For my money, one of the most important movie studios of all time is American International Pictures, or AIP for short. The Samuel Z. Arkoff formula paired with Roger Corman’s slick production style cranked out movie after movie with such efficiency that money was usually left over in such quantity that Corman could turn around, use the same sets, whatever actors had nothing better to do over the weekend and make another movie on the fly. The man is a machine. The finest of the batch, though, were easily the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Corman teamed up with Vincent Price and devoted the full allotted budget to create some of the finest, most colorful gothic horror movies of all time. If Price wasn’t enough, you could also occasionally find Boris Karloff and/or Peter Lorre involved. The movies usually take some liberties with Poe’s short stories, but they always maintain the macabre tone that Poe was communicating, even when the idea was twisted into a comedy, such as the case was for The Raven.
Even better, AIP tapped a lot of writers who would go on to write with Rod Serling on some of The Twilight Zone’s finest episodes. Case in point, Charles Beaumont who wrote such episodes as Perchance To Dream and Living Doll also lent his writing talents here. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that AIP’s Corman-produced Poe flicks are totally awesome and if there’s one that I really liked, it was The Masque of the Red Death.
In medieval England, the satanic Prince Prospero runs his fiefs with an iron fist. He also lives in mortal terror of a comic plague called The Red Death which seems to be destroying everything like the Black Plague with symptoms similar to the Ebola Virus. Anyone from the outside who approaches his castle is shot with crossbows. Kept within the confines of his castle are other nobles who seem to be spending their time partying. Along for the ride is a captive christian villager that Prospero is doing his best to corrupt. On the menu for festivities is the titular Masquerade where everyone is forbidden to wear red. There is also a subplot about a midget jester and his revenge on one of the noblemen and the fate of Prospero’s consort’s soul. Prospero thinks he has it made but in typical Poe tradition, there’s a nasty surprise waiting at the climax of the film.
You really can’t go wrong with Vincent Price. The guy plays evil with the greatest of ease. I suppose it helps that he genuinely loved being the bad guy and never felt like he had been pigeonholed. Masque falls squarely in the middle of Price’s most prolific period and it’s pretty clear that he’s having a great time with with the AIP crew. He’s thrust into this sinister role, directing the actions of the people beneath him in the social hierarchy, toying with the lives of others and extolling the virtues of satanic worship. This is the role the man was meant to play. I could have started this review with my usual windbaggery and then linked you to a page that says Starring Vincent Price and ended it right there. The importance of the man as a character actor and his place in the movie is of the highest priority. Often, the reason to watch these Poe flicks is to see Vincent Price doing his wicked thing. That distinct voice and hypnotic eyes dressed in Rennaissance Faire garb is the selling point. But leaving it at that would be selling the movie short.
Corman’s b-flicks always get the shaft from the greater public. People who only know the man through the antics of Mystery Science Theater 3000 have a tendency to dismiss his movies and make their own weak attempts at riffing on the movie when in many instances, I feel like Corman, his directors and cast got away with a much better product than they probably should have. It’s this 1962 to 1964 period of AIP where the movies, made on little budgets and tight shooting schedules of only a few weeks, came away being extremely slick productions with a charm that elevates them from the usual schlock of the era. This could have easily come off looking like a costume drama directed by Burt I. Gordon or Russ Meyer, what with its busty chicks in bodices but there’s an element aside from the electrifying performance of Price that elevates it.
Poe’s source material was darker than most people of his time were willing to embrace but like the directors of the 1970’s, he often poked and prodded at social conditions of the time with such subtlety that no one noticed that The Masque of the Red Death or Hop-Frog, the other Poe short integrated into the AIP picture had an undercurrent that was very much about class war. The climactic danse macabre where the figure in red, thought by Prospero to be the devil, turns out to be a stark message in blood to all that states in morbid fashion that no matter what your station in life, you’re still going to die like all the rest. Prospero takes such great measures to keep himself and his loyalists safe within his walls from the filth and disease of the peasantry just outside but whether it be payment for his own wicked lifestyle or the plain truth that you can’t stave off death when it’s your time to go, Prospero pays his bill.
For such a little movie, there’s an awful lot going on. The revenge of Hop-Toad pads things out a bit as well and give us a bit more knife twisting if the agony of Prospero wasn’t enough already.
Available on the fantastic Midnight Movies line from MGM, and a fucking steal, at that, there is no reason why you shouldn’t own this movie and cherish it. It’s the United States’ answer the UK’s Hammer Films. A dreary, gothic horror piece featuring an icon of horror cinema at his absolute best. If you’re not already a fan of Vincent Price, do yourself a favor and get with the program.