A story of a plague gripping the country, poor people fighting for their lives and the rich living in luxury, insensitive and uncaring to the chaos outside their closed doors. Although this may sound like some modern day politically charged COVID drama it is in fact the stripped down plot of the sensational Edgar Allen Poe adaptation The Masque of the Red Death, a film as wretched and relevant now as it ever was.
The seventh of eight Poe adaptation made by master movie maker Roger Corman, The Masque of the Red Death which is set in Medieval Italy, came out in 1964 after classics such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum and just before the last in his cycle, Tomb of Ligeia, released that very same year.
Drawn to the famous authors stories for their epic drama, gothic chills and low cost (as the rights lied in the public domain) Corman crafted some truly amazing films from Poe’s catalogue of terrifying tales. Credit must also go to horror icon Vincent Price who injected grotesque gravitas into every role he took in these movies, sucking us in like a black hole as the sinister central villain Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death.
The wicked prince rules his kingdom with an iron fist worshiping only Satan and himself and indulging every whim and desire he feels. As the land he owns is ravaged by a particularly deadly plague dubbed the Red Death, Prospero prepares to hold up in his home surrounded by his wealthy and sycophantic friends who have been invited to celebrate with him while the poverty-stricken populace is infested with suffering.
Coming across a squalid village he decides to take one of the peasant girls Francesca (Alfie’s Jane Asher) and her father and lover back to his castle for some sport, seeing as the girl has a particularly strong will and belief in God. Determined to break both, he introduces her to his wicked world view in the hopes of seducing her to join the dark side. As the party rages on Francesca is forced to witness torment and terror, decadence and debauchery all of which whittles away at her faith in God and humanity.
As the finale to the festivities approaches which takes the form of a gratuitously grand masked ball, Propsero seems to have broken his kidnapped victims spirit. Seemingly invincible and impervious to the anguished cries of the sick it seems selling his soul has granted him all he could desire however there is one guest in attendance he could never have accounted for.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who went on to direct Don’t Look Now and The Witches, every scene is lush and lavish, the opulently decorated sets and bright colour palette betraying the dark deeds and grey mood beyond the castle walls. The setting has a real sense of space, outside and in, and as Prospero and his gurning guests cavort in their ornate clothes and costumes we sense the doom and disease seeping in around them.
Although the division between the rich and poor is clear from the start their desperation is the same with both willing to do whatever they can to survive the plague. The peasants come begging for sanctuary only to be shot down where they stand while the gentry act like animals to entertain their lord for fear that one wrong move will have them cast out. This cutting social comment about wealth, power and survival is poignant and still stings today especially during our current global pandemic.
Atmosphere is everything in Corman’s film and the huge ticking clock with its axe like pendulum adds constant tension as does the encroaching Red Death whose victims are covered in blood red lesions. Macabre moments abound from the sinister cloaked figure tarot reading in the fog to Prospero’s mistress Juliana’s (Hazel Court from The Curse of Frankenstein) erotic and nightmarish initiation into the Devil’s arms, a scene that fell foul to the British censors when the film was first released.
Over acting is the name of the game for most of the cast however here in this surreal setup their over the top performances work perfectly well. Zulu and Clockwork Orange star Patrick Magee is of particular note as the perverted Alfredo a man whose wanton desires lead to him enraging Hop Toad (Skip Martin) a diminutive gentleman who extracts a particularly painful and disturbing revenge. Interestingly this character and subplot comes form another of Poe’s tales named Hop-Frog proving the talent of scriptwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell who wonderfully transform Edgar Allen’s poetic prose to the screen.
Standing above the cast as mentioned is Vincent Price in one of not only his best roles but one of the best Satanists committed to celluloid. As Prince Prospero he is both horrifyingly charming and effortlessly sadistic in his every action. For Prospero devil worshiping is the only option in a world where God has abandoned his flock to the Red Death and his casual acts of physical violence and psychological abuse are made all the more shocking for how mundane he makes them seem.
It is particularly fitting that the stunningly 4K restoration was handled by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and The Academy seeing as Corman gave Scorsese his start in movies, mentoring him alongside other legendary directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard and James Cameron as well as stars like Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Sylvester Stallone.
Coming out courtesy of STUDIOCANAL this brilliant Blu-ray edition contains not only the original theatrical cut and an extended version but a number of excellent extras including a brand new interview with film lecturer Keith M. Johnston, new commentary with film critic and author Kim Newman and filmmaker Sean Hogan and a not-to-be-missed conversation with Roger Corman which was filmed in 2013 as part of the BFI’s Gothic Season.
Featuring a stunning and chilling central performance from Vincent Price The Masque of the Red Death is most definitely the best of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle succeeding as it does in being both a wonderful and respectful adaptation while also creating something spectacularly cinematic.
The Masque of the Red Death is out now on digital, Blu-ray & DVD.