Saturday, January 21, 2006

Day 51: "The Masque of the Red Death"

Director: Roger Corman 1964
The early 60s. It’s a Wednesday afternoon—any Wednesday between September and June. At St. Kevin’s grammar school in Queens, the good Sisters of Mercy are distributing the weekly movie ratings from the Legion of Decency. There are two reasons the older kids at St. Kevin’s eagerly anticipate this guide to what we could and could not see at the local movie theaters. One: the mimeograph ink gave off a distinctive, pleasing smell—one that launched a sixth grade sniffer into a brief high. And two: checking the list allowed a fleeting flirtation with sin. For to see a movie classified by the Legion as B (morally objectionable in part for all) or C for condemned (just push the express elevator button for Hell), was to invite the world’s worst penance (“Say five hundred Our Fathers and five hundred Hail Marys every day for the rest of your life”). Not that many C movies circulated in the outer boroughs. The only one I remember is a re-release of “And God Created Woman” with Brigitte Bardot. There were more B-rated films, but most kids would rather see “Journey to the Center of the Earth” than “Butterfield 8,” a wise choice since “Butterfield 8” was a stinker.
So brainwashed were some of us, that a week after buying a comic book version of the movie “Hercules Unchained,” I went home and shredded it after learning that the Legion had stamped it B (I don’t know why a B—maybe too much cleavage).
Summers were a different story. No mimeograph sheets. If you really wanted to know what the Legion thought of “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation,” you had to consult The Tablet, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn. But not even a shredder of “Hercules Unchained” bothered with that. Which freed us up to go to the movies every week (preferably Wednesday, when new flicks were released).
The RKO-Keiths on Northern Boulevard in downtown Flushing was the place. Once a vaudeville theater, the lobby was like something out of the movies, say Douglas Fairbanks in “The Thief of Bagdad.” The candy stand was well stocked (ah, the sweet taste of Raisinets washed down with a Coke). If the movie was sci-fi or horror, the place was jammed with kids from the neighborhoods. Naturally, the theater made sure a posse of white-starched matrons armed with eye-blinding flashlights was on patrol. Yelling at the screen and putting your feet atop the seat in front of you were the big infractions.
It was at the Keiths where I first saw a Roger Corman movie. Maybe “The Raven.” Maybe “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Or maybe “Tales of Terror.”
Somehow I never got to “The Masque of the Red Death.” Possibly, it was rated B—there’s a lot of Satanism and cleavage. Sorry I missed it when I was 13.
But now I’ve seen it, and it’s one terrific horror movie. For starters, unlike many of Corman’s productions, this one has an expensive look. That’s because it was shot in England on the lavish sets of “Becket,” the movie with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole made the same year. And the cinematographer was Nicholas Roeg, who later became a director. Roeg achieves some amazing effects with color.
Additionally, there’s a relatively restrained Vincent Price, and a solid English cast, including a wan Jane Asher, then Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. The script, based on Poe’s short story with bits from “Hop-Frog,” was co-written by the talented Charles Beaumont, who wrote some great short stories himself—and some memorable “Twilight Zone” episodes. Remember “The Howling Man”?
There’s really twisted stuff in “Masque”—particularly the gruesome murder of Patrick Magee. Price and Satan, of course, lose at the end—but they sure have a hell of an unrepentant, good time before that.
As for me, what can I say? Except this: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . .. “


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