You have to be careful what you wish for; the universe has a way of conspiring to give you what you want in a way that you don’t. It’s a staple theme of the horror, from the EC Crypt-keeper to Amicus, and the key text is probably WW Jacobs’ short story The Monkey’s Paw. With streaming becoming the opiate of the people circa 2020, the audience for this blog has swollen, rising over 50 per-cent this year so far, but at some unwelcome cost; cinemas lie closed worldwide, the schedule of hotly anticipated gems abruptly emptied, the future uncertain.
Shot by the great director Nicolas Roeg as a gun for hire, The Masque of the Red Death is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and was originally published back in 1842. Poe knew all about cholera and tuberculosis from personal pain, but the Red Death featured is a fictional disease, as befits a writer’s fantasy. Writer/director Roger Corman and Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont shift the story to Italy, where the plague ravages the country, and the rich seek to protect themselves by building a wall to keep the victims of the pestilence out of their reach, as well as their sight. The amoral Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) plans a feast to celebrate their good fortune, little imagining that the barriers he’s created to keep the disease out will in fact seal it inside the palatial compound he’s constructed. Although his actions have made the plight of the locals considerably worse, Prospero is in denial; he forbids anyone to wear red to his party in case is evokes thoughts of what he seeks to keep outside. Instead, Prospero creates opulence, hoping to distract with his own wealth, a series of rooms in different colours, leading to the Black Room where Prospero will eventually confront the red-cloaked figure that pursues him.
Producer Sam Arkoff thought the result was ‘too arty farty’ but this is the best of Corman’s many and varied body of films, providing a ingenious gloss on Poe’s story, with lots of cruel action to demonstrate how the lack of a moral compass in a leader leads to physical decay. Genre fans will enjoy seeing Hazel Court and Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Nigel Green, while Roeg’s vision brings something unique to Corman’s well-upholstered series of Poe-inspired works. Price makes a perfect Prospero, a Satanist wrongly believing that money will prove his salvation; no matter how elaborate his castles and parties are, the corruption he imagines that he can escape is baked into his very soul, wriggle on the hook as he might.
There is nothing new under the sun; fictional plagues run from Greek tragedy to Contagion, but Poe’s dark imaginings, borne from personal experience, are worth reviving in these troubled times. Horror provides a healthy look at what scares us, so we might make a better job of the lives we lead. The Masque of the Red Death is a classic story, with a clear message that Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities brilliantly appropriated to consider the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. But like most great horror stories, the terrifying notion here is a timeless one; that the die is already cast, and we, in our hubris, just don’t know it yet. At the end of the movie, we return to our lives, and strive to make sure that Poe’s dark fantasy does not become our unwanted reality.