The Masque of the Red Death 1964 *****

masqueYou 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.

Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

Click the link below to see if this film can be seen in your country, and for what price.

Theatre of Blood 1973 ****

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Everyone’s a critic, or at least, that’s how it seems to veteran actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) in Douglas Hickox’s celebrated slice of Grand Guiginol. Lionheart is angry at the kind of reviews he gets, and decides to take revenge on the Theatre Critics Guild with the aid of his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), who seemingly disguises herself as Jeff Lynne from the Electric Light Orchestra to do his bidding. The critics themselves are a wonderfully cast bunch, all destined to be offed in a bloody fashion determined by the works of Shakespeare. Dennis Price, Arthur Lowe, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, Harry Andrews and Ian Hendry are amongst the victims, and there’s also time for such diversions as a sword-fight on trampolines. The neat idea is something of a precursor of both Paddington 2 and Se7en, although David Fincher probably wouldn’t have much time for a comic detective duo of Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes. Michael J Lewis contributes beautiful, lush music that underscores the melancholy of the conceit; Theatre of Blood is a fun romp that proves that black comedy can work with the right, light touch.

Scream and Scream Again 1970 ****

ScreamDespite the trio of big names, noted 1960s comic Alfred Marks largely dominates the policier segments as a tough cop, Popeye Doyle-style, who is investigating murderous proceedings. His attempts to track down a seemingly super-human killer are intercut with a hospital bed scene where a patient repeatedly wakes up to find further limbs removed. In such a surreal film, it almost feels like a let down to have a third storyline involving Christopher Lee tracking down Vincent Price, explaining that he was heading up the usual secret government plot to create genetically modified super soldiers. Played by Michael Gothard, this crazed killer can rip off his own arm to avoid a handcuffing to a police car bumper and preys on post-club ‘dolly birds’. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing’s character plays politics in a police state vividly depicted in a few nightmare sequences in the mould of 1984, a science-fictional vibe that runs against the grain of a film that is clearly 1967 London down to the inevitable psychedelic freak-out performed by Amen Corner.

The Monster Club 1981 ***

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The last of the Amicus portmanteau films is a genuine curiosity, mixing pop music performances with stories by R Chetwynd-Hayes. The wraparound story sees Hayes (John Carradine) vampirised by Eramus (Vincent Price) and introduced to a nightclub that’s akin to the Star Wars cantina. A horror film seemingly aimed at kids, it includes such child friendly items as songs from Scottish Springsteen BA Robertson and UB 40, a lengthy striptease section and three full-blooded horror stories; one examines a mysterious creature called The Shadmock who offers a job to Angela (Barbara Kellerman), a family vampire story in which Richard Johnson is tracked down by Donald Pleasance, vampire hunter, and a creepy finale in which a horror director (a haggard Stuart Whitman, presumably another children’s favourite) is trapped in a village inhabited by Humghouls. As the synopsis suggests, this is a very eccentric film, peppered with familiar faces (Simon Ward, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee) and marking something of a sea change in the history of horror; by the 80’s, horror was less about old-stagers than doing it for the kids. And even if Price’s speech about the dangers of nuclear power seems a little apropos of nothing, Stevie Lange’s song The Stripper is a belter.

The Masque of the Red Death 1964 ****

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A rare combination; Roger Corman, producer king of the B movie exploitation film teams up for a directorial outing with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, whose artistic gift led on to Don’t Look Now and The Man Who fell To Earth. The result, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, is something of a triumph, taking the hammy medieval fun of the AIP pictures and elevating it to high art. Using some of the sets for Becket (1964), Corman’s lavish film depicts Prospero (Vincent Price), who discovers that the red death is ravaging the countryside, and holds a spectacular ball within the walls of his castle so that the rich can party while the poor rot outside. He choses Francesca (Jane Asher) as a plaything for the evening, but his plan attracts the attention of rebellious villagers. Corman and Roeg get everything right; the red-suited figure of death moving through the party, the series of multi-coloured rooms the characters pass through, all are rendered is a fabulously vivid and beautiful fashion. Poe’s story has a bleak and caustic world-view, and beneath the pretty pictures, The Masque of the Red Death nails the banality of evil in colourful style. On Amazon Instant.