Reviews: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) & The Raven (1963)
For special Halloween viewing, you can always depend on a Vincent Price/Roger Corman movie such as The Fall of the House of Usher, Tales of Terror, and The Pit and the Pendulum. They are dusted off every year for cable streaming and home video viewing. But this year, one Roger Corman film takes on an added dimension of horror.
The Masque of the Red Death, loosely based on the short story by—who else—Edgar Allan Poe, has a special modern application in 2020. The film itself is a heightened and slightly campy tale of a pandemic plague that sweeps medieval Italy. The city-state is cruelly ruled by an egotistical Satan-worshipping prince. The bombastic and obnoxious ruler is played with
wild abandon by Vincent Price. He is loud and vicious and will listen to nothing or no one.
Recklessly deciding he knows best how to handle the “Red Death” plague, Vincent simply locks up his castle door and throws a big masked ball for his recklessly hedonistic upper-class friends. All must come in masked costume, but The Prince is convinced he needs no mask since the Devil himself will protect him and him alone from the gruesome pandemic. But (spoiler alert!) neither his power position or evil protector can keep him from catching The Red Death,
RED DEATH & RAVEN AT
It’s hard to beat a Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price mashup for Halloween thrills, both schlocky and legit, and Corman’s over-the-top take on Poe’s year-of-the-plague Red Death has 2020 written all over it.
and by the end of the movie not only does Vincent have blood poring out of his pores as he shrivels up and dies but so do all his upper-crust guests. Only three people are left alive in the entire Kingdom by the time the credits roll: An innocent young lover, a baby, and an old man.
Any other year, this over-the-top horror story might seem broadly campy, but in 2020, it is indeed as horrifying as Roger Corman may have intended it to be back in 1964. It may seem even more disturbing!
Many now consider this the best of the Corman/Price/Poe movies. It’s more literate than most of its predecessors and with its devious “Little People,” animalistic partygoers, and deviant sexual innuendos, it is genuinely macabre. Add to that the committed performances from Price and his fabulous leading lady Hazel Court, who always adds a good measure of superb British articulation and Hollywood glamour, and you have a horror movie that’s a cut above. The verbiage even has a touch of the tragic tone of a Shakespearean play.
The production quality is also a cut above other Corman creations. It’s filmed in vivid Pathécolor with an intensely multi-colored production design (perhaps to make up for the fact it’s not in the lush and more subtle Technicolor.) The movie is also quite authentic-looking—supposedly because Red Death was filmed on left-over sets from the historical epic film Becket, also released in 1964. Corman must be given an “A” for effort and “A+” for inventiveness for bringing a good-looking production in under budget. However, it is still a budget horror film from the 1960s, and its pacing and lack of a great music score (Bernard Herrmann was not in the budget) make it hard to take as an authentic film classic.
Yet, all entertainment changes from year to year, and right now this spooky tale might just put you in a real Halloween mood. And, beware—when you watch it with friends, don’t be a fool like Vincent Price—wear your mask to the Masque.
While we are on the subject of Roger Corman and Vincent Price, let me recommend their 1963 entry, The Raven. This film had no intention to be authentically scary in any way. Peter Lorre plays the Raven in bird and human form in a highly comedic performance. And it has a fabulous supporting cast: Boris Karloff, a very sexy
Hazel Court, and a very young JackNicholson—in tights, no less. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and wryly funny. Again, the garish Pathécolor livens up the dreary plaster-of-Paris castle walls. There’s also a good amount of animated sorcerer’s magic rays to add to the fun. Unlike The Masque of the Red Death, this film survives solely as camp. But Halloween is also a time for kitschy fun and macabre frolic.
As a nine-year-old boy, I loved the silly satirical suspense, and it had just enough scary moments to amuse but not disturb me. It even made me a fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the film, I tried making a couple of Corman/Poe type “Grand Guignol” horror movies of my own with my Super 8 movie camera. But years later, I realized I must have loved Poe even more that I thought. When I grew up and moved to New York, my apartment on West 84th Street was built on the site where he wrote “The Raven.” In the 19th century, the address had been his family’s farmhouse! Now it’s “The Raven Court Apartments.” It still has a big black stone raven right outside. My apartment looked right over the statue. But just as Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Quoth the Granite Raven ‘Nevermore.’”
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades, including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.