Masque of the Red Death, The (1964)


Wow. Somebody tell me who drew that poster art.
Wow. Somebody tell me who drew that poster art.

Genre: Period Horror (USA, UK)

Starring: Vincent Price (The Last Man on EarthThe Bat), Hazel Court (Devil Girl From MarsThe Curse of Frankenstein)

Directed By: Roger Corman (A Bucket of BloodX)

Overview: An oppressive Satan-worshipping Prince surrounds himself with nobles and villagers for his entertainment while a plague rages outside his castle.

Roger Corman. You might recognize him from his copious directorial endeavour (56 films in fact) or perhaps you’ve seen his name under the word ‘Producer’ on endless reels of late night low-budget movies - well maybe not endless, but an astounding 400 credited and uncredited titles makes for a mighty long string of celluloid. Most people haven’t heard of him. Given my target audience is people who are deep into film, you and I know that he’s relatively important to an era, but did we ever take him capital-S Seriously? He’s not a man people ‘study’. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer, Corman isn’t ‘study-worthy’ unless you have a twisted penchant for the subculture, the underground, the dark roiling currents that run beneath the pillars of Hollywood. But Roger Corman is like that coal-filthed miner under the great city of Metropolis: one of the many who toiled to get those reels rolling; one of the men who, for decades, kept the drive-ins full of the light that reflected off the kids making out in their cars on Saturday night.

Perhaps Roger Corman isn't 1001-list worthy like Kubrick or Fellini, but he's got a quality, a way of making something that gets noticed from time to time. He reminds me a little of Sam Fuller who worked with what he had, sometimes transcending his lot, sometimes creating something the mainstream would remember him for. So let’s get on with it; let me tell you about The Masque of the Red Death

Evil ususally IS stylish, it's true.
Evil ususally *IS* stylish, it's true.

Set during the middle ages, and based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name, The Masque of the Red Death is the story of the evil, Satanic prince Prospero (played with malignant noblesse by Vincent Price). While visiting a village, Prospero learns of a plague sweeping his countryside. He arrests a few dissidents, dragging them back to his abbey where he plans to use them for sadistic entertainment. Prospero quarantines himself with a few other noble guests in hopes of avoiding the ‘Red Death’, waiting for the coming storm to pass by. He surrounds himself with feasting, merriment and a masquerade ball as those outside die an agonizing death.  

Juliana likes the bad boys.
Juliana likes the bad boys.

Though the obvious plot elements are predictable if only because of the purity of Prospero’s infernal dedication, The Masque of the Red Death is a film where attention to detail lies in every aspect. The cinematography is technically and visually beautiful, using a rich, varied colour palette and elaborate costume design. The writing is exceptional. Beginning Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, Corman enlisted several writers to draft a screenplay, finally choosing one written by Charles Beaumont (prolific regular of the 60s “The Twilight Zone”) and R. William Campbell. The high points of the story include two other Poe shorts as subplots, as well as the characterizations of Prospero and Satanic handmaiden-hopeful Juliana (the voluptuous Hazel Court). Though there are moments in set and costume design that date the film a little, the atmosphere of oppressive corruption, of a dead God, of witchcraft and cruelty is wonderfully ever-present. There are several scenes worthy of sharing, but my favourite shows how complete Prospero’s sway over his nobles truly is. As his guests fill a grand hall discussing the upcoming masquerade ball, and what they shall wear, Prospero singles out a few of them:

Continue with your merrymaking. Act according to your natures.
Señor Veronese, You do little but eat and swill and dream of other things. How like a pig you are. Be one.
You, Señor Lampredi. You laugh at this poor pig eh? Well, you are small and insignificant... no more than a worm. Can you be a worm, Lampredi?
Señorita Escobar, do you hear how she laughs? She's like nothing so much as a braying jackass. Be one.
You señor Rimini. Ride that jackass to market.

This scene is incredibly directed. Prospero speaks in entitled yet soft tones. Rather than commanding obedience, he kindly makes requests. The guests quickly, gladly debase themselves with smiles on their faces, entertaining Prospero with barely a look of defiance or doubt. They simply… do. Throughout the film his sadism, his machinations and motivations are well-detailed. His character is an over-the-top megalomaniacal madman, but he’s intelligent and eloquent. His reasons and philosophy are well-defined, are well-understood. He is believable. He is logical. He is incredible. And Vincent Price is the face behind the character, adding that gothic air by his very presence.

From beginning to end, The Masque of the Red Death is artistic and surprisingly opulent given Corman’s usual budget restraints. Adding the elements of a period piece with dwarven entertainers, castle parapets, and ball-gowned masquerade guests, we’re easily drawn in visually. I must also mention Death himself, a man in a red robe who, in the first scene, takes a white rose from and old woman and turns it a dripping blood red.

The Masque of the Red Death is more than Roger Corman fare. It’s poetry. And it’s one of his favourite accomplishments. I doubt I’ll see a better work of his.

Oh, seriously, a TOTAL cheat at poker. He's always bottom-dealing the Death card... what a total Narcissist
Oh, seriously, a TOTAL cheat at poker. He's always bottom-dealing the Death card... what a total Narcissist

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 9 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 84% (Unveil It)

You may recognize the name Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He was the sorcerer who held sway over those on his island.

It was also quite nice seeing Patrick Magee in The Masque of the Red Death, having only previously enjoyed seeing him overzealously reacting to Alex DeLarge’s victimization in A Clockwork Orange. Here he plays the only man who speaks to Prospero with an equal tone. I don’t need to tell you how obviously his fate is sealed.

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Vincent Price makes a damn meal of this film. There's that wonderful moment when he outs himself as a Satanist. He makes that admission with such a wonderful, almost sensual relish, like he's been waiting his entire career for someone to give him that line.

As for Corman, B-movie director and one-take wonder he may be, but he has an impressive string of directing and producing films that make money. He also has a staggering string of people who worked for him. Corman "discovered" Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathon Demme, Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Peter Bogdanovich, among others. All of these guys worked as directors and/or writers for Corman early in their careers.  

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