Roger Corman, 1964
Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Nigel Green
"Each man creates his own God for himself, his own Heaven, his own Hell."
Based on one of my favorite Poe stories, "The Masque of the Red Death," along with dashes of another great story, "Hop Frog," this American International Pictures film directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price is the second to last in their series of Poe-themed films. Masque of the Red Death tells the wicked tale of Prince Prospero, Satan worshipper and libertine extraordinaire. During his reign of terror falls the Red Death, a plague that causes those infected to bleed from their skin. Instead of helping the peasants, Prospero shuts himself, a few victims, and a number of his favorite courtiers up in his castle to party the hours away while villagers outside die tormented deaths. Prospero is convinced that the plague can't touch him because of his allegiance with Satan, who he worships fervently. Prospero is also trying to convert and seduce a young peasant girl, Francesca, who is a devout Christian.
Masque of the Red Death is one of my favorite '60s horror films and should be seen by every horror fan, particularly anyone who loves the great Vincent Price. Like most of the other movies he starred in, the film truly belongs to him. His Prospero is charming, debonair, smarmy, selfish, and just a touch evil. Co-star Hazel Court (The Raven) is able to hold her own with Price in a role as his satanically inclined mistress and it’s really a shame she wasn’t in more of the Poe series. Jane Asher (The Quatermass Xperiment) is somewhat memorable as the virginal Francesca and there are notable appearances from the wonderful Patrick Magee (Tales from the Crypt, Marat/Sade), Nigel Green (Corridors of Blood), David Weston (Witchcraft), and Skip Martin (Vampire Circus).
There's also an excellent screenplay by regular Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont, who contributed regularly to Price and Corman’s Poe series. Though Beaumont plays a bit fast and loose with Poe, the script perfectly brings together the most horrifying elements of Poe's story and keeps our attention for the entire running time. The face off between Prospero and Francesca, the innocent Christian girl he is trying to seduce away from her true love and religious belief, highlights the film’s more philosophical elements. As with the first Poe film, House of Usher, Masque is more than just a flashy ‘60s horror film and the plot occasionally slows down to contemplate the inevitability of death. Thanks to these art house elements, Beaumont is able to weave a compelling tale about cruelty, passion, and faith that will probably interest most film fans, not only genre aficionados.
Incredibly stylish from start to finish, Masque is a gothic spectacle and a truly beautiful film. Surprisingly, cinematography is from a young Nicholas Roeg (Performance, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth). Between Corman, Roeg, and production designer Daniel Haller, Masque looks sumptuous and expensive, certainly more than the meager budget would have allowed under less talented hands. Unlike most of the earlier films in the Corman-Poe cycle, this was a U.S. and U.K. coproduction shot in the U.K. at Elstreet Studios. Allegedly Corman decided to shoot in the U.K. because of their more advantageous tax laws and more affordable filmmaking opportunities.
Masque is certainly one of Corman's best and is a contender for finest film in the eight film Corman-Price-Poe cycle. There are some moments, namely the grisly conclusion, that will still manage to raise a few hairs on the back of your neck. There are also some thoroughly satanic visuals, as well as one of Corman’s token hallucinogenic sequences.
There are a couple of different versions released by MGM on DVD, though I recommend the double feature with Premature Burial. The latter stars Ray Milland and is one of the few Poe-themed films not to involve Vincent Price. Masque of the Red Death comes highly recommended.