Masque of the Red Death, The (1964)

“Famine, pestilence, war, disease, and death — they rule this world.”

Synopsis:
In plague-ridden medieval Italy, a Satan-worshipping prince (Vincent Price) approached for help by two local villagers (David Weston and Nigel Green) sentences them to death unless a young woman (Jane Asher) — Weston’s fiance and Green’s daughter — chooses which one will live. When she refuses, Asher is taken to Price’s debauchery-ridden castle, where his lady (Hazel Court) attempts to marry the Devil, and a court performer known as Hop Toad (Skip Martin) hatches a plan of revenge against a nobleman (Patrick Magee) who has mistreated his tiny dancing partner (Verina Greenlaw).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “Roger Corman’s best film” — this “super-stylish mix of Edgar Allan Poe (the title story plus ‘Hop-Frog’) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal” — features a “forceful performance” by Vincent Price as “Prince Prospero, a sadistic 12th century Italian satanist” who, while “the Red Death wipes out the God-fearing villagers”, “calmly retreats to his castle for the nightly orgies of his aristocratic guests.” Peary notes that this is a “strange film because one expects… ”

SPOILER ALERT

“… that the denouement will contain the standard triumph of good over evil, but this is not the case” — rather, “the Death that claims victims does not choose according to whether one believes in God or Satan”. He argues that the “film is in its way as philosophic as Bergman’s picture; Corman’s characters are as hopelessly confused and terrified, because the God in whom they had faith abandoned them”. He points out that this movie, “filmed in England, in Technicolor” is “the most handsome of Corman’s films”, with “the set design by Daniel Haller and photography by Nicholas Roeg” “exceptional”.

I chose to (re)-watch The Masque of the Red Death as part of my ongoing revisit of all the Poe-inspired films made by Roger Corman, not quite realizing exactly how timely this tale would feel during our COVID-19 pandemic. (Yes, I need to revisit The Seventh Seal as well.) This film about an evil nobleman and his willing compatriots denying refuge to plaintive villagers provides a potent cautionary tale about the need to continuously support one another through the hardest of times, across all boundaries: social, economic, racial, and religious. The “Red Death” can come at any time, to anyone, and no amount of denial or cruelty can stop its path. Viewers should be prepared for some surprisingly disturbing scenes — such as Price nastily ordering his guests to act like beasts (“How like a worm you are. Be one.”); Magee openly leering at a young woman (Greenlaw) who looks like a girl (and was actually performed by a child); Court orgiastically bonding herself to the devil through self-branding an upside-down cross onto her bosom; and Price voicing countless creepy lines (“The way is not easy, I know, but I will take you by the hand and lead you through the cruel light into the velvet darkness.”)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vincent Price as Prospero: “I understand; life is often ugly.”
  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as the most memorable and provocative of the Corman-Poe series.

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2 Responses to “Masque of the Red Death, The (1964)”

  1. A definite must see as a genuine classic; the best of the Price-AIP-Poe-Corman films. Gorgeously shot by Nicolas Roeg with top notch production design and performances. This works the Poe tale “Hop Frog” in as a subplot.

    One of the greats!

  2. A once-must for film fanatics, as representative of the Corman / Poe/ Price flicks. Having seen this film a few times, I think its biggest impact comes with the initial viewing – and it’s considerable. Though I don’t think it’s as effective on repeat viewings. As per my post in ‘Revival House of Camp & Cult’ (fb):

    “I have no title. Why do you call me ‘Excellency’?”

    ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: Here’s a question I never imagined I would be asking anyone?: What happens to a film lover’s film choices when he / she is experiencing a pandemic? Does taste suddenly change? Do we censor it? Do we not watch certain films if they’re ‘too close to home’? Or do we watch such films – along with any other kind of film – because they may help walk us through what we’re experiencing?

    This is such a film. Fortunately (or not), it’s a less of a horror film than some might have expected from the title. When Roger Corman released it, one of the producers called it “too arty-farty” and not scary. (The New York Times called it “vulgar, naive and highly amusing”.) It didn’t do as well at the box office as some of the other Corman / Poe / Price flicks. It could be that it’s ultimately way too philosophical in its approach to the battle between good and evil. But it’s still compelling for a number of reasons.

    One reason I like the film is because all of the party guests of Prospero (Price) can now be easily seen as the GOP. (As Price says, “Look at them! Look at them – all scrambling like starving men for a crust of bread. All wealthy and greedy for more!”) Also – partly because it uses sets built for ‘Becket’, the film looks great. And, of course, if nothing else, there’s Vincent!

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