Masque of the Red Death [1964] – [thoughts + spoilers]

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Film: Masque of the Red Death [1964]

Setting: Fake Medieval castle

Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher

Director: Roger Corman

Plot: Prince Prospero is on his way back home to his impressive castle when some peasants make loud noises. Irritated, he gets out of his carriage and threatens to kill two men who complain about having no food. Jane Asher begs him for mercy as the two men are her father and love interest. Prospero says mercy is for weaklings, and compares the two men to pet dogs biting the hand of their master, even though biting isn’t really the same as mentioning that people are starving to death.

Luckily, an old woman has red paint on her face nearby, which spooks the Prince enough for him to grab Jane Asher and hole up in his castle with other nobles so they can escape the red death. He also takes the two men as prisoners so they can provide entertainment for him and his guests.

In the castle is something rare, a strong female character, and she’s not happy about Prospero giving her room to a peasant girl. The rest of the film deals with Prospero worshiping Satan and trying to convince Jane Asher that Satan is great, mostly by doing reprehensible things and completely failing to justify them.

Subplot: Another noble called Alfredo hits a dwarf and then gets wine thrown in his face. He then goes into lurk mode and flits about like a bored teenager who’s too bored to even try and sneak into Jane Asher’s room at night and sexually assault her, which is what I thought he would do.

Dwarf subplot: A dwarf watches his female friend, also a dwarf, get hit by Alfredo and plots revenge. His plot: convince Alfredo to dress up as a gorilla for the ball, whip him a bit, tie him to a chandelier then burn him alive. Thanks to Alfredo’s lobotomy before the film, it works.

Hazel Court subplot: Julianna, Prospero’s girlfriend, wants to marry Satan and either be Prospero’s lover forever or supplant him as Satan’s favourite. The idea that Prospero might just be mad seems to escape her.

Another Poe story?

Yes. And there’s still six more to come.

I watched this one after watching The Raven, and honestly, I would’ve watched it even if it wasn’t related to that one as the plot synopsis is so unique.

A Medieval Italian prince worshipping Satan in his castle while the nearby villagers die from the Red Death.

How many modern films even attempt this kind of thing?

Not many.

The plot doesn’t even matter really. The only forward momentum comes from the two men who are captured and have to find a way to escape while also rescuing Jane Asher before she gets brainwashed by Prince Prospero. The bulk of the film consists of Prospero [Vincent Price, in case that wasn’t clear] wandering around his castle, humiliating people, training Julianna in the ways of Satanism and trying to wrap his cultish fingers around the brain of innocent, god-fearing villager, Jane Asher.

I think her name’s Francesca in the film…I should probably use that from now on as Jane Asher isn’t really famous outside of the UK…not even in the UK anymore actually…I don’t even know where I know her from…

In some ways the plot is similar to a Richard Linklater film. You’ve got the Red Death causing chaos outside the castle, but we don’t see most of that, just the results of it, and it doesn’t affect the characters in the castle as…well, they fear the red death, but they don’t dwell on it because they believe the castle walls are strong enough to keep it out.

Instead, just like Prospero, they spend their time drinking, playing around and probably having strange sex in their rooms. They do exactly what Prospero tells them to do, even getting on the floor and walking around like a pig, probably because he is their protector and they know how capricious he can be. And by capricious, I really mean cruel and sadistic.

Example, when one noble comes late to the castle gates, he shoots him in the neck with an arrow rather than let him in.

I suppose it could be argued he was protecting the people who arrived on time as that noble may have been infected with the red death…I guess it’s debatable…

Why Satanism?

I wondered the same thing at first. Why not just make him cruel and sadistic without the religious subplot? I suppose they could’ve, but the story would’ve lost a lot of depth that way.

If he didn’t believe in anything, or if it wasn’t made clear that he believed in anything, he would’ve been reduced to being simply a cruel bastard.

But because he worships Satan, and because he comes from a long line of ancestors who also worshipped Satan, it elevates him to something else. He not only believes in torturing other people, but he has a belief system to back it up.

It could’ve been God worship instead…

It was the 60’s at the time, and witchcraft/Satanism was practised a bit more than in the 50’s, maybe that’s why it’s Satan he worships…

But then it’s based on a Poe story…I’ve never read it, so I don’t know if Satanism was taken directly from the text, but if it was then it was the 1840’s that had a thing for Satanism.

Does that make sense?

Poe may have just been ahead of his time in writing about it…now that I think about it, and its portrayal in the film, it does seem like a 19th Century specific version of Satanism as it conflates the worship of the devil with immoral behaviour…or in a more basic reduction, the worship of Satan = being an evil prick.

I’ve gone back and watched the film again and I’ve got some problems with that last paragraph I wrote.

i] Prospero does talk about Satan representing truth and the reality of things, as well as the chaos that would happen if noble people like him were ever overthrown.

ii] As a character, Prospero is not without compassion. He saves Francesca at the end, and throws wine in the face of Alfredo after he slaps the dwarf.

The first one is problematic as this is similar to the modern version of Satanism, which celebrates Lilith, the actual first woman on Earth who told God to piss off, and the concept that Lucifer is the truth teller and actually kills fewer people than God in the bible. Much fewer people.

Satanism doesn’t mean you are evil, which is what Prospero seems to be telling Francesca, but then he contradicts himself a lot in the film by killing and torturing others, even his supposed friends.

Basically, the message of the film confuses me…probably because I’m trying to attach a moral judgment to it: is Satanism a thing of evil or a thing of good? Or not good, more like a thing of okayness.

Satanism is not as bad as the Red Death

There’s a scene near the end where the surviving villagers go to the castle to plead with Prospero to let them in. The man who was imprisoned earlier, and then set free to die outside, tells the villagers that Prospero’s castle is worse, that he’s in league with the devil and likes to shoot arrows at people who come to his castle gate and beg for mercy.

The villagers duly ignore the man and go to the gate, where Prospero is waiting with his arrows.

What is this saying?

Villagers are dumb?

They rely on a protector, just like people rely on a God, even if that protector is evil or, in the case of God, seemingly absent?

I’ve just checked and apparently something similar to this happened in 13th century Croatia. There was a disease called ‘The Grey Death’ and the only ones to survive were the nobles in one of the castles. According to legend, they holed up when the disease was first rumoured and refused to let anyone in. They shot anyone who came to the gates, even the nobles, even priests, and apparently it was during this time that the prince of the castle started worshipping Satan. His theory was: ‘priests and god-fearing villagers were being killed, so maybe everything he’d learnt in childhood needed to be inverted in order to make sense of everything. In Masque of the Red Death, satanic worship had been in the family for centuries, but the Croatian events used the disease as the seeding point.

“Men create their own Gods”

It’s the Red Death himself [itself?] that says this line to Prince Prospero at the end, while wearing the same face as his about-to-be victim.

Therefore, by this reasoning, Satan doesn’t exist. Prospero made him up in order to satisfy his own needs…or to justify his reign of terror…which fits his character like a medieval glove.

Evidence to back this up:

i] In his first scene, Prospero justifies the execution of two men by making a disobedient dog analogy. I think I mentioned it earlier…the dog bites the master that has taken care of it his whole life, the dog needs to die. It’s incredibly absolute, and completely incommensurate with what the two men had done, which was to complain about not having any food.

The fact that Prospero feels the need to justify his actions to a peasant girl shows us what kind of person he is. He can’t just do evil things, he needs to base them on something, and Satanism is the ultimate crutch.

ii] His reasoning is pretty solid: he never denies the evil he does, because he sees it as necessary. He claims Satanism accepts the truth of the world, that it is cruel and unjust and humans would turn on each other the moment their basic needs are not met.

Quark in DS9 made a similar point once: ‘humans are friendly and tolerant as long as they have everything they need. But take away their food or their shelter and they become like animals.’

Therefore, he can worship Satan and justify such worship because he knows what men have done in the name of God and what God hasn’t done to protect villagers from the likes of the Red Death. I think he even says at one point: ‘I’m an evil bastard, yet I am still here, whereas you are good and will die horribly.’

This statement is disproved at the end of the film when Prospero and all the other nobles are killed by The Red Death, while an old man who stayed in the village the whole time survived.

In short: there is no pattern to death. Rejecting your belief in one divine protector to shack up with its opposite is not gonna protect you, just as being rich and having a castle won’t stop germs finding their way into your bloodstream.

iii] Prospero is a noble who has lived his whole life in a castle, above other nobles and commoners alike.

He is exactly what he is simply because he knows his position is ridiculous. Yet, he also defends his position, saying there would be chaos if men like him were stripped of power. Again, it’s the chicken and the egg. He bases all his beliefs on the way things are…e.g. the way the villagers still flock to his castle to escape the Red Death even though they know he will slaughter them…and ignores every exception, like the two men who refuse to fight each other.

To these men, he simply asserts their exceptionalism and says, guys, fuck you, you’re still going to die.

Prospero is a hypocrite who has built up a defence system to deal with the world he lives in. He has complete faith in Satan and it is only at the end that he realises that death is the only absolute.

Red Death, Yellow Death, Blue Death…so many choices!

At the end of the film, various colours of death appear and tell each other how many people they have killed. They seem pretty down about it, and don’t really make moral judgments about any of their victims…they simply state numbers.

But…

By personifying death…by literally having it portrayed as a personal force of guys in different colour cloaks…you’re making it seem like there actually might be a God or a Satan or something beyond what we can see.

Unless Death is the only true God…

Another problem…or inconsistency…is the way Prospero seems able to speak loudly throughout the castle without any kind of sound system plugged in. This implies that there is some paranormal power operating in the film…but if men create their own Gods then how can this omnipresent voice be explained?

I’m not sure…

Strong female characters?

Jane Asher is a little one note, though I suppose she does have an arc of sorts: from true believer who can’t bear to see anyone hurt to true believer who watches blankly as an asshole in a gorilla suit is burnt alive in front of her.

There is also ambiguity in her relationship with Prospero: she sees him do terrible things, but still kisses him on the cheek at the end. It’s possibly because he refused to shoot the child by the castle gate a few scenes earlier, but then again, I’m not sure she saw or knew about that kindness.

Julianna is a more interesting character, who also has an arc: she goes from woman interested in Prospero and willing to join Satan to woman who joins Satan and starts to think she’s risen a level above Prospero.

She says after her weird sacrifice dream: ‘I am now Satan’s wife, closer to him than even you, Prospero. But I’ll still stay with you in this life as I have nothing better to do and you have a lovely castle.’

Seconds later she’s pecked to death by a falcon…I’m not sure what this means exactly…or why Prospero decided to kill her in this way.

Maybe she got too big for her boots and he didn’t like it?

As far as the Bechdel Test goes, this film passes it on a superficial level as the two female characters talk about Satanism.

However, it’s slightly problematic as they refer to Satan as a male, so technically it means they’re talking about a man.

But then, this is set in medieval times, so not to refer to Satan as a male would be modernising the era to suit a more liberal context i.e. what we think now. Or what some of us think now. Go on twitter and type in ‘feminists’ and you’ll see how many men there are still hating women. Or go on youtube and watch a video about muslims or black people and then scroll down to the comments and…actually, don’t as it’ll make you depressed.

What does this film actually mean?

In one line: Vincent Price doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s so confident and charming that everyone thinks he does.

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