Roger Corman, USA/UK, 1964, 89 min.
Before: I know I’ve seen some of Corman’s AIP Poe films, but it was so long ago that I have no real memory of how they played. I’m picturing a moody Hammer-like film with some good use of its low-budget. Hopefully something that will stick with me this time.
After: Masque of the Red Death manages to mix B-movie Hammer horror camp with gorgeous production design. Shot in widescreen and vivid colors by Nicholas Roeg, it’s period piece that belies it’s low budget.
Vincent Price plays Prince Prospero, a ruthless and evil tyrant who torments the local peasants while holding court with his wife (Hazel Court) and other nobles in his impenetrable castle.
The film quickly introduces us to the evils of Prince Prospero and setting up the main conflict: The Red Death, a horrible plague that kills all who contract it, is approaching. Prospero has invited the other nobles to ride out the plague by attending a giant party in his castle.
Complicating matters is the introduction of some peasant prisoners who tried to defy Prince Prospero during one of his tax raids. The two men he intends to have fight to the death for entertainment, but he has other plans for the beautiful young Francesca (Jane Asher).
You see, Prince Prospero worships Satan, and intends to corrupt the devoutly Christian and seemingly incorruptible Francesca to his side. Most of the film follows him showing off his power to her. This includes a a few memorable sequences including one which has an entire room of well-dressed nobles acting like wild animals.
There are some other story threads going on. Skip Martin has a great turn as Hop Toad, the dwarf jester who has more in mind than just entertaining guests, and the specter of death or Satan, a red-hooded figure, haunts the whole proceeding. Is that who Prospero worships or is something more going on?
The production design is great. The good wardrobe choices always shine throughout, especially during the masquerade ball. The set design is moody and colorful and the scenery feels authentic, even as Vincent Price chews it up. It’s a perfect role for him, and he plays it perfectly.
Masque of the Red Death is a solid period horror film that leans more towards the surreal and the intellectual than it had any need to. Roger Corman may be known for his schlocky B-movies, but this one feels more like Ingmar Bergman than Ed Wood.