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Masque of the Red Death

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
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Directed by: 
Roger Corman
Vincent Price
Hazel Court
Patrick Magee
Nigel Green
David Weston
Bottom Line: 

 Masque of the Red Death was the fifth film in Roger Corman's "Poe cycle" (begun in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher) and probably the best of the Corman Gothic horrors of the Sixties. In truth, the series was beginning to pail by 1964: films like Tales of Terror  (1962) and The Raven (1963)  had taken the material down a trivial comedy route, while the excellent The Haunted Palace (1963) nevertheless attempted pass itself off as another Poe flick despite being adapted from a H.P. Lovecraft tale! It appeared that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find ways of adapting Edgar Allen Poe for the screen in a way that successfully circumvented the severe budget restrictions Corman was working under. The director had been planning a film version of  Masque of the Red Death since very early on in the series; fortunately he chose to wait until American International formed a co-production deal with British production company Anglo Amalgamated (the same company who brought us Peeping Tom [1960] and Circus of Horrors [1959]), thereby furnishing the director with a much larger budget and his first opportunity to shoot in the UK, at Elstree Studios, with a largely British crew.
The result is certainly one of the most strikingly beautiful of all Corman's pictures. The film marked Vincent Price's (The Witchfinder General [1968]) debut on British soil and finds him in particularly smarmy amoral form as the despotic prince Prospero - a 12th century tyrant, merrily tithing his lowly peasant tenants into starvation with price's customary nonchalant indifference to suffering. The look of the film is not out of keeping with the others in the series (back-painted sets, studio-bound outdoor woods scenes and Corman's signature trippy psychedelic nightmare sequence halfway through) but Nicholas Roeg's luminous colour photography seems to lend Daniel Haller's luxuriously rich production design an extra air of the phantasmagorical. Charles Beaumont's screenplay manages to stick to the spirit of Poe's original story and succeeds in suggesting an atmosphere of decay and decadence despite the film's imagery largely sticking to the usual Gothic scenarios -- if even more garishly rendered than usual. Beaumont adds a subplot (taken from another Poe tail) about a dwarf (Skip Martin) in Prospero's court taking revenge on a nobleman (Patrick Magee, Demons of the Mind [1972])) for his sleight towards the dwarf's bride, Esmeralda (Virina Greenlaw) -- which fits in perfectly with the metaphorical themes of the rest of the story.
Price is magnificent here as a decadent Lord who worships Satan and is constantly on the lookout for chances to prove his worth to his dark master. We first encounter him as his coach is about to run-over a small peasant child; and when two of the impoverished serfs stand up to him, he responds by choosing the most innocent-looking among them -- the young girl, Francesca (Jane Asher, The Stone Tape [1972]) -- in order to have her choose which of them should die. This is rather unfortunate for her, since one of the men is her father (Nigel Green, The Face of Fu Manchu [1965]) and the other, her boyfriend (David Weston); but luckily the choice is deferred when it becomes apparent that "the Red Death" has struck, and the whole village is infected. Prospero orders the entire village to be burned and takes the three peasants back to his castle, where a great Masque is to be held for all the country's surrounding noblemen. Here, Francesca and the two men are to provide entertainment for the dissolute aristocracy in Prospero's salubrious castle surroundings; and the corruption of Francesca's Christian innocence, as she is initiated into the cruel realities of court life, is to be the centerpiece of Prospero's manipulations.
While Price gets to spend the rest of the film sneering with equally bored contempt at the degenerate, sybaritic stupidity and greed of his own fawning revelers as much as he does at the naivety and incorruptibility of Franchesca and her morally upright relatives, his Satanic pact is matched by his consort, Julianna (Hazel Court, The Curse of Frankenstein [1957]) who brands her right bosom with an upside-down cross, hoping to usurp Prospero as the dark lord's number one lackey. It soon becomes noticeable to the viewer that despite the vivid, colourful luxury of Prospero's castle, everyone within its walls is selfish, grasping and untrustworthy in the extreme. Hazel Court (in what turned out to be her last screen role) has a full-figured blonde appearance that seems to cast her against type as the Satan worshipping black queen, when usually she was the ample-bosomed screaming heroine in Hammer's Dracula and Frankenstein franchises; here, instead of a raven-haired Barbara Steele type, Court presents a butter-wouldn't-melt persona that helps drum home the fact that everything in the court of Prospero is corrupted and twisted out of moral recognition.
Perhaps the main stars of the show are really the sumptuous sets and costumes, lit so exquisitely by Roeg. Prospero's suite of multicoloured rooms, with the black-shrouded one illuminated with searing, eye-popping scarlet that becomes particularly febrile when "Death" makes his final red-robbed appearance, make the biggest visual impression, along with the wine-sodden banqueting scene where the masked revelers are driven to make fools of themselves for Prospero's half-bored amusement. The whole notion of a corrupted, over-rich society basking complacently in wealth while death and poverty rage outside, seems like a reference point for George Romero's Land of the Dead (2005), but by setting up a false opposition between Francesca's pious faith and Prospero's equally fanatical worship of Satan, only to have the nameless, shrouded figures who stand for 'Death' in all its forms strike all down randomly (though, in truth, the film draws back slightly from the implied cynicism by having only "good" characters survive at the end), thrusts the film into much darker territory than just simple social metaphor, capturing something of the bleakness of Poe's vision along the way.
Optimum Releasing present the film on an extraless disc in a nice anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer. It looks good, though there is slight speckling to be discerned upon occasion and slight degrading of image at reel changes.  

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