(1964) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell; Based on the story “The Masque of the Red Death,” by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Skip Martin; Available on Blu-ray (import) and DVD
“Famine, pestilence, war, disease and death! They rule this world.” – Prince Prospero (Vincent Price)
“As a young filmmaker, I was watching every type of film I could find, but for the Poe films I studied the work of Alfred Hitchcock and of Ingmar Bergman, plus some of the German expressionist directors of the 1920s.” – Roger Corman
The so-called “Poe Cycle” of films, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price represented a new era for American International, known mainly for low budget drive-in fare. By contrast, this series was lavish by the company’s standards, with higher production values, filmed in color, and costing twice as much as their typical movies. Another difference, according to Corman, was that the titles were intended for theatrical release on a single bill, not as a double feature. Of course, changing this paradigm required that the titles delivered on their own relative merits, but deliver they did. The Masque of the Red Death is no exception, distinguishing itself from its esteemed stable-mates as the most visually inventive of the series.
Corman originally planned to make Masque of the Red Death the second Poe film, after House of Usher, but delayed the project due to concerns about comparisons to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Fortunately for us, he decided to go ahead with the film a few years later, which combined two of Poe’s short stories, blending the eponymous tale with “Hop-Frog.” The bulk of the source material was incorporated into the third act, with Corman and the writers tasked to create a story around the first two acts. While both stories were unrelated, they feature masquerade balls and involved nasty members of royalty receiving their well-earned comeuppance.
Vincent Price fits the role of Prince Prospero like a glove, endowing his character with the right balance of refinement and treachery. Prospero resides in his castle, away from the squalor of the surrounding village and the impending threat of the Red Death, a deadly plague that’s sweeping the countryside. He shelters a chosen few in his fortified abode, believing his pact with Satan will protect him from the plague. Hazel Court also shines as Prospero’s mistress Juliana, who pledges her undying allegiance as one of the Devil’s handmaidens. She barely contains her animosity toward Francesca (Jane Asher), a village girl abducted by Prospero for his own devious ends. For her part, Asher is easy on the eyes, but vexingly passive. With her perpetual doe-eyed expression, Francesca exists in a state of perpetual befuddlement, a mere pawn for Prospero.
The film boasts a strong supporting cast, including Patrick Magee as the sadistic nobleman Alfredo. He serves in Prospero’s court, taking sadistic pleasure witnessing the misfortunes of others. You can see the wheels turning inside his head, as he sees himself usurping his benefactor’s position. Skip Martin is excellent as the dwarf court jester, Hop Toad (changed from Hop Frog in Poe’s story), who patiently bides his time while plotting revenge against the cruel nobleman. Corman’s one casting misstep is 7-year-old Verina Greenlaw as Hop Toad’s wife Esmeralda. Corman claimed he couldn’t find a little person suitable for her role, so he cast a child instead and dubbed a grown woman’s voice. Needless to say, the results are less than convincing.
From the lavish costumes to the candles, The Masque of the Red Death employs color to full effect, ensuring AIP founders Arkoff and Nicholson got their money’s worth for the added expense. Lensed by a young Nicolas Roeg, and featuring superb art direction by Robert Jones and set design by Daniel Haller, the film looks like a much more expensive production. Poe described seven different colored chambers in the castle, but four appear in the film. You could probably write a decent thesis about the significance of the colors, but if I had to fathom a guess, I’d say yellow for the innocence of youth, purple for decadence, white for purity and black for the void of Prospero’s soul.* The intentional use of color seems to have also influenced Corman’s decision to cast two redheads, Court and Asher, in the lead female roles. A final nod to the story appears as a mysterious red-cloaked figure who crashes Prospero’s masquerade party (“There is no face of death until the moment of your own death”).
* What the colors really mean is anyone’s guess. Try it. It’s fun!
As befitting any feature film based on a poem or short story, The Masque of the Red Death strains a bit to stretch the material to 90 minutes. But what the film lacks in plot, it compensates in theme and atmosphere. Either by accident or design (and with a little help from Mr. Poe), Corman has crafted a populist tale. It illustrates the folly of those at the top who attempt to remain distanced from the rest of society. Even Prospero, with his wealth and influence can’t avoid his fate forever. The plague is the great equalizer, and Death will have its day.