Masque of The Red Death/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
< Masque of The Red Death
The penultimate film in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, Roger Corman's The Masque of The Red Death is one of the more highly-regarded entries of the director’s Poe cycle. In fact, Corman himself has cited the movie as one of his favorites, describing it as the product of him trying to recast the Poe series as “expressions of the unconscious mind, rather than as pure horror films”. This bolder, more experimental approach shows in the ambitious (by the standards of an AIP horror film at least) scale of not just the production value but the overarching themes and narrative as well. Expanded from the original, straightforward Poe tale into a more-elaborate story about a Satan-worshipping prince who torments his people as the titular disease ravages the land, the movie may hit too close to home for some as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs and flows but there’s still plenty to admire in this avant-garde exercise in Gothic camp.
As with many of the AIP Poe pictures, the film is carried by a fiendishly hammy performance from Vincent Price. Starring as the wicked Prince Prospero, Price revels in the naked evil that only a Satanist with all the privileges of royalty would be able to indulge in. He injects a malicious smugness into such statements as “I’ve already had that doubtful pleasure” when a desperate noble offers their wife to him and often affects a boastful, Shakespearean air as he proclaims his devotion to evil (possibly a holdover from his time playing Richard III in Corman's Tower of London two years earlier). At times though, Price employs more-understated methods, such as quietly mouthing the word "devil" when asked who his master is, giving us a hint of dramatic range beyond the overt kitsch he is remembered for. Among those playing second fiddle to Price are fellow AIP veteran Patrick Magee as Prospero's guest, Alfredo, and former child actress Jane Asher as his prisoner, Francesca. Magee is at turns eccentric and belligerent as Alfredo (qualities that would come through in his later performance as the aggrieved writer in A Clockwork Orange), while Asher is convincingly vulnerable as the wide- eyed peasant girl whose innocence is tested by the treachery and debauchery unfolding around her.
Contributing a serviceably spooky score is David Lee, a jazz musician whose compositions here lean on sinister strings and bombastic brass. Both can be heard in the closing theme, which embraces the campy horror sensibility that pervades the film and has an added martial character thanks to some steady, purposeful drumming. Also of note is the piece that plays during Juliana's (Prospero's consort) witchcraft-induced hallucination. With strings, percussion, and woodwinds all bearing a pronounced reverb that gives the impression of considerable distance, the music has a genuinely eerie quality that one might argue clashes with the aforementioned campy feel of the movie. Additionally, the piece goes in some interesting directions by borrowing African and Asian tones and textures when Juliana envisions herself being attacked by assailants from these regions, allowing for a hint of international sound and flavor in a way that makes sense for a story set in medieval Europe.
Much of the film’s flair comes from its colorful aesthetics and mise-en-scene. Featuring production design by Daniel Haller (who would go on to direct, among other films, The Dunwich Horror for AIP), the roomy, detailed sets here lend a greater sense of opulence compared to previous Corman-Poe productions. This was achieved partly through the use of castle sets left over from Becket, another medieval-set (if more highbrow) film which came out that same year. The movie also plays around with the costumes of its characters to illustrate the social and moral divide between Prospero and his victims, with the rich, diversely-hued
tunics and dresses worn by the prince and his courtiers clashing with the drab, brown and gray robes and garments that the peasants wear. Of course, the most important use of color has to be the Red Death, represented here by a mysterious figure shrouded in a bright red cloak and facepaint. Standing out even among the vibrant colors of Prospero's masquerade, it’s a simple yet potent aesthetic choice that catches the eye and imagination alike.
Though not quite as eye-catching as the lavish art and production design, the cinematography and editing are also engaging, if uneven. Several cuts from one scene to another are too quick or sloppy to make for effective transitions, with a number of jump cuts rendering some actions and movements unnatural. However, a cut from Prospero dropping a dagger from the castle wall to a sword landing on the ground before a prisoner in the dungeon is excellently executed. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (widely remembered today for directing The Man Who Fell to Earth) similarly shows some artfulness behind the camera, making frequent use of tracking shots to give a sense of motion and momentum as characters, like Juliana when she reveals that she’s given herself over to the Devil, do little more than talk. More extravagantly, he attempts a 360-degree pan shot inside the main castle interior, following Prospero as he walks around and giving us our first full view of the room. It’s not entirely successful (there’s a distorted, almost-fishbowl effect on the background imagery and it cuts before the pan completes) but the attempt at artistry is appreciated.
Also appreciated is the film’s interest in exploring the nature of evil through the guise of Prospero's Satanism. As with many cinematic depictions of devil worship, the “Satanism” here is more a vulgar Nietzscheism than a faithful interpretation of actual Satanic beliefs. The prince repeatedly declares his loyalty to the Devil but lines like “Somewhere in the human mind… lies the key to our existence” suggest a naturalistic atheism more than they do faith in any supernatural beings. Shortly after, he even says God “is long since dead”, directly paraphrasing Nietzsche’s infamous claim that “God is dead” (as well as anticipating the question posed by the cover of Time magazine two years later: “Is God dead?”) Indeed, the movie itself indicates that Prospero hasn’t followed his own statements to their logical conclusions: when the Red Death comes to his masquerade, he believes that his pact with Satan will save him from the plague. Swiftly disabusing the prince of this notion, the Death explains that not only does he have “no master” but that “Each man creates his own God for himself, his own Heaven, his own Hell”. People like Prospero may justify their crimes or misbehavior with the old alibi that the Devil (or God or the way the planets are aligned) made them do it, but the terrible truth is that the only one who men need to drive them to evil is themselves.
While it never quite transcends the confines of its genre and campy sensibility, Masque of the Red Death displays enough interesting ideas and imagery to make it one of — if not the — Roger Corman's greatest films.
Review by Reggie Peralta