The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH | The Movie Waffler


the masque of the red death review
As a plague ravages the land outside his castle walls, a Satanic Prince sets his sights on corrupting a young Christian woman.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Roger Corman

Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Nigel Green

the masque of the red death bluray

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a master of knocking out black and white b-movies on limited budgets and compressed shooting schedules, Roger Corman entered the 1960s with more artistic aspirations. Something of a culture vulture, Corman wished to bring the tales of Edgar Allan Poe to cinemagoers, and in the first five years of the decade directed no less than seven Poe adaptations (eight if you include The Haunted Palace, which merely borrows the title of Poe's work).

While still restricted in terms of budget and filming time-frames, Corman's Poe films boasted an opulence that much like the Gothic horrors of Britain's Hammer and Italy's Mario Bava, rivalled any big budget Hollywood productions of the era. Corman was aided heavily by the collaboration of Vincent Price, and it's this series of films that truly cemented the actor as a horror icon.

the masque of the red death review

Price is at his most menacing in 1964's The Masque of the Red Death. Here he plays Prospero, a Satan worshipping prince in medieval Italy who rules the land with an iron fist, inflicting cruel and usual punishments on the local villagers. And what a cad he is! When we meet him first he's forcing a young peasant girl, Francesca (Jane Asher), to choose whether her lover, Gino (David Weston), or her father, Ludovico (Nigel Green), should be executed after the pair dare to mouth off in the presence of the prince. Won over by Francesca's innocent charms, Prospero spares Gino and Ludovico, taking them captive in his castle instead, and invites the young girl into his luxurious home, where he hopes to convert her to the ways of Satan.

With a mysterious plague - the "Red Death" - ravaging the land, Prospero invites the region's nobility to take refuge in his castle, where entertainment is provided by the dwarf Hop-Toad (Skip Martin, whose character is borrowed from another Poe story, 'Hop-Frog') and his young ballerina companion Esmerelda (who in a decidedly creepy touch is played by child actress Verina Greenlaw but voiced by an adult woman).

What follows is a series of Shakespearean double-crosses and backstabbings as various characters attempt to outdo one another, much to the delight of Prospero, as it confirms his misanthropic philosophy. Prospero's mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court), is jealous of Francesca, and attempts to set her up in breaking her lover and father out of their jail so Prospero will have her executed for treason. Meanwhile, Hop-Toad has a vendetta against Prospero's cruel nobleman friend Alfredo (Patrick Magee) for striking Esmerelda, and sets about doing him up like a kipper. Prospero laughs all of this off, delighting in seeing Francesca's reactions to witnessing humanity at its cruellest.

the masque of the red death review

Corman is arguably better known for the filmmakers he mentored than for his own work as a director, and here it's a certain Nicolas Roeg who gets a chance to shine in the role of cinematographer. Along with production designer Daniel Haller and art director Robert Jones, Corman and Roeg create a visually sumptuous film that infuses classic Gothic sensibilities with 1960s pop-art aesthetics. Far from the shadowy, cobweb riddled castles audiences were accustomed to at that point, Prospero's palace is bright and polished, its colour coded rooms no doubt an influence of the design of the ballet academy of Dario Argento's Suspiria.

That Prospero conducts his atrocities in such well lit surrounds makes them all the more horrifying. In a fiendish sequence that may have inspired the famous Russian roulette set-piece of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, Prospero has Gino and Ludovico take turns cutting themselves with a selection of five knives, one of which has been dipped in poison. Who thinks up such horrors? Not Poe; this subplot was a creation of screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell.

Corman's quest to bring highbrow culture to the drive-in circuit sees him pull from the world of ballet for two sequences - one a drug-induced hallucination that owes much to Stravinsky and prefigures his later ode to LSD, The Trip; the other a macabre dance of death that sees Red Death afflicted corpses come to life and surround Prospero (not unlike the climax of William Lustig's Maniac).

the masque of the red death review

There's much to delight in here, but ultimately it's Price who is the film's MVP. Yes, by today's standards his performance might be considered hammy, but there's a time and place for ham, and the court of a wicked medieval prince proves the perfect stage for Price's unique delivery. As enamoured of Poe as his director, Price plays the evil Prospero with relish, a constant glint in his eye. You might say this is the American equivalent of Olivier translating Shakespeare. In Price, Corman found the perfect frontman to bring life to Poe's words.

Watching The Masque of the Red Death in the middle of a pandemic proves eerily prescient, as the wealthy hole up within their comfortable walls while the plebs worry about their survival in a plague ravaged world. A lot of filmmakers are currently shooting movies within their homes - perhaps one could opt for a modern adaptation of Poe's tale, transforming Prospero into an Instagram "celeb" walled up in a Dubai hotel room with their assorted hangers-on and sycophants?
Blu-Ray extras:

You get to choose between the theatrical cut and the newly restored extended cut; new interview with film scholar Keith M. Johnston; new feature commentary with critic Kim Newman and filmmaker Sean Hogan; a filmed 2013 conversation between Newman and Roger Corman; four art cards; booklet with an essay by preservationist Tessa Idlewine.

The Masque of the Red Death (4K restoration) is on UK Digital, DVD and blu-ray from January 25th.