Synopsis: Death and debauchery reign in the castle of Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), and when it reigns- it pours! Prospero has only one excuse for his diabolical deeds – the devil made him do it! But when a mysterious, uninvited guest crashes his pad during a masquerade ball, there’ll be hell to pay as the party atmosphere turns into a danse macabre!
eyelights: Vincent Price. Jane Asher. the quality of the production.
eyesores: its lack of suspense.
“Why should you be afraid to die? Your soul has been dead for a long long time.”
After the success of ‘House of Usher‘, Roger Corman wanted to adapt Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, which he felt was one of Poe’s strongest stories. However, American International Pictures preferred ‘Pit and the Pendulum‘ due to its more graphic content and affordability.
Following the latter’s success, Corman pushed the making of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ further and further because he became concerned that it could be confused with Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Det sjunde inseglet’, which had come out to great acclaim in 1957. So he made four other Poe films.
It was only in 1964 that he got around to making ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, which he still considers one of his finest pictures. Having had tremendous success with his AIP/Poe series thus far, he was up to the challenge. He was also able to make it affordably by producing it in Britain.
Based on on the original Edgar Allan Poe short story and incorporating material from Poe’s “Hop-Frog”, the picture takes us to Italy in the Middle Ages, during the plague: fearing the Red Death, which has devastated the countryside, a tyrant secludes himself and his guests in his castle.
The evil Prince Prospero doesn’t just want to shelter himself from the plague, however: he plans a great masque (or ball) to entertain himself while the villagers die outside. He also brings along with him a few headstrong villagers to corrupt and torture while preparations are made.
You see, Prospero is not just a tyrant, he’s a Satanist who’s utterly devoted to his master; he preaches the powers of Satan to anyone within earshot. And his consort, Juliana, is on the cusp of completing her training; once she has completed her final ritual, she will be Satan’s bride.
But neither Satan nor the castle walls can protect them from the Red Death.
‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is a fairly impressive production for an AIP/Corman picture. Though they were usually done on the cheap, this one took advantage of British tax credits and also made use of the sets left over from ‘Becket’, increasing the breadth and quality of the picture.
It also benefited from a very solid script, no doubt due to the fact that it had been worked on for years as Corman was never quite satisfied with it. Of the AIP/Corman/Poe pictures it’s probably the one with the strongest dialogues, filled as is it with existentialism and religion.
It also has a solid cast and performances: Vincent Price and Hazel Court return to the AIP/Corman fold yet again to serve up credible characters in Prince Prospero and Lady Juliana, and Jane Asher lights up the screen as Francesca, the fiery-haired villager whom Prospero would convert.
It’s also a picture resplendent with memorable visuals, from the sight of the red-cloaked figure spreading disease, to Juliana’s interactions with the Devil, to the cruel shenanigans of Prospero’s court, to the elaborate castle itself. Corman pieced together stark imagery on this one.
What it lacks, however, is a true feeling of dread: though we appreciate Prospero’s aversion to the Red Death, it isn’t really until the end that his fear substantiates itself. Meanwhile, the only horrifying aspects come in the form of Prospero’s deadly games and Juliana’s incantations.
But it’s not enough. If anything, as with ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, one gets the impression that the picture is merely killing time until the Masque itself. And, sadly, when we get there, the event is nothing short of underwhelming, lacking the pomp and havoc that it rightly deserved.
Thankfully, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is far more engaging in its first two acts, and it culminates with the most ironic of twists in its third act. But it leaves one feeling less than contented; it’s a strong effort that doesn’t quite have the eerie magic required to elicit chills.
Post scriptum: Interestingly, Roger Corman also felt that the ending wasn’t as good as he’d hope, blaming the film’s weaknesses on the British crew’s languid work habits. He would eventually produce a remake of his own picture in 1989, directed by Larry Band, and which was less well received.
Date of viewing: February 25, 2017