Masque of the Red Death

Dir. Roger Corman

‘Death has no master.’

What better way to celebrate the Bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe (only a day late) than to settle back, raise a glass of something shockingly red and full-bodied and feast your eyes upon the visual decadence that is Masque of the Red Death. Based upon one of Poe's most celebrated short stories and starring Poe-adaptation stalwart, and all-round devilishly watchable, Vincent Price, Masque of the Red Death is another Corman adaptation of Poe's work and one of the few films that fully captures the doomladen tone of the morbid writer's best work...

Tyrannical Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) abducts the beautiful young peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher) and adjourns to his castle in an attempt to corrupt her soul and offer her as a bride to Satan. Meanwhile, a deadly plague known as the Red Death ravages the countryside around his castle, indiscriminately killing off the local population, leaving their faces in bright red sores.
Prospero decides to hide out in his seemingly impenetrable castle until the plague has absconded and offers refuge to his fellow noblemen and dignitaries. He plans to hold a masked Ball in honour of Satan and to make Francesca choose whose life she saves: her father’s or her lover’s.

Of all Corman’s Poe adaptations, The Masque of the Red Death is surely the most lavish and sumptuous. And it shows. Shot in England – the lower cost of doing so allowed Corman to fully utilise the slightly higher than usual budget and get value for money - the director was also able to make use of ready-made sets and costumes.
Photographed by Nicholas Roeg (who would go on to direct the likes of Walkabout, The Witches and Don’t Look Now), the film unfolds within a number of opulently lit sets and thematically coloured rooms and chambers. This must surely be one of the most beautiful and lushly filmed horror movies and recalls the eerie beauty of work by the likes of Mario Bava and, eventually, Dario Argento.

The film also seemingly benefits from a longer shooting time (Corman was renowned for churning out his films in a matter of days) of 5 weeks. The studio-bound set lends the film an otherworldly edge, particularly the scenes in which the hooded reapers move ominously through the countryside, evoking memories of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, another film that deals explicitly with the nature of death and fate.
The film directly addresses a number of dichotomies such as good and evil, moral and immoral, rich and poor, before unveiling them all as equal in death. Approaching the concept of equality in death, the film possesses a cold logic that is deeply perturbing and lingers like a shroud of impenetrable fog.

The film also contains a number of overtly sadistic set-pieces, notably the scene in which Prince Prospero forces Francesca’s father and her suitor to cut themselves with a number of blades – one of which is poisoned. There is also a nasty scene that presents the death of Prospero’s ape-suited friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee) at the hands of a vengeful dwarf. This sub-plot is lifted wholesale from another Poe tale: Hop-Frog.

Another stand out moment occurs when Prospero’s companion Juliana (Hazel Court) invokes the presence of Satan and offers her earthly vessel to him to do with as he pleases. What follows is an incredibly creepy, nightmarish and suggestive scene in which Juliana dreams that she is repeatedly stabbed by different men with blades that increasingly differ significantly in size…

Vincent Price as the sadistic Prince Prospero is diabolically good. His cruel and distinctive tones wax lyrical about the power of the Dark One and the precarious stability of the material world. Philosophical discussions about morality and faith lend the film a distinct gravitas and depth and enhance the immoral deeds carried out by the unsavoury characters. It is again testament to Price's performance that we actually feel a shred of sympathy for the eeeevil Prospero when he realises the magnitude and inescapable nature of Death. The Bacchanalian ball is a visual delight and ripe with seedy, hedonistic imagery: prior to the dance, Prospero forces his guests to mimic the movements of animals he believes that best represent their primal characteristics.

It eventually becomes the ultimate flesh and blood show as an unexpected guest arrives and stalks through the halls in a red cloak and hood: the one colour Prospero strictly forbade his guests to wear… By the end of the evening all of the guests have been seduced by the unstoppable Dance of Death. The shots of this mysterious figure cutting through the hallways are vivid and striking and singe themselves into the brain. When Prospero glances full on at the face of the Red-clad intruder, we are offered another fiendish delight that is not easily forgotten.

Atmospheric, opulent and deeply troubling, The Masque of the Red Death, while taking a few small liberties with the original source material to pad out the running time, does succeed in creating an uncanny and macabre atmosphere and tone that is unmistakably Poe through and through.


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