Thursday, March 18, 2010

Grave Reviews #5

The Masque of The Red Death (1964)

Director: Roger Corman

Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court and Jane Asher

Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe

Prince Prospero (Price) is a right, royal bastard and also a cruel Satanist who rules with an Iron fist over a small medieval European village. At the beginning of the film, a elderly lady from a nearby village is called over by a holy man dressed in red leaning against a tree and gives her a white flower he turns red with a wave of his hand. He commands the woman to take the flower back to her village as a sign of deliverance from Prospero and his evil ways.

Prospero travels to that village on the same night, to give gratitude to them for this years harvest and to invite them to a feast at his Abbey in several days time. He doesn't take kindly to some of the silly villagers giving him lip, so he orders them garrotted only to be pleaded by a village girl named Francesca (Asher) to spare their lives.

Prospero is amused and offers the girl the choice of which one of the two shall survive his wrath, but this is interrupted by a moaning from a nearby hut where he discovers an elderly woman, the same who met the Holy Man, dying of the Red Death. He flees the tent and demands answers. The villagers tell him of a prophecy where they would be spared his tyranny, so in punishment (and also a way to prevent the Death spreading) he orders the village burnt to the ground, taking Francesca, her cheeky lover Gino along with her father Ludivico back to his Abbey.

Back at the Abbey where he is safe from the Red Death, he entertains nearby nobles and grants them a Masquerade Ball in honour of their safety, but all are forbidden to wear red. Juliana (Court), Prospero's current lover is not amused that Francesca has usurped her room, along with her bath and proclaims to Prospero she is prepared to perform the final Satanic rites to ensure her place within the Abbey and at his side, a move Prospero mentions she was not so eager to undergo before the arrival of the peasant girl.

Over the next few days Francesca witnesses Prospero's cruelty but also his realistic philosophy, comparing the black grace of his Dark Lord to Francesca's 'dead' god of 'love'. He states that Satan rules this Earth along with the universe, and that he is a God of Reality and Truth that opens the eyes to those shut by Blind Faith. He demonstrates this by showing her his Falcon kill a bird, and explaining that in the start a Falcon's eyes are sewn shut to give them loyalty and reliance on their master, much like her own dead God has done to her.

Prospero shows Francesca six rooms off the main ballroom, each in a specific style: blue, purple, green, yellow, white, and violet. He explains his father imprisoned a friend in the yellow room for three years, and when he released him he couldn't bear the site of sunlight or daffodils. He stops her at the last room, telling her she is not ready to enter yet, but one day soon with his instruction she will be ready to view its dark secrets beyond.

In the background Juliana is performing her own Black Rites, hoping to become Prospero's equal by becoming Satan's bride, and in the process removing Francesca from the competition. Unluckly for Juliana, Prospero has grown bored of her, and sees a better conquest in corrupting Francesca. Juliana 'helps' Francesca and her friends escape only to be captured by Prospero's who is onto his lover's treachery. He sets a Falcon onto Juliana's face, eviscerating her painfully till her death.

Beforehand he desired to have the two men fight each other to the death, but now at the feast before the Masque, he presents them with five knives, one of them poisoned and demands they each cut their forearm in turn. The poison will kill in five seconds, and Prospero continues with his Christian taunts of 'love thy neighbour' and to put their faith in their God to test it.

After four knives both are unharmed and Francesca's father snatches the last to stab Prospero. He dies on the point of Prospero's sword, and Gino is released back into the wilds to the mercy of the Red Death as a last test of his Faith.  On the road he meets the same Holy Man in red who gives him a tarot card and tells him to return to the castle and wait on the battlements.

At the ball Prospero is thrilled to have finally crushed Francesco's will, who is now prepared to undertake the same Satanic Rites that Juliana was prepared to undergo. Suddenly he spies a Masque guest dressed all in red, and furiously charges after him, catching up with him in the last room, which is painted black and illuminated with red light. He assumes that this guest is his Lord Satan finally come to show his gratitude to his number one servant.

As he follows 'Satan' back through the rooms, Prospero babbles on about how awesome a servant he is, and the guest informs him he is not Satan and that Death bows to no God. The guest waves his robe towards the Masque attendants and they suddenly become stricken with the Red Death, but Prospero is still oblivious and blinded by his own dark faith, much the same way he previously accused Francesca of on numerous occasions. The man in red tells Francesca to leave for the battlements where Gino is waiting for her, and in anger Prospero removes the man's mask to confront his own death, his own visage sweating blood.

The Masque attendees all clamour around a terrified Prospero who tries to escape his fate, and is coerced by the crowd to be lead back into the black room. There the personification of Red Death itself tells Prospero that he shouldn't fear his own death as his own soul died long ago, and with that Prospero succumbs to the illness.
At the end of the film, The Red Death is playing Tarot cards with one of the six survivors of the village, when he is greeted in turn by the personification (among others) of the Black and Yellow Death. Yellow Death has grown weary of the misery he has wrought, which perhaps signals the end of all the plagues across Europe.

The film ends with the line from the story: And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

This film was made by American International Pictures, the same company who made the Count Yorga films, and other Poe adaptations such as The Fall of the House of Usher and the Tomb of Ligeia. The latter films also starring Price who was their star actor much the same that Hammer Horror was to Christopher Lee. When you watch these films though you can see a resemblance in set design and atmosphere, which for a big Hammer fan like myself is quite a treat. To me Roger Corman was the Terrance Fisher of the USA, and produced many star vehicles for Price, and I have enjoyed each of his films which include Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum and the Raven and those I mentioned just before.

Price is charismatic as always and chews every scene he is in. I don't enjoy Price as much as Lee (I can't explain why) but his movies were part of my teenagehood of Horror much as Lee's were. The scenery was lush, and the script wasn't bad (well it came from a Poe story) and I quite enjoyed Price's dialogue, he really stuck it to the peasants and his own noble class though I found his demise at the end a tad hokey.

My Grade is C.


  1. I rather enjoy Masque, I love Price's voice generally (though Lee had a more commanding ptresence).

  2. Cheers Andy.

    But as you can see I preferred THE DEVILS RIDES OUT that I just reviewed before it. I guess I didn't like the liberties they took with the ending in regards to the Poe story. I know you don't really know what Prospero saw, but seeing his own silly face was a bit corny to me :)

    I'm halfway through WITCHFINDER GENERAL with Price that I find quite disturbing, and after that I have PREMATURE BURIAL and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER to watch.