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The Masque of the Red Death
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)

Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Patrick Magee, Skip Martin

Written By: Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell, Edgar Allan Poe (stories) Directed By: Roger Corman

The Short Version

Roger Corman’s favorite of his Poe films; that should tell you all you need to know.

Darkly stylish and colorful; this looks lavish for a Corman flick.

Vincent Price delivers a masterful performance.

Very nice inclusion of a second Poe story here.  (Hop-Frog)

Any Vincent Price or Corman fan needs to own this, and it’s definitely worth looking at for anyone else, as well.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

RED WINDSOR.

Cheddar style cheese marbled with Bordeaux wine.  Yummy… and red.


Pairs Well With...

AMONTILLADO.

A natural for any Poe story.  Just make sure to let someone else go get it from the cask.

“And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – Edgar Allan Poe


Without question, Roger Corman is one of the great geniuses in the history of cinema, and one of its most prolific behind-the scenes figures, having directed over fifty films and produced nearly four hundred.  Of those, his most famous films are undoubtedly the Edgar Allan Poe movies he did in the 1960s.  So when he calls out a film as not only his favorite of all of his Poe projects, but one of his favorites that he’s ever worked on period, that’s praise worth lifting your head up to listen to.  Such is his estimation of The Masque of the Red Death, and really, it’s hard to argue with the selection.

The Masque of the Red Death actually builds upon two of Poe’s stories: “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hop-Frog,” the latter being written in when he decided the first script was still “a little thin.”  (Though the character is renamed “Hop Toad,” which rolls off the tongue easier.)  The two stories work very well together here, and are of course presented atop a fair amount of new material as well.  (Corman’s general approach to these movies is that, since they are based on often very short stories, he uses Poe’s work as his third act, has the first two created to support that.  It tends to work for him, and here, it does so marvelously.)

As our film begins, we see and old woman walking through a dark forest.  A figure in a red robe and hood sits beneath a tree, and bids her to approach.  She does without question, and the figure holds up a white rose, which in an instant he transforms into a red one, and then hands it to the woman.  “Take this to your village,” he instructs, “and tell the people the day of their deliverance is at hand.”  She takes the flower, and heads off to do as she is told.

Anyone who has read the title of the movie knows that this cannot turn out well for her, or for her village.

Soon afterward, the local nobleman, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, The Bat), pulls into the village with his entourage of guards to ostensibly “thank” the people for the year’s harvest, but really to gloat about his own power.  Two men, emboldened by the prophecy recently delivered to them by the old woman with the flower, turn the Prince’s words back on him in defiance; the Prince, in turn, orders them to be garroted immediately.  A young woman, Francesca (Jane Asher, Henry VIII and His Six Wives), rushes forward and begs Prospero for mercy for the men, who happen to be her father and her fiance.  Prospero offers it in his own evil way: he will spare one of the men, but Francesca must pick.  Before she can be compelled to make the awful choice, a scream is heard from nearby, and the Prince and his guards stop to investigate.  It is the old woman from before: the scream was her death-cry, and her face is blood red.  All recognize this immediately as the mark of that most horrible of plagues known as the Red Death.  No longer wishing to tarry, Prospero orders Francesca and the two men taken to his castle, and the rest of the village burned to the ground.  He wants to be nowhere near the outside world while the plague of the Red Death is about; instead, he and his fellow noblemen will wait things out in the safety of the Prince’s castle, where they shall make merry while the common people are left to die.

But from the Red Death, is anyone truly safe?

The term “art film” is usually one of the last that one might associate with a  Roger Corman picture, but if applies to any of them, surely, The Masque of the Red Death is it.  Corman has stated that when doing preliminary research for how he would make this movie, he looked at the work of others such as Fellini, Hitchcock, and Ingmar Bergman, and the influences are quite readily apparent.  No fast-paced action horror flick or costume drama, The Masque of the Red Death is instead a philosophical study of how people face – or deliberately choose not to face – death, both physically and of the soul.  Once one enters the castle, everything becomes very surreal (even before the dream sequences), beautifully evoking the atmosphere of Poe’s story in which the privileged attempt to deny the reality of the deadly plague that’s killing everyone outside the walls.  The results are powerful and striking.

This is greatly helped along, of course, by yet another magnificent performance from Vincent Price, one of the most brilliant and consummately professional actors that the world of filmmaking has ever known.  This is a man utterly incapable of phoning in a role, and he plays this one with a particular brand of zeal, with the end result being one of his finest ever portrayals of a screen villain.  Without question, Prince Prospero is evil and very self centered; however, Price makes sure not to take the easy route and make a caricature or farce of him.  Rather, Price plays Prospero as a multilayered character whose motivations go beyond the obvious.  Even while he is engaged in serial acts of shameless cruelty, it is nevertheless easy to see the magnetism that draws others his way, a magnetism that far transcends the simplicities of wealth and power.  Price makes Prospero a charismatic figure, and as such, he allows the script to get away with its biggest coup of all: by the end, the innocent heroine is actually – and believably – prepared to give herself over to the villain’s evil.  This is a rare thing for any script to attempt, and even rarer to successfully pull off, but thank to the groundwork laid by Vincent Price’s flawless performance, here, it works.

The work of Vincent Price and his costar, Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein), also allows the screenplay to introduce another element of normally dicey success, which is to say that it assigns Prospero the role of Satan worshipper, and Court’s character of Juliana the role of desperate disciple.  The introduction of Satanic elements nearly always turns the film in question into a farce or at the very least a mess, but both Price and Court play their roles straight up and never take them over the top, which in turn allows the screenplay to have the Satan worship to exist as an effective subplot that does not at all overwhelm the movie.  While mentioned on many occasions by Prospero, it is really Juliana who drives this element to its fullest fruition, leading up to a surreal “dream sequence” in which her symbolic sacrifice of her own soul to Satan is visually depicted by having a series of priests from various human sacrifice cultures from Aztec on up approach her at an altar and go through all the motions of sacrificing her without ever actually breaking the skin to kill her.  It’s a very effective sequence, and is incredibly followed up by an even better and quite unexpected encore when she returns to her senses.

Also worth noting about the Satanic element here (which is of course the writers’ new contribution of a subplot to the story here) is that when the power of Satan as represented by Prospero is ultimately defeated, the script does not equate this to a victory for Christ or any other deity.  Rather, it simply declares that Death has dominion over all, regardless of whom one may worship.  This, too, is highly unusual for any story that has a Satanic element, and frankly, it’s refreshing.

Ultimately, of course, The Masque of the Red Death must answer for its treatment of Poe’s initial story, and in fact, it comes out quite well.  As noted before, Corman’s practice is to make the real story the frame and the final act, and as such, he keeps decent faith with Poe.  The inclusion of another Poe story, “Hop-Frog,” also works well, especially with how the script seamlessly blends one into the other in such a way that everything makes perfect sense.

These three stories (the two from Poe and the whole cloth invention of extra materials by the screenwriters) play against an unusually rich backdrop for a Roger Corman production, as well.  Corman has always been a king of doing more with less, and on the English soundstages he found himself working on here for the first time, he discovered production design gold: leftover sets from much more elaborately budgeted films that he was able to repurpose for himself.  These sets serve him very well indeed, and certainly lend more credibility to the “art house” content of the picture.

The only wrong note struck at all by The Masque of the Red Death comes from its score.  Corman readily admits that he puts much more emphasis on the visual elements of any of his movies, but given how unusually lavish this production had become, one might have hoped for more attention here.  The music isn’t bad, to be certain, but it’s dominated by tinny horns and sounds like something from a stockpile, whereas the images on the screen beg for more strings, winds, and generally more subtle material.

At the end of the day, though, it’s still hard to argue with Roger Corman when he calls The Masque of the Red Death his favorite Poe production.  There’s just too much good stuff going on here to let those brash horns get in the way.

Bottom line, The Masque of the Red Death is essential viewing for any fan of Vincent Price or Roger Corman, and highly recommended for anyone else with an interest in literary horror, as well.  This film builds beautifully upon two already excellent stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and when the curtain closes on many colors of Death walking through the wood, it also closes on one of Roger Corman’s finest works as a Director.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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