Masque Of The Red Death (1964)
It would be easy to dismiss Masque Of The Red Death as just another Corman/Poe film, but somehow, it's much more than that. For a start, it was made in Britain (the first of Corman's films to be so) and it has a sense of style and flair all its own. Plus, you've got Vincent Price and Patrick Magee battling it out in the panto villain boo-hiss stakes.
An old hag makes her way across an obviously studio-bound forest set, and comes across a man sitting beneath a tree, dressed entirely in red, his face obscured by a cowl.
"Grandmother…" he deadpans. "Come closer."
He does a conjuring trick with a flower, turning it from white to bloody red, and hands it to her. "Take this to your village," he tells her. "And tell the people the day of their deliverance is at hand."
What is a little surprising, given the name of the film and the closeness of the "Red Death" that we learn has swept the land already, is that she doesn't run screaming from this, and instead willingly takes the flower back to her people, thus, one assumes, condemning them all to painful, screaming death. Nice one, hag.
Back at the village, Prince Prospero arrives, his carriage almost crushing a baby under its wheels. However, rather than have a pop at the mother who left her child in the middle of the road, the villagers prefer to have a go at their illustrious ruler, who has "come here personally to thank you for the year's harvest". Arguing with Prince P is a bad move, mainly because this is Vincent Price in possibly his most evil role. The two argumentative types have barely opened their mouths before Prospero has ordered them both garrotted.
Luckily, the lovely red-head (no hair, just a red head) Francesca (Jane Asher) is on hand to plead for their lives and not, thank goodness, to bake one of her famous cakes. It turns out one of the firebrands is her dad and the other her boyfriend.
"I am disposed to temper justice with mercy," Prospero tells her, before adding that she must choose which one now dies. Cheers.
Enter Patrick Magee as Alfredo, one of Prospero's mates. "You promised me entertainment," he smirks, "I never expected this. Have such eyes ever seen sin?"
"They will." Price replies.
This tender moment is broken by a scream from off camera. "Silence that!" shouts Price, before going to find out what's going on. It's the old biddy from scene one, now dying in agony from the Red Death (which incidentally, Prospero gets remarkably close to). He leaves quickly, ordering his soldiers to burn the village - his reply to their pleas of mercy: "This is your day of deliverance, remember?"
Francesca, her dad and boyfriend are brought along for the ride to Prospero's castle, where the gathered revellers are enjoying what obviously passed for entertainment in those days - the dancers Esmeralda (a disturbing child with a woman's voice), Hop-Toad (the dwarf from Horror Hospital - hooray!) and a dog (for some reason).
Alfredo: "Wherever did you find her?"
Prospero: "Pretty toy, isn't she?"
"I'm sure you do, Alfredo."
Ew. How grim is that?
We then get treated to a spot of the usual "debauched" behaviour associated with films of this time (see also The Devil Rides Out and The Witches for more crap orgies), the Prince ordering his guests to behave like animals.
He's above such rubbish, and instead takes Francesca on a tour of his brightly coloured rooms (guaranteed to be the overriding memory any viewer will take from this film), but won't allow her into the last one.
That night, Francesca sneaks into the room anyway (it's black, in case you hadn't guessed) and catches Propsero indulging in a bit of black magic with the large-breasted Juliana. After all, as he explains the next day, his master is "Satan... lord of flies... the fallen angel."
We're then treated to Prospero's own brand of hospitality, when he shoots a latecomer to his party in the throat for daring to travel through the red death infested village to get to the castle. As Prospero attempts to bring the devout Fran round to his way of thinking, Juliana (his former favourite) starts getting jealous - she wants to marry Satan and brands her devil's dumplings with an upside-down crucifix to prove her intent. She helps Fran rescue Gino and her dad (and many guards are killed during the escape), but in the end they are stopped by Prospero in fine Price grandstanding fashion.
"Juliana betrayed us!"
"She betrayed ME..." smirks Price.
Prospero has now decided on the fate of Gino and Fran's dad - the pair of them will cut themselves with daggers - one of which has a poisoned blade. It's up to dad to take the last one, and of course, he goes for Prospero with it (and fails, dying in the process) - Gino, to stop him becoming a martyr, is lobbed forcibly out of the castle.
Meanwhile, Juliana is having a bad time of it - after taking some dodgy drugs she has a bizarre dream involving her repeated stabbing by a variety of ethnic cliches, before she eventually ripped to pieces by a big crow.
"I beg you do not mourn for Juliana," says Prospero. "We should celebrate. She's just married a friend of mine."
"Celebrating" apparently involves massacring the entire village, who've come to the castle walls for sanctuary from the plague.
As the final party (or masque, if you will) starts up, Magee finds himself killed by the vengeful Hop Toad, and Prospero chases the Red Death through the coloured rooms until "It's time for a new dance to begin..."
The film ends where it began, in the waste land, as the Red Death meets up with lots of other brightly coloured deaths.
No words can do Masque Of The Red Death justice. It's beautifully filmed, full of fantastic ideas, and has certain set pieces (in particular the coloured rooms) which stay with you for a long time after viewing. And (no matter what you might have read in the past) it DOES stick closely to the original source material.
Last updated: February 25, 2010
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