The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

18 Oct

 

Vincent Price is in just about every scene in this one and it is a glorious thing.

 

I flirted with the idea of a four-word review of “The Masque of the Red Death,” because I think that with only four words you could probably know if this film is something you’d enjoy. Those four words would be: Roger Corman. Vincent Price. Those of you who wish to can stop reading now, but if you want to click on, I will expound a bit.

In this adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe tale, Price portrays the morally reprehensible Prince Prospero, who is both feared and loathed by his subjects. After discovering the Red Death in one of his villages, he orders all the homes and buildings burned to the ground. He takes the village’s most lovely citizen, Francesca (Jane Asher), for himself and has her father and her husband imprisoned in his dungeon. Propsero invites all the surrounding nobility to his castle to escape the threat of the Red Death, and fashions Francesca as a new lady of his kingdom. This arouses the ire of Juliana (Hazel Court), who previously enjoyed the castle mistress position in Propsero’s court. Francesca’s moral upbringing and Christian beliefs set her at odds immediately with the pleasure-driven Prospero, and once she discovers that the merrymaking of his court hides sinister secrets, it may already be too late.

It should come as no surprise that Corman’s adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death” is a bit campy. What may be surprising is that the film still manages to be genuinely creepy and unsettling. For a movie of its era, it’s quite frank about Prospero’s worship of Satan and the demands he places on guests of his castle. The sequences involving Juliana’s more and more desperate attempts to reclaim Prospero’s affection are particularly effective. She sequesters herself in the Black Room and carries out a painful and protracted rite to take the last step in becoming “Satan’s bride,” and it’s honestly a suspenseful and frightening sequence.

Corman utilizes a heightened color palette to bring to life what most audience members are likely to remember from the Poe story: The color themed rooms. There are a couple of clever shots where the camera pans from room to room to room without stopping, creating a weird progression that’s an absolute visual treat. The huge number of extras in the film are luridly attired in an eye-popping array of colors, and the sets are oversized and opulent. The scale of “The Masque of the Red Death” is somewhat unexpected given Corman’s reputation for quick, cheap films. It’s clear a good bit of consideration went into the design and art direction of this film, and it is better for it.

Jane Asher is mostly known for having dated Paul McCartney and not for having been in like a thousand movies and TV shows... which should tell you a lot about her acting ability.

Price is a dream in the role of the louche Prospero. He simply oozes depravity, and barely manages to cloak his bad intentions. Price seems as though he’s having the time of his life playing the utterly unredeemable Prospero, and it’s a joy to watch him hamming it up. And fortunately, he’s not the only one. Hazel Court’s Juliana is one hand-wringing, bosom-heaving handmaiden of Satan that’s given to abject melodrama. The scenes were she and Price attempt to out-do each other are just fantastic. With the bad, however, there’s always the good, and the good guys have maybe never been as boring as they are in this film. Asher’s Francesca is prim and wooden, and the development of her character is stunted, then rushed. Her husband, Gino (David Weston) and father Ludovico (Nigel Green) come off a little better, but they’re still dull, dull, dull.

Incidentally, that’s basically the major problem with “The Masque of the Red Death”: Price is so charismatic as the horrid Prospero and Weston, Green and Asher are so crushingly boring as the good guys that it’s hard to cheer for them. You know casting has gone very, very wrong when your audience is siding with the Satanists. Maybe I enjoy Vincent Price a little too much, but I honestly can’t imagine any audience watching the first two-thirds of this movie and coming to the conclusion that the colorless, dirty, dispassionate lives of the good guys is where it’s at. Of course, maybe this is the trick of the film all along, getting us to think of Prospero as the anti-heroic protagonist. That seems a little overly philosophical for a production of this type, but who knows?

Audiences expect a fairly low level of quality in a Roger Corman horror flick, and ‘The Masque of the Red Death”  is likely to exceed that expectation. Its magnificent use of color and its surprisingly artistic bent make it a enjoyable movie for a wider audience, and the addition of a great performance from Vincent Price makes it a solid choice for fans of the genre. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

“The Masque of the Red Death“: Unrated (common sense rating equivalent to PG). Starring Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Paul Whitsun-Jones and Skip Martin. Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell from the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Cinematography by Nicholas Roeg. Art direction by Robert Jones. Set decoration by Colin Southcott. Original music by David Lee.

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