The producer/director Roger Corman made eight adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. This movie is one of the better productions. It stars Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, a devil-worshipping European prince who mistreats the peasants and invites nobility to his castle to indulge in endless partying while the ‘red death’ plague kills off the peasants outside. Everyone is terrified of him, and even the nobility who take shelter in his castle do everything he tells them to, in order to keep receiving shelter and avoiding the death outside. Prospero is defied by some peasants in a village he orders burned down, and brings them to the castle – Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green) are thrown into the dungeon, while Gino’s wife Francesca (Jane Asher) is given nice clothes and dressed up as Prospero has taken a fancy to her. The main story is the way Prospero and Francesca’s faiths (the Devil versus God) battle against each other, Prospero trying to corrupt Francesca and Francesca trying to hold out while attempting to help her husband and father.
Vincent Price was an interesting actor, capable of everything from wildly hammy performances to subtle and brilliant characterisations. This movie certainly is one of his best performances. We might expect over the top hamming for a Satan worshipper, but instead we are treated to a subtle performance of a man who truly believes that his attitudes and actions are entirely logical and justified. Price indicates a sadistic character without any overt glee, instead almost an intellectual curiosity in what his power can achieve, and what people under his control will do to placate him. This is shown particularly in a scene where his guests are partying, and he orders them to act like animals. Those he orders might show momentary reluctance or embarrassment, but swiftly do what he says with enthusiasm. They know their lives depend on giving him a show. Prospero is amused by their obedience, but it seems more about proving his power over them than about the show they put on. The character discusses his beliefs with Francesca and again, Price does not rant about Satan, but instead calmly and logically discusses why he thinks he is right. This makes him all the more compelling, and the peasant Francesca struggles to maintain her faith against his seductive nature.
Jane Asher is very good as Francesca, and I think is aptly cast in this role. Her physical appearance of fragile and innocent youth is an appropriate contract to Price’s jaded worldliness. He speaks compellingly, and the character finds it hard to resist him (“I am not learned”, Francesa says). Asher gives her character a dignity of faith and innocence. Francesca is not cowed by Prospero and is not afraid to die. Asher depicts this beautifully, using her physical presence to convey the theme of faith prevailing against evil, something seemingly fragile that will bend but not break.
Roger Corman is usually dismissed as a B-movie maker, making low budget films of questionable quality such as ‘It conquered the world’ and ‘Attack of the crab monsters’. However, he directed some movies that did indicate his abilities as a director and this is one of his best. There is a surreal quality to many parts of this movie, with hallucinatory sequences and lurid colours. The lavish opulence of the ballroom contrasts with the horrors of the dungeons and torture chambers underneath.
The cinematography is a sumptuous visual feast, courtesy of Nicolas Roeg. This film-maker would of course go on to direct movies such as “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man who Fell to Earth”, so he is indicating at this early stage an eye to the unique visual qualities that would mark his directorial outings. The movie would not have been the same without him – the garishness of the setting is very much a part of the whole experience.
The final part of the movie has a philosophical quality very reminiscent of Bergman, particularly “The Seventh Seal.” A red-garbed figure, who has appeared earlier in the film, comes to Prospero’s ‘masque’, and Prospero mistakenly believes his master Satan has come to reward him. He discovers instead that he is confronting a personification of the disease that is threatening them all – the Red Death itself has entered the castle and will leave no survivors. (This entity has already allowed Francesa and her husband to escape.) The final scene is quite an odd one, where the Red Death meets a number of other individuals, clothed the same way but in different colours and apparently representing different types of plagues, who discuss how many souls they have taken as they have wandered the earth. The movie ends with the final sentence from Poe’s original story:
“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
“The Masque of the Red Death” is an interesting movie. At the time it was made, and being directed by Roger Corman, you’d be forgiven for expecting some lurid and gory Hammer-style horror fest, cheesy and fun, but not particularly good. It’s a refreshing surprise to, instead, find a movie that is thought-provoking, well-directed and acted, and ending on a somewhat mysterious note. You could do worse than choose this film for your Hallowe’en viewing.