Masque of the Red Death (1964) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21May/110

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Satanism, by and large, doesn't really seem to get a fair shake in film. Functioning more often than not as either the punchline to a joke or a punchline to why Mia Farrow has been acting distraught for nine months, it rarely has had any serious exploration on the cinematic landscape.

Not that that surprises me, by any means. It's hard to depict a theology in a serious light that involves giving into all of humanity's basest instincts; hell, even Hollywood has to find something to hold itself above.

Masque of the Red Death views Satanism with about as much as a fair shake as you're going to get. A cadre of revelers and worshipers dance to Satan's greatness, a woman who eagerly marries him, and a power mad prince extols his virtues. The film still takes a dim view of Satanism-- it appears to be just another sin of a rather evil group-- but I will say that it doesn't try and make Satanism look boring. I guess that's one way to get asses into seats.

And now for our Satan loving star.

Luckily, the film has a great boon in its primary reveler of Satanic glee, Vincent Price. I don't think anyone enjoys playing wicked as much as Price, and I also don't think anyone else pulled it off with such a pleased smugness. He plays the role with as much reverence as you'll find in any film about the priesthood. Price is the key to the success of the film; a silly Satanist would have killed everything in its steps.

The plot follows his retreat to his monstrous castle upon the eve of a rash of the Red Death. It's a fictitious disease, but an effective looking one: victims end up, mouth agape, their face splattered in a grisly splash of blood.

Which quickly brings me to a second admiring observation of the film: director Corman takes Edgar Allen Poe's original short story and uses the the mixture of the graphic bright red Tempura Paint violence of the cinema of the 60's and the quiet subdued horrors of the Gothic fiction to form a fascinating and abstract collision of styles.

The plague itself is a punishment for the complicit as well as the wicked, and its administered by a mysterious hooded figure. The majority of the plot revolves around one Christian faithful, Francesca (whose name I assume was picked simply for the relish to which Price delivers it), that Price brings to his castle. He forces her to watch the cavorting decadence as villages burn and the plague reeks havoc upon the countryside.

Price is all to eager to abuse his privilege and power as his strips away Francesca's faith piece by piece. Who can believe in a just God when they see their village massacred, or when they watch a Satanist flourish with such decadent grace?

I did use the word 'strip' in that last paragraph for more than one meaning.

Corman originally waited to make this film because of Poe's short story having surface similarities to The Seventh Seal, and while it lacks that film's intrinsic somber tone, they do share some similar views on the mercilessness of death. While our heroes here are more simplistic and intensely naive, they're also as much pawns in Death's scheme as the knight and his party.

This is dwelt upon by the Red Death at the end of the movie, who muses to his fellow plagues upon what he's destroyed and what he's spared. He finds them curious but they don't ignite his passion. Did he save the just because they were just, or did he do it because for his own sense of satisfaction against someone like Prospero who tried to usurp him? The Red Death doesn't know. And it's obvious he doesn't really care.

This is a film about Satanists made with the wry grin of a nihilist; worshiping evil may be satisfying and ego stroking, but in the end the pleasures are hollow. Whatever inner strength you can summon is more important, and Satanists, it turns out, aren't known for that.

Posted by Danny

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