Friday, October 30, 2009

Into the Velvet Darkness: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

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. 

By contrast Jason or Michael would lose a lot of their menace if they spoke. Their silent treatment is scary, but it's a depressing all-too-real kind of scary. With his fiendish laugh Price really just pretends to be scary. He lets you in on the joke and in doing so eliminates the real scariness of the slashers, which is why his films are above all, delightful, not traumatizing (WITCHFINDER GENERAL and a few others being the grim exceptions). 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 perfection as the devil-worshipping 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 greed and lust. Like many a Corman antihero, he's driven to find what lies beyond pain and pleasure, to get to some terrible, usually fatal, level of truth. It's not just lip service. In a way he's like a super-famous rock star, the type for whom all doors are open, all women willing, and everyone catering to his whims, leaving him arrogant but isolated. With all wants catered to the mind is free first to succumb to despair and then to focus in on one's craft, or.... one's god.

Of course, there's a hardened production code burden this Prospero must bear with. For all his freedom, he can't show us any nudity or severed limbs. And all Patrick McGee's evil Alfredo 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. Underneath the evil veneer, Prospero is a gentleman; he's genuinely disgusted by the lip-smacking Alfredo's leering. And he likes his little person entertainer, Hop Toad. When Hop Toad dresses Alfredo in an ape suit, ties him to a chandelier and raises it above the laughing throng and then sets him on fire, Prospero is delighted. When you find Hop Toad give him ten gold pieces as reward for his magnificent jest! He gives Alfredo quite a reward just for smacking a tiny dancer, Esmerelda. Not that it's not worth some retribution, but the man in red seems to think he's good enough to survive. All things are relative. 

In short this is the movie that THE PARTY and THE WILD PARTY and THE WILD ANGELS (Corman, 1966) try to be, but don't have enough of the devil on their side to quite fathom. MASQUE's Prospero and ANGEL's Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) actually have a lot in common: each is a charismatic natural leader forced to endure the uncouthness of their brutish minions, bound to lead packs of dimwitted trogs who've mistaken unrestrained gluttony and lust 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 wielding of power and admire their lack of insecurity, their ability to be beyond good and evil, genuinely searching for something rather than just spouting hipster credos, their self honesty and complexity. Caught between the dull conformity of good (Zzzz) and the banal destructiveness of evil (zzzz), they find themselves alone and aching for amusement. Too jaded to be satisfied with the gauche pleasure indulged in by his pack, Prosper's budding relationship with Francesca (Jane Asher) the innocent peasant redhead, prefigures the special bond between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in LOST IN TRANSLATION. It's beyond some kind of older man lechery or young woman father complex. It's a connection of mentor and mentee fused to a kind of twin star orbit that illuminates the bond between the two actors as well as their characters.

For me and some of us in the rock group I was in, the lifestyle around sex, drugs and rock and roll were a way to expand the mind and get loaded. For a lot of our hairy fans it was just 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 Corman's X-THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES, and THE TRIP! Do you doubt it? Can you 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 David Lee score, this scene should be familiar to anyone whose ever dropped hardcore psychedelics (or had a really bad fever) and had to undergo similar panic-soaked hazing rituals at the hands of mortality's "threshold dwellers" before they could be totally free. "I have survived my own death," she later announces. She has known terror and moved past it. As experienced meditation practitioners and trippers knpw: once you face those grinning demon dervishes and the impure and selfish/fearful parts of you ripped to shreds symbolically, you are free...

Until the hawks of monkey mind ego chatter comes swooping back in.

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 (at first) 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 (and hypocrites) 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, all while covered in red paint and forced to participate in modern expressionist dance!

If you still doubt the lysergic glory of this movie, remember five things: 1. It's got one of the best Corman scores ever (Corman had to use a Brit, so Les Baxter was out, though I thought it was Les for years - as a comment below points out, it's David Lee) / 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. 5) It ends with a trippy modern dance. The whole rainbow spectrum  of various robed Deaths is a little pretentious but The Seventh Seal had been very influential a few years earlier and this was--after all--happening after death. Tripping, you can always imagine when things get super weird, like everyone turning red and freeze-framing, that you may have died and not known it out there on the dance floor. The part where all the crowd's red hands are reaching out at him as Prospero tries to escape in a kind of Batman villain sideways dance move captures just what it's like when you're trying to get out of a packed Dead Show on too much acid, or Liz Taylor at the beach in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Asher is pretty good as the girl who feels her morality gradually crumble in the thrall of Prospero's seduction strategies. Though on opposite sides of the divide, the pair share an "only two real people in the room" connection that evokes, in a weird way, that between Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. The only other person really to stand out as a cool character is Skip Martin, who brings a great deep voice and a crafty blend of manly complexity to Hop Toad. His utterly macabre vengeance, his sly way of admitting to Alfredo that his costume will probably "get a little warm," or the mad grin when he snaps the whip commands "get back!" show why Prospero is so considerate of him (even bowing back when he and Esmerelda--the tiny dancer--are introduced as the evening's first entertainment.

In real life, Asher knew something of this weird relationship. She broke off her engagement with Paul' McCartney when she realized he was way too much of a libertine. She wanted something more old-fashioned and monogamous. Somehow it's very apropos to the film, don't you think? Are the Beatles not in their way as thoroughly famous and kowtowed to as Prospero, and Asher like an innocent inspiration / the one person neither inclined to kowtow nor act the groupie, hence made desirable? As she says early on, "I have no learning!" Here, at least, is a girl who refused to get hitched to the cute millionaire first, then get a juicy alimony arrangement after catching him in the act of libertinism. It's that kind of integrity that Asher radiates. She is innocence at its most seductive to a decadent. What devil could refuse such a challenge, even knowing in advance he was likely to lose? What else are challenges for?


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

    Love this. Seriously great writing.

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

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

  4. " 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.

  5. "It's got one of the best scores ever from Les Baxter...."

    Wrong. The score is by David Lee....but yes, it is fantastic!

  6. "It's got one of the best scores ever from Les Baxter...."

    Wrong. The score is by David Lee....but yes, it is fantastic!

    1. Of course, they had to use a Brit. I forgot. Not sure why I assumed it was Les all this time - but thanks Brandon!

  7. Love the Corman/Price work. As for Paul,he was crazy to let Jane get away! He plays like an innocuous,regular guy but what a horndog he was! He just wasn't as forthcoming about it as John. Say what you will about Lennon,he laid it on the table no matter what!


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