherworldly art direction seemed somewhat less dazzling and otherworldly. Having decided that I tend to prefer Vincent Price in tragic/sympathetic roles, his portrayal of the amoral Prince Prospero, though still excellent, seemed to lack that certain something that characterises his very best performances. The metaphysical pronouncements of the emissary of the Red Death began to sound less eerily profound, more like some of yr hastily pulled together AIP mumbo-jumbo.
Of course, that’s what happens when you build things up to gigantic proportions over time. If not approached as a life-changing masterpiece, “Masque..” is merely a really, really excellent example of a technicolor era gothic, with a first class cast incorporating at least four members of the official Breakfast in the Ruins Weirdo Horror Hall of Fame, a heavy, oneiric atmosphere, an luridly imaginative script and superb production design. The film’s big set pieces – Prospero’s opening visit to the village, Juliana’s dream-sequence and blood-pledge to Satan, the manifestation of the Red Death and the closing Dance of Death – are all breathtaking.
And, all other considerations aside, we should remember: this is a film in which Patrick Magee is hung from the ceiling dressed in a gorilla suit and set on fire by a dwarf. If that doesn’t guarantee a film a place in my top 20, what would?