Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Red Death, White House: A Roger Corman-Vincent Price classic makes a fortuitous return

Vincent Price in character as Prince Prospero in The Masque Of The Red Death
Photo: Shudder

There’s always a tweet, but in this instance, there was also a short story. Over the weekend, amid news of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization, a picture started to form. With more than a dozen GOP officials falling ill alongside him, by Saturday afternoon it was hard not to conclude that the September 26 Rose Garden ceremony to nominate Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court—a ghoulish endeavor from the start—may have also been a super-spreader event. Photos and video from the occasion show the hubris of Trump’s inner circle, umasked and sitting in folding chairs with their knees practically touching. As the number of new COVID-19 cases climbed to its highest point in over a month, the oligarchs and true believers hugged each other and kissed each other’s cheeks, daring the virus that had already killed 200,000 Americans to breach the fortress of their impunity.

As David L. Ulin pointed out in The Los Angeles Times, it was a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story The Masque Of The Red Death, which opens with a description of a dreadful and terrifying plague called the Red Death that is burning through the populace of an unnamed kingdom like an out-of-control forest fire. “But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious,” Poe writes. The insolent prince orders his most loyal lackeys to a masquerade ball, where they will barricade themselves inside the castle and revel in their defiance of God. There, “the external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

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Poe goes on to note that Prince Prospero is staging this foolhardy spectacle “towards the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion,” which is just horribly on the nose. As is this passage:

His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric luster. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.

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If a screenwriter were to adapt Poe’s story into a modern setting using the exact same beats as the news cycle from the first week of October 2020, the reviews would say it was just too convenient. “Lazy storytelling,” critics would write. “Not believable.” Nor would critics find it credible if a film adaptation of The Masque Of The Red Death were re-released on the same day that America’s own Prince Prospero announced his diagnosis in this hypothetical fictional reality. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Originally released in 1964, Masque was the seventh of the eight films in Vincent Price and Roger Corman’s “Poe Cycle,” and the point where the once-popular series stopped making money—a deadly sin at its studio, American International Pictures. It was an outcome AIP’s Samuel Arkoff chalked up to Corman going in directions that were “too arty farty” for the drive-in crowd. And considering the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seala favorite film of Corman’s—on the adaptation, Arkoff may have had a point. But now, thanks to Shudder’s “The Price Of Fright” package—announced in late September, but launched, in eerie coincidence, on the day the president revealed he had COVID—the film is living a second life, alongside fellow Poe adaptations House Of Usher and The Tomb Of Ligeia.

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Series director Corman, whose reign as “King Of The Bs” had just begun at this point, had found a winning formula with House Of Usher in 1960. That film’s star, Vincent Price, was a man of sophisticated tastes who loved fine art and haute cuisine, but whose career had taken a turn toward broad, campy horror movies in the mid-’50s. In a 2013 BFI interview, Corman noted that the film’s blend of high and low culture “fitted Vincent’s persona perfectly”; Price would go on to star in seven out of the eight films in the cycle. Although not quite Shakespeare, Corman’s Poe adaptations had a literary veneer to them that must have appealed to Price, as did the romantic depravity of his characters. Price is sometimes criticized for overacting, and it is difficult to argue with that assessment. But whether that is a problem is simply a matter of taste.

In The Masque Of The Red Death, Price plays Prince Prospero as a hammy cartoon villain, reciting the grandiloquent dialogue with mustache-twirling relish. But he also withholds enough to allow for the possibility of true depravity underneath the Prince’s buffoonish surface, particularly in scenes where the decadence of the Masque escalates into full-on cruelty. Seeing one of his most loyal advisors burning alive, Prospero simply waves his hand and instructs his guards to clear away the mess, callously smirking at the “jest” before moving on to the next diversion. Prospero’s evil is fueled by what he sees as God’s indifference; in his stead, he has made himself God.

That particular scene is the culmination of one of the film’s multiple subplots—a necessary addition given that Poe’s original story is only 10 pages long, with at least two of those dedicated to describing the architecture of Prospero’s castle. The normally efficient Corman struggled to find a screenplay for The Masque Of The Red Death that suited him, eventually taking a pulpy suggestion from The Twilight Zone’s Charles Beaumont to turn Prospero into a Satanist. But even with enough story tacked on to take the film up to a neat 90 minutes, what stands out is its atmosphere and symbolism, rather than its character and plot.

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The Masque Of The Red Death was shot in England, a purely practical decision according to Corman. (As one might expect—with 414 production credits to his name, Corman’s primary goal has always been to make as many movies as possible, as quickly and as cheaply as possible.) In England, he could get additional financing and studio space, as well as two more weeks to shoot; that’s an eternity in B-movie years, although Corman would later complain that the British crew ate up all that extra time with tea breaks. Against sets borrowed from either Beckett or A Man For All Seasons (Corman can’t remember), they staged a remarkably stylish production, given the budget.

That’s due largely to the work of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who would later go on to achieve fame in his own right. Several years before the psychedelic revolution really took off, The Masque Of The Red Death churns with rich, vibrant, glowing color: Yellows, purples, blues, greens, oranges—but never reds. Not until the arrival of the Red Death himself, whose head-to-toe crimson robes are impossible for even an arrogant prince to ignore. “Why should you be afraid to die? Your soul has been dead for a long time,” the figure asks Prospero, facing consequences for the first time in his life. The wages of sin have been a long time coming, but they are, in fact, inescapable. As Poe writes:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

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The Masque Of The Red Death is now streaming on Shudder in the U.S. and Canada.

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