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The Masque of the Red Death

Posted by martinteller on May 31, 2013

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) stops at a peasant village on the way back to his castle, to thank them for their harvest (of which he takes more than the lion’s share).  The villagers have received a prophecy that this night will mark the end of Prospero’s tyranny.  Two of them dare to sass the prince, and he orders them executed on the spot.  But a young woman named Francesca (Jane Asher) begs him for mercy.  The two men are her father (Nigel Green) and her lover (David Weston).  Prospero asks her to choose which one shall live and which shall die, much to the amusement of his guest Alfredo (Patrick Magee).  But when Prospero learns the village is plagued by the “red death”, he decides to take all three of them to the safety of his castle.  He throws the two men in the dungeon for later entertainment and makes Francesca his guest to witness the debauchery of his masquerade ball.  Prospero and his sister Juliana (Hazel Court), you see, are Satanists.  But an uninvited guest to the party (John Westbrook) has some plans of his own.

Poe’s story is very short, so one can’t blame Roger Corman for fleshing it out with some peasants as counterpoint to the decadence of the party guests, adding some devil worship just to make things a little more interesting, and incorporating another Poe story, “Hop-Frog”, just because it’s fun.  And the movie is a lot of fun.  Price goes for the gusto as always, and his giddy glee at his own sadistic and demeaning amusements is one of the film’s highlights.  All the Satan stuff — including a trippy, distorted lens sequence involving Court’s “betrothal” to the big man — is a hoot as well.  The movie never really gets scary, or even unsettling, but it revels in its gothic sensibilities in a way that’s both sincere and campy.

As the lead baddies, Price and Court of course steal the show.  Asher manages her role quite well, but gets overshadowed by the more colorful characters.  Magee, for example, finds the right level of intensity (he usually goes far over the top).  And Skip Martin is very enjoyable as Hop Toad.  But the biggest attraction is the eye-popping cinematography by future director Nicolas Roeg.  The bright, lurid color schemes are a visual treat.  Asher’s red hair and blue eyes look stunning, and the colored rooms (not as many as in Poe’s story, but 4 is enough) are glorious.  The camera is often in motion without calling attention to itself.  It’s a really fine looking movie.

It’s worth noting that there are some obvious similarities to The Seventh Seal.  Corman was well aware of them (they exist in the source material, after all) and delayed making the film until enough time had passed for audiences and critics not to cry “ripoff”.  He also was a big fan of Bergman and acknowledges him as an influence.

The film is hard to take seriously and a little on the slow side, but it has a delightful performance by Price and more than enough fun moments.  Rating: Good (73)


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