Friday, October 30, 2009

Greatest Acid Movies #18: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)

When it comes to seasonal horror movies, there are two kinds of creepy - the Jason Voorhees/zombie creepy and the Boris Karloff-Vincent Price creepy. The latter is what I prefer, for it comes with a sly wink that lets you know when the bodies are counted yours won't be one of them. Price and Karloff make the viewer an insider, a friend in the RICHARD III tradition of horror. The horror of Karloff and Price in other words, is inclusive. Part of this comes with possessing the theatrical "voice" of villainy. As I live near the the Lee Strasberg School of Acting (just north of Union Sq.) I'm daily reminded of its slogan: "We entered the theater on the wings of a dream." Price, by contrast, enters our dreams on the wings of the theater. He dispels nightmares by the force of mellifluent theatrical ham diction; an inherent giddiness in his velvet voice makes him seem always as if it's somebody's special birthday and a surprise party is imminent. 

Voice is everything in a Price film; the more he talks the less scary the film, but the more fun. Jason would lose a lot of his menace if he spoke; imagine him making dumb bon mots through his hockey mask and half the horror is lost. The silent treatment is scary, but it's a depressing kind of scary. With his faux- fiendish laugh Price really just pretends to be scary. He lets you in on the joke and in doing so eliminates "real" scariness, which is why his films are above all, delightful. The zombies of Romero and his imitators just eat you; unlike le gourmand Price, they don't give a shit how you taste. Nothing slows them down as they stagger and chomp. If you want to get Price off your scent, just toss him a piece of scenery; he'll gladly chew it in your stead.

In MASQUE especially, Price is the picture of an amazing party host. As the debauched Prince Prospero he's having a ball, albeit one with a guest list of gluttons, slavering toadies and ennui-ridden perverts. Being the only one with anything close to a genuine wit in the whole place (aside from Hop Toad), Prospero relies on his higher purpose--the serving of his dark master Satan--to keep him from getting depressed. Prospero might indulge himself with vice occasionally, but it's always for a point, a spiritual debasing as suits his dark lord's whims; his macabre jests indicate an aesthete beyond petty concerns of life and death as opposed to merely gratifying grisly whims and petty lusts (ala CALIGULA), which are embodied in the far more crass lord played by Patrick McGee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE).

Of course, there's a hardened production code burden this Prospero must bear. For all his freedom, he can't show us any nudity or open wounds. And all McGee has to do is suggest there's "other things" to be done in the name of evil besides silky talk and he's basically marked for death. And what a death! When you find Hop Toad give him ten gold pieces as reward for his magnificent jest!


In short this is the movie that THE PARTY and THE WILD PARTY and THE WILD ANGELS (Corman, 1966) try to be. MASQUE's Prospero and ANGEL's Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) actually have a lot in common: each is a charismatic natural leader (a stand-in for Corman himself?) forced to endure the uncouthness of their worshipful minions, bound to lead packs of dimwitted trogs who've mistaken their gluttonous earthly lusts for true freedom. Compare the hilariously disturbing scene wherein Prospero orders his guests to roll around on the floor (like the filthy animals they are) to the climax of ANGELS where the gang trashes a church in a drunken orgy of destruction. Heavenly's admonition to the priest, "We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man... and we wanna get loaded... and we wanna have a good time." is not dissimilar to Prospero's decrees, such as: "If a God of love and light ever did exist, He is long since dead. Someone... some...thing rules in his place."

We like Prospero the same way we like Heavenly Blues: we relish their graceful power and admire their lack of insecurity, their ability to be beyond good and evil rather than just spouting hipster credos to brave souls are, like us, caught between the dull conformity of good (Zzzz) and the banal destructiveness of evil (zzzz), aching for amusement, and too jaded to be satisfied with the gauche pleasures indulged in by their pack.

I say these things because I was the same way in my band. For me and some of us in the group, sex, drugs and rock and roll were a way to expand the mind and get loaded and not be hassled by the man. For a lot of our hairy fans it was a chance to get heheheh fucked up! Wooo! Mexican Mud! Yeah! In that sense, Prospero prefigures Timothy Leary, the acid generation, and the later 'e' generation. And thus MASQUE is one of the most legit psychedelic horror movies until THE TRIP! Do you doubt it? Can you not look at Corman's MASQUE and not think of some far away rave or acid test of your dreams?

Consider the Satanic initiation of Hazel Court in the film: desperate to regain Prospero's favor after the arrival of lovely Jane Asher, Court undergoes a private ceremony where she is "stabbed" by a series of shamanic figures from throughout the ages: there's an Egyptian, Japanese, African, and Russian shaman/ghost, all waving their scythes and knives over her prostrate immobile heaving buxom figure, distorted through sheet metal reflection and green tinting. With it's thumping Rite of Spring-y Les Baxter score (later ripped by John Williams -- see if you recognize it!), this scene should be familiar to anyone whose ever dropped hardcore psychedelics (or had a really bad fever) and had to undergo similar life/death blurring at the hands of "the threshold dwellers" before they could be free. And once you face those grinning demon dervishes and are ripped to shreds symbolically (but it sure feels real to you) then you are free...for awhile, anyway.

Similarly, anyone whose ever tried to have a cultivated evening of psychedelically enhanced dancing, talking and group sex only to have the vibe ruined by the late-inning arrival of pinks, townies, burnouts, jonesers and/or wallies will cheer when Patrick McGee's (left) beady-eyed little ballerina molester receives grisly retribution at the hands of Hop Toad (Skip Martin). And who can fail to notice how Charles Beaumont's clever screenplay casts the humble Christians of the village as dull whiners while Prospero remains ever-complex and witty? Like Richard III, Prospero may be "evil" but he's the one taking the trouble to invite you along and to keep the film you're watching full of interesting bits of business. That is, until death comes for him and he has to face the ultimate threshold dwellers all by himself, covered in red paint and forced to participate in modern expressionist dance!

If you still doubt the lysergic glory of this movie, remember three things: 1. It's got one of the best scores ever from Les Baxter / 2. It's genuine Poe - which means you can smell the absinthe from across the sea of time / 3) Nicholas Roeg does the cinematography (lots of great camera movement); and 4) Jane Asher was once engaged to Paul McCartney.

Asher is pretty good as the girl who feels her morality gradually crumble in the thrall of Prospero's seduction strategies. In real life, she broke off her and Paul's engagement when she realized Prospero, I mean Paul, was way too much of a libertine. She wanted something more old-fashioned and monogamous. Somehow it's very apropo to the film, don't you think? As she says early on, "I have no learning!"

4 comments:

  1. "The zombies just eat you; unlike le gourmand Price, they don't give a shit how you taste."

    Love this. Seriously great writing.

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  2. Thanks, mate. Always good to hear from a representative of the lovely Inuit peoples

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  3. You're blog is awesome
    seriously, keep up the great writing

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  4. "...an inherent giddiness in his velvet voice that makes him seem always as if he's restraining his giddy excitement that it's somebody's special birthday."

    That is the best-ever description of Price and I shall forever treasure it, to use when trying to explain him to the uninitiated. All glory to you, late though this praise may be.

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