Monday, October 31, 2016

Season of Horror: Masquerade (1961)

Happy Halloween! I've been wanting to write about this misunderstood episode of Thriller for quite awhile, and give it the appreciation it deserves. Masquerade is a quintessential Halloween episode, which is why I've chosen to watch it tonight. It aired the day before Halloween in 1961, and when I first saw it, I couldn't help but think it was like being at a kid's Halloween party back in the 60s. The kind where you pass the peeled grapes and spaghetti noodles and someone jumps out and says BOO! This episode is all about Halloween fun. Here's something to get you in the spirit.

The viewer is expected to determine who is wearing the masks in this episode. It leads one to wonder that if kids wear monster masks on Halloween, then what kind of masks do the monsters wear? It is fun, lighthearted, and for it's time, portrayed vampires in a uniquely different light. You'll find no capes or fangs or fake Transylvanian accents here. As Karloff says in his intro, "Before this terrifying adventure is ended, you'll change some of your outdated ideas about vampires."

This episode is appreciated even more on second viewing after seeing the reveal at the end, as much of the dialogue is cleverly written and will take on new meaning. Elizabeth Montgomery and Tom Poston play well together, and the lighting and detail in the house is a pleasure to watch. It looks as though Norman Bates left behind objects of his taxidermy. There's much to enjoy about this episode.

"Just such a night as this, who knows what masquerade the living dead may choose."

It's a stormy night and young honeymooners, Charlie and Roz Denham are parked in front of what was once the Bates Motel, in a car with a leaky roof. They are lost and Roz wants to go in to the house, as it's the first one they've seen in miles, while Charlie is reluctant, using his writer's craft to sketch a cliché haunted house narrative that they can expect to find there. He mentions the legend of the vampires that hang out in the area and Roz laughs. They go to the house and, just as Charlie described, the creaking door is answered by a nasty old coot, who kindly invites them in.

Karloff comes in to introduce the episode and informs us that "this is the sort of night when all manner of unnatural creatures crawl through the dark corners of the earth." He lets us know the masqueraders are Mr. and Mrs. Charlie Denton, played by Elizabeth Montgomery and Tom Poston. And John Carradine, Jack Lambert and Dorothy Neumann as the infamous Cartas.

When the old coot tells them they don't get many visitors, Roz quips that they must get hungry in between, and Charlie says it's a private joke and that he shouldn't pay attention to her as she gets lightheaded when she's missed a meal. Jed invites them to get warm in the parlor and Roz makes a break for the door, but Charlie holds her back and says he'll teach her a lesson for her perverse sense of humor, reminding her that she said she'd perish if she didn't get warm soon.

They go into the parlor and introduce themselves, telling Jed Carta that they're on their second honeymoon, and Charlie adds that his wife is "quite a card. She's the only woman smarter than I that I don't hate." They find out that they're the only guests, that there used to be many guests but most didn't want to stay. Jed invites them to look around and Charlie acknowledges that Roz adores musty old places. Jed offers to get them dry clothes to change into and asks if they've heard of vampires.

Roz gets sniffly and Charlie tries to comfort her, realizing she's truly scared, despite her wisecracks. The Denhams get undressed and Charlie gets an idea for a story that doesn't involve the conventional vampire, but one that is an old hillbilly type. She says nobody would believe it because people have preconceived ideas about vampires. She is startled by the arrival of Lem Carta bringing them dry clothes, who tells them that Ma is coming down to say howdy. They are startled again by a bat flying overhead. Charlie smells food cooking, and they go in search of flesh and blood people.

Jed sharpens a knife and Lem asks if he can do this one, that Jed killed the last one. He asks to take the knife to her, but Jed tells him no. The Denhams enter and tells them that Lem is fixing their supper. They note there are only two places set, and Jed says they'll eat later and Roz rolls her eyes and jokes, "Guess who?" When Charlie asks about Lem's mother, Jed informs them that Lem's mother has been dead 10 years, and goes on to describe how Jed's pa came home one night and found her with her eyes wide open and her skin the color of white candle wax. He tells them that's when the legend of the Henshaw vampires started, but that he doesn't believe in vampires that turn into bats and suggests that if a vampire acted more like other people, they wouldn't suspect what he was.

Jed invites them to sit for stew, but Roz says she's lost her appetite and is going in by the fire. When Jed wonders why she said she was hungry, Charlie tells him she's a...vegetarian. Charlie chases after Roz who is mad that he called her a vegetarian. Roz says she doesn't like that horrid man and wants to leave. She tells Charlie they're getting out of there and pushes him to the door, which they find is locked. There's the sound of laughter, which Charlie first attributes to Roz, but as it rises to a loud cackling, he realizes it's coming from someone else.

The Denhams decide to go in search of the person who is laughing and are startled by more bats. Roz claims she hates bats and Charlie says he's going to send her to a psychiatrist if they ever get out of there. They call for the Cartas and when Roz wonders where they went, Charlie jokes that they may have just flown down the hall. When Roz finds a dead pig hanging in the closet with a bucket underneath, she wonders why they are collecting the blood, and Charlie suggests the need for emergency rations.

They note that there are bars on the windows and they hear the crazed cackling again. Charlie wants to go in search of the funny person as he finds it degrading to be laughed at, and suggests that their hosts will be disappointed if they don't go along with the gag. Roz reminds him that the Cartas said they would eat later, that they were cooking stew and that vampires don't eat solids. She tells him the way they looked at her made her understand how the pig felt when they chose him, and Charlie says he remembers that same look the first time she saw him.

They head up the stairs in search of the cackling lady and note that the stairs are covered in dust an inch thick. Roz takes this to mean that she's probably not up there, but Charlie suggests she wouldn't need to use the stairs if she could fly. Roz wants to go back, but Charlie asks her not to be a spoil sport since their hosts have gone to a lot of trouble to scare them. We are led to wonder why they aren't afraid to explore the home of what may be a family of cannibals and vampires.

They come closer to the cackling and find that it comes from a woman who is chained in a barred room. Charlie introduces themselves, and the lady says that Jed told her they were there, and introduces herself as Ruthie Carta. She explains that she was married to Halsey Carta until Lem's ma took a fancy to her Halsey and then she fixed them both. Roz asks if she killed them, and she responds that Jed thinks so, which Charlie notes is not a responsive answer. She asks if they know what it's like to want freedom so bad that you laugh, cry and carry on like a thing, and Charlie shares that they're getting the idea and asks if she knows a way out. She says if they set her free, she'll show them, so Charlie gets the keys and frees her and she turns around and locks them in. Roz is displeased with her husband and claims he's not very bright. Charlie asks what Roz thinks the old lady meant when she said she'd be back for them, and she gives him three guesses.

Charlie uses Roz's high heel to snare the key to their cell so they can free themselves. She complains that he ruined her best shoe and he tells her to use it in the divorce complaint. He tries to get a little sugar from her, but she gives him the cold shoulder, so he takes off without her, prompting her to run after him and give him a big, wet smooch. He suggests they get out of that creep joint and they share a lovey dovey moment.

They head downstairs and find footprints leading into a wall, in which they discover a hidden panel. They go in to have a look in hopes of finding a way out. Roz says she hates dark places and Charlie claims he's beginning to worry about her. He finds a bottle of hooch and takes a few swigs. She grabs it from him and reminds him the last time he started drinking liquor nearly finished them. He calls her over to look at the guest book, which includes a list of guest's valuables and their worth, and he exclaims, "Saints preserve us," prompting her to remind him that's she's repeatedly asked him to watch his language. Roz claims it's a register of victims, who are probably buried down there, while Charlie thinks it's a joke.

The Cartas come downstairs and find them, asking why they're down there, and Charlie claims they wondered if they had a bomb shelter with world conditions as they are. Jed notes they don't scare easy. He tells Charlie that he shouldn't have turned Ruthie loose, and when Charlie asks why, Jed tells them they don't expect they'll admit she's a vampire as it would spoil the mystery. Roz asks why the doors are locked and the windows barred so closely together that a mouse couldn't squeeze out. Lem says it's to keep Ruthie in. Jed informs them that Lem has laid out a bed for them while Roz claims she's not sleepy, Charlie tells her not to be a spoil sport and then pockets the hooch when she's not looking.

Jed leads them to the bedroom and Charlie notes it's as cozy as a coffin and asks if the robes laid out are Henshaw County shrouds. Jed asks why they don't leave if they think the Cartas are murderers. Roz tells him the door is locked and when he suggests they ask him to unlock it, Roz wonders if it occurred to him that they might not be sheep, that he never even asked how they got there are where they came from. Jed just smiles and leaves them in the room.

Charlie is sneaking snorts of the moonshine while Roz discovers a locked door. Charlie tells her to look for the key over the door, which she finds. She unlocks the door and Charlie predicts she'll find clothes from the latest victim he noted in the register, which she does. She is frightened by a rat scurrying out and a loud boom of thunder causes her to run to Charlie's arms and comment she'll perish if she doesn't get out of there soon.

Charlie says the Cartas aren't that distasteful and that he thought she liked brawny young men, but the thought makes her stomach turn. He tries to comfort her by reminding her of the balmy night they met in the park when she picked him up, and she angrily disagrees, saying that he picked her up. She then notes the liquor on his breath and as he is slurring, finds it and pours it out. She tells him to pull himself together, that they're in trouble and need to get out of there. He asks if she can imagine them being trapped by a couple of country yokels and says that's hilarious. He gets another idea for a story about two hillbillies who trap a vampire who they feed tourists when she's hungry.

The scene changes and the storm has abated while the moon is still high in the sky. Roz is asleep on the floor next to Charlie and suddenly rises and slowly leaves the room as if entranced by pigeons. Charlie wakes to find her gone and goes to find her, and finds Jed hovering over the body of Lem, who is laid out on the floor with two fang marks in his neck. Jed claims it was the Henshaw vampire and Charlie says it serves him right and that his murderous game backfired. Jed claims all the talk about vampires was a joke. Charlie demands to know where Roz is and Jed claims he doesn't know. They hear Ruthie cackling and Charlie goes to look for her in the cellar while Jed protests.

He searches in the cellar and Ruthie sneaks up behind him with a knife. She cackles and advances as he stares at her unmoving in the darkness, as the scene fades out. He stumbles out of the cellar and Roz runs up to him saying she's been looking everywhere for him. She asks what he was doing in the cellar and he tells her he was settling with Ruthie, that it was either him or her. He asks where she was and she tells him she had a close call and will tell him about it later and shows him the key to the door, while looking over at Jed on the floor next to Lem, explaining she had to bean him to get it. Charlie says to get out of there while they still can and they let themselves out and run to their car.

Back at the trailer park, Charlie is returning to their trailer in his robe and asks Roz to open up. He asks what took her so long and she said she wasn't decent. He hangs a Do Not Disturb sign on the door of the trailer and goes over to her in her nightie as she brushes her hair. She asks that they not take any more drives in the back country and says those people were murderers. He agrees that they were and she is surprised to find out he knew all the time while he was trying to make her think it was a big joke. She claims she was really scared when the old man started talking about vampires changing with the times. Charlie wonders where he got that idea and Roz says she doesn't like it, saying it's subversive. Charlie suggests he may write a book on the origin and evolution of vampires. She says it sounds stuffy and he tells her it would be only a limited edition for the trade.

As the rooster crows he asks if she hears it and she says she's coming. She puts out the light and enters their double bed coffin while he laughs and says he'd give anything to see Jed's face when he wakes up and finds Ruthie with the puncture marks he left in her throat. Roz doesn't understand how he could touch her, and he asks about her and Lem. She says she couldn't help herself because she was so cold. They kiss and say they'll never talk about it again, and when he says Amen to that, she scolds him for his language again. He turns out the light and they each close their side to the coffin as he reproaches her nagging.

Folks who were expecting this to be another Pigeons from Hell may have been disappointed with this episode, and the humor throughout it made them miss the point entirely about what makes this episode scary. It is easy to be afraid of the monsters who are plain to see, and the scary looking Cartas are the ones we initially suspect, but it's more fearsome to think there may be monsters who have hidden themselves behind a mask of normalcy. Kids who were out trick or treating on Halloween the day after this episode aired in 1961, may have been thinking back on this episode wondering if the smiling Joneses passing out Halloween treats could actually be vampires. Talk about putting some real fear into Halloween when you're not only afraid of gruesome masks, but of all your friendly looking neighbors. It's likely that this episode has lost some of its potency over time since it's a theme that's been covered often, but back in 1961, it was novel to see vampires portrayed as everyday people.

While we get clues all along that the Denhams are the vampires in the story, some viewers may have missed out on them, making the ending a delightful surprise. Much of the action or dialogue on first viewing can be understood differently on second viewing. We now see that the Denhams weren't actually lost in a storm, but were out looking for food. Instead of appearing to wander aimlessly around the old house, they were playing cat and mouse with their victims. They did not appear to be afraid of the Cartas, all the time joking around, since they were the predators and not the prey. Roz claimed she was scared, but I interpreted her fear as being scared at the thought of consuming such gross people. The scene where Charlie says the Cartas are not that distasteful, while she responds that it makes her stomach turn, underscores this point. We understand why she took umbrage at being called a vegetarian.

While there is a bit of innocence and humor to this episode that makes it entertaining and appear superficially nonthreatening, what will keep you up at night is the thought that you may not recognize the monsters that hide themselves behind the masks of everyday people. Once again we are reminded that appearances can be deceiving, that we should beware of the wolf in sheep's clothing.

The first time vampires were shown sharing a coffin on network TV.

No comments: