The Masque of the Red Death (1964) directed by Roger Corman
What’s it about?
This adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story is set in medieval Italy. It starts as an elderly peasant lady walking in the mist-shrouded woods is presented with a red rose by a mysterious red-cloaked figure who asks her to take it back to her village. He tells her that their day of deliverance is at hand.
Sometime later, the cruel and sadistic Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) rides through the village to demand his share of their harvest. Two of the villagers - Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green) - kick up a fuss about his callous behaviour, resulting in Prospero ordering them to be garrotted. However, a young woman named Francesca (Jane Asher), who is the former’s lover and the latter’s daughter, begs him for mercy. While she pleads desperately, one of Prospero’s guards calls him over to the hut of the elderly lady. She is dead - her face covered in red blisters. She has caught the Red Death.
Francesca eventually manages to persuade Prospero to take herself, Gino and Ludovico to the castle to be slaves for his own personal amusement. Prospero dresses her in fine gowns and introduces her to both his court subjects and his dabblings in the dark arts. Prospero believes he is protected from the Red Death behind the castle’s walls and with the protection of his lord Satan.
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Why is it significant?
The Masque of the Red Death is the most lavish and ambitious of eight Roger Corman-directed/American International Pictures-produced Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of which were released during the first half of the 1960s (N.B. one of these, The Haunted Palace, was actually an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation monikered under the title of a poem Poe wrote in 1839). All but one of them (The Premature Burial) starred Vincent Price. Although The Masque of the Red Death is largely an adaptation of Poe’s 1842 short story of the same name it also features a sub-plot which takes inspiration from another of his stories called Hop-Frog (1849). Many consider it to be the best film in the series.
Its expensive look in comparison with the other Corman-Poe entries is attributable to the fact that it was shot in England to take advantage of an attractive tax break system. He obtained a government subsidy by working with a British crew, amongst them being cinematographer Nicolas Roeg - one of numerous Corman alumni who went on to become a widely-acclaimed filmmaking talent (as per Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and so on). Corman was also allowed the use of the castle set from the big-budget 1964 period drama Becket.
It’s not the only filmed version of this particular Poe story but it is certainly the best-known nowadays. It was previously adapted as the German silent film Die Pest in Florenz (1919), the Russian A Spectre Haunts Europe (1923) and the animated Yugoslavian short Maska crvene smrti (1969). During 1989 there were not one but two different adaptations released, one of which was had Corman’s involvement in a producer capacity. The other (Alan Birkinshaw-directed) film entitled The Masque of the Red Death from the same year wasn’t so much a proper adaptation as a slasher movie inspired by it.
How does it hold up?
Corman’s adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death is certainly one of the better horror films from the 1960s. However, that’s not to say that it’s perfect. It suffers slightly from its overreaching ambitions and its focus on too many subplots. First off, we get the predicaments of Francesca, Gino and Ludovico who are confined to a castle for the amusement the crazed and sadistic Prospero while they wait out the passing of the titular disease. Secondly, we get the Hop-Frog sub-plot involving a dwarven court jester called Hop Frog (Skip Martin) and his partner Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw) who take revenge on Prospero’s only marginally less cruel friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee). Thirdly, Prospero’s lover Juliana (Hazel Court) attempts to impress him by forming her own pact with Satan.
The tone is similarly uneven, veering from action-adventure to sadistic exploitation to gothic horror. While it succeeds well as the second and third of those three, the sword-fighting stuff as Gino and Ludovico attempt to make their escape is rather clumsily-staged.
Nonetheless, the diverse mix of elements thrown in the pot ensures that’s it’s never a dull film. Moreover, when it does focus on being creepy and disturbing it succeeds admirably. There are some distinctive undertones here about the inherently abusive nature of social hierarchies and the tendencies of those with the power to degrade those of lower orders in order to assert whatever superiority they may have. Prospero shows little mercy towards the villagers in the film, ordering his soldiers to set fire to their small wooden homes when he discovers that one of them has perished from the Red Death. By the same token, he subjects the various lesser lords and ladies staying within the supposed sanctity of his castle by forcing them to play humiliating animal impersonation games in front of their amused peers or have them scrambling for small trinkets that he throws on the courtroom floor.
The film broaches the subjects of both sadism and paedophilia in a way that’s non-explicit but, paradoxically, would seem incredibly bold nowadays. There’s a sequence where Prospero and Alfredo discuss their attraction to the child-like dwarf Esmerelda and Alfredo mentions that he wants to corrupt her innocence. Prospero corrects him by saying that he should not corrupt, but “instruct”. The scene is rendered given an additional layer of insidiousness as the actress playing this supposed dwarf woman (Verina Greenlaw) was, in fact, a child at the time. Later on, when two characters are tortured by being forced to cut themselves with a series of knives - one of which is poisoned - we see frequent cutaways to the gloating faces of Prospero’s various subjects which display their evident glee at both their suffering and the imminent prospect of one of them dying in front of them.
A colourful visual treat
The way in which director Roger Corman and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg make use of the colourfully extravagant castle set ensures that the film is a visual feast. A particular highlight is the selection of colour-coded rooms representing Prospero’s inner sanctum. The climactic masquerade scene is also notable for its elaborate choreography and camerawork. There’s also that unforgettable coda with the various coloured hooded figures of Death, each representing a different plague, traversing the fog-shrouded landscape: black, gold, purple, blue, yellow, white and, of course, red.
At the centre of it all, of course, is Price himself. He turns in one of his finest performances here, a detestable but all-too-human mix of arrogance, callousness, megalomania and pathetic fear. How many of us are the same as him when we look on with callous indifference at images of the suffering of others on the news, and yet only do so out of a perceived sense of superiority borne out of abject paranoia about ending up in the same position ourselves?
Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: Roger Corman
Script: Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell, from a story by Edgar Allan Poe
Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Skip Martin, Verina Greenlaw