The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Dir - Roger CormanBefore we begin looking at this and looking at my ramblng notes, I think it is a good idea to definitely watch the film:
Which one can do so here (it got taken off Youtube it seems)
And also read the story. It is very short
You can do so here.
We all storied up? Excellent, lets go.
The story follows Francesca (played by cake-queen Jane Asher) who is kidnapped and forced to witness her lover and her father get physically and emotionally tortured in a series of sick games by the Lord Prospero. Prospero meanwhile is saving his subjects from a terrible plague with help from the devil.
Francesca sort of has a character path - but it is very brief. She goes from being the victim of Prospero's vanity and a cowering prisoner
To begrudgingly accepting what is going on, getting dressed all fancy and being cordial to Prospero's guests.
I'm not expecting a film full of screaming Asher - but it would be nice if she was really a character who's actions and motivations matched the situation she's in... she sort of accepts the situation very quickly - even Belle kicked up a fuss when she was captured by the Beast. She isn't really a real person - she is a receiver of Prospero's monologues and that's fine. Because, lets be honest, none of us are going to be Francesca... nobody gives a shit about anyone in this film who isn't Vincent Price.
Prospero kicks up all the main themes of the film - the stuff that I think we need to be looking at. He is an interesting force and the way he behaves (both with his guests and to Francesca) explain a lot about the themes of the film.
The story really only seems to be about the inevitability of death - man locks himself away from the death outside - man throws a party - death comes in the end. So everything else - including the complete characterisation of Prospero comes from the mind of awesome shit-film maker Roger Corman (check out that filmography).
The film really highlights the following key areas - either through Prospero, or through some of his guests - and I think these are the areas that we need to focus on when recreating the Masque
- Dishonesty, naivety and the constant power struggle
- My blind obedience is more valid than your blind obedience
- Corruption of innocence
So lets break it down with some exciting sub-headings.
Dishonesty, naivety and the constant power struggle
Firstly, apologies if this is not how you spell naivety - it looks wrong to me. I'd spell it with an acute accent on an e... but I can't remember how to insert that symbol and my (usually wrong) spellchecker is going with Y.
Prospero's main weakness in this film is believing that he has way more power than he actually does. We know that Prospero is powerful - he is a Prince after all - and from the start we see that he maybe doesn't use his power for good. His attempt at being 'nice' to the poor people in his domain (offering the scraps from the massive party he's throwing) is refused, and as he is offended by this refusal he burns down the village and sentences two of the villagers to death.
Weirdly, I don't think Prospero sees himself as an EVIL man... and for Vincent Price, this is quite a calm performance with very few maniacal cackles. I think he just believes that everyone has to know their place. His place is the tippy top - and these villages need to know that.... if a few peasants have to die for that message to be learnt than so be it.
In fact he invites them to the safety of his castle and only burns the village down when he hears that the Red Death has come. He doesn't want his principality to get all diseased - so he destroys the source.
Prospero's problem is that nobody has ever challenged him - he can kill peasants and burn down villages and nobody cares and whilst his court is full of dishonesty and back stabbing, he still has complete control.
This scene is really sinister if you ask me - both the blind obedience (which we'll come back to) of the court but also the weird sycophantic maniacal laughing.
I find it all really quite sinister and horrible - but it shows the heirachy - everyone within the court is eager to suck up to their master. They'll debase themselves in front of others if it makes their prince happy - if it puts them in a better position, and fuck anyone who gets in the way. The only exceptions here are the 'low classes' - the peasants are constantly rebelling and getting killed for it and Hoptoad the jester (whilst certainly making tricks and using the power struggle for his own advantage) is protecting his wife.
Even Prospero is trying to play games to make himself look better in the eyes of his lord Satan.
My blind obedience is more valid than your blind obedience
This is an interesting one - Prospero firmly believes that Satan is the lord of the universe (in fact when he meets the Red Death and learns this isn't the case you can hear the fear and confusion in Price's voice). His blind faith that Satan can save him from the Red Death is the force that powers this film and that powers Prospero's every decision. He brings his subjects to his castle so that he can bring their souls to Satan.
And yet - he looks down on blind obedience. He talks about the foolishness of Christianity and believing in a dead god, using clumsy falcon analogu. He looks down on the obedience of his subjects but punishes them harshly if they don't.
Do you know how a falcon is trained, my dear? Her eyes are sewn shut. Blinded temporarily, she suffers the whims of her God patiently, until her will is submerged and she learns to serve - as your God taught and blinded you with crosses.This point links back to Prospero's naivety - he believes he is in the right and that he is safe from the inevitability of death... he isn't
However - there is a brilliant bit in the film where obedience is tested, with two prisoners essentially playing Russian Roulette with daggers. We should definitely have some kind of (non-lethal) Russian Roulette going on - maybe a walkabout food based thing (chocolates with one super chilli one?)
We should also have a Satanic ritual at some point like the one Juliana goes through to become Satan's wife - I love a good Satan dream as much as the next man (who wrote a good little study on the dream)
Corruption of innocence
So, I'm aware that there is the potential for this experience to be dark - too dark. Lots of Machiavellian back stabbing and betrayal as well as talk of Devil Worship- but that is largely Prospero.
Most of the party are really there to have fun. They want experiences - they want to see people die for their enjoyment. They want to corrupt the innocence of others.
This is particularly shown in the story of Alfredo's passion for Esmerelda - the tiny dancer who is the fairly disconcerting juxtaposition of an 8 year old girl over dubbed with an adult's voice. Watching her talk is weird. Probably the creepiest bit of the film.
Alfredo is always after the thrills - and whether that is corrupting a woman who looks like a child, or whether it is watching people tortured for his entertainment - he doesn't care how his thrill seeking affect others. Unfortunately he should... because he ends up tricked into a monkey suit and set on fire - because he is a horrible horrible man - I'm not saying we should set anyone on fire... but Alfredo and Hoptoad as ape and trainer would be a fun bit of walkabout to do
This is what we should be emulating for most of it - pure decadence at it's most dangerous level. Blissful ignorance until it all fucks up...
Which brings us to...
The actual Red Death
Here we go - all the themes mentioned above.... the power struggles, the worship of gods and devils, the thrill seeking... all of it means nothing.
Death comes to us all in the end.
A lovely joyous message for us to throw a party around - but there are some really wonderful striking visual elements.
In the video above we get two great elements - The Dance of Death (from 2:24) and the clawing grasping hands of death as the throng fall in on Prospero (from 6:06) - a visually striking scene that means I now finally understand the end of Phantom of the Paradise.
So.... we can do what we want - be cruel and selfish and hurt others to protect ourselves in our lie of a happy ball - but it doesn't matter, because in the end....
ps - who are all the other deaths?