Inspired in equal parts by Edgar Allan Poe’s morbid fable and The Seventh Seal’s cloaked visage of death, Roger Corman’s rapturous rendition of The Masque of the Red Death is the most handsomely mounted of his eight Poe adaptations, seamlessly fusing the melodrama of Gothic horror to the existential malaise of world cinema. It also happens to be the most economical, utilizing overhead shots and novel framing techniques to broaden the physical space, further heightened by the gauzy nature of Nicolas Roeg’s photography, which employs soft focus to eroticize the setting and medium close-up to emphasize emotion.
Ravishing technical aspects aside, the film lives and dies by Vincent Price’s performance and his devilish take on Prince Prospero relishes in every bad deed and malicious act, grinning from ear to ear at the thought of manipulating his human subjects for entertainment’s sake. Price’s adaptability and nuance as a performer are what made him a matinee staple, but the subtle arrogance and vigor of his lead performance in Masque is particularly noteworthy, capturing the essence of Poe’s character as if he tore it right from the page.
Trampling through the shanty town that rests in the muddy reflection of his palace, Prospero, a pompous and pernicious nobleman, pauses to reward his underlings with invitations to a masquerade ball, unaware that a townsperson has been infected with the “red death.” Upon recognizing the symptoms on the blood-soaked face of an elderly woman, Prospero recoils in fear and demands the village be burned to ash, only absconding with three rowdy locals upon the request of his deviant cohort, Alfredo (Patrick Magee, typically wild-eyed and enthusiastic), who intends to utilize them as a source of amusement.
The male captives must live out their days as gladiators at the behest of the host, but Prospero has other intentions for the young Francesca (Jane Asher), the gamine female captor who bravely confronted him as he shamelessly scorched her village. Though her modesty and staunch Christian faith stand in direct contrast to his practical intellect, he is infatuated by her resolve and sees her as a suitable opponent to his belief system (or lack thereof).
Prospero’s sole purpose in life is to attain knowledge and he prays to Satan for supernatural wisdom and immortality, citing his nihilistic attitude as a more realistic alternative to compassion. He only begins to question himself when he sees Francesca shake off his advances, both sexually and intellectually, and is dumbfounded by her faith in an intangible God, one that doesn’t offer wealth or power.
The entire purpose of the masquerade ball is to increase Prospero’s influence over man and death, a desire that may reflect his own building insecurity. Testing his allegiance with Satan, Prospero decrees that his guests must grovel before him as thanks for their protection, a request they all too willingly accept, turning dignitaries and queens into braying donkeys that will scour the floor to sniff out a dropped pearl or discarded piece of meat. Their descent into pure revelry is humorous and decadent, lovingly orchestrated through choreographed dancing and an elaborate mise en scène that morphs pratfalls and stumbles into an ornate, epicurean ballet.
Prospero perceives this exhibition as a sign of his domain over death, but an unknown “guest” dressed in crimson red exposes his folly, unmasking the merrymakers to reveal their blood-splattered faces. Despite power and wisdom, Death divulges its inevitability, completely contrary to man’s whims or the bearings of religion. As a sea of dancing corpses surround the frenzied Prospero, he writhes and squirms in one last ditch effort to escape his fate, succumbing only when he comprehends the futility of his struggle.
Thematically, it’s refreshing to see an unbiased representation of death, one existing completely outside of the superstitions and religious institutions of man. The Masque of the Red Death takes this moral ambiguity seriously and constructs an ending that shows the grave as an equalizer, taking on the humble and the arrogant, completely without malice or partiality. It’s a philosophically heavy closing point for a histrionic horror film, but it’s this thematic complexity that makes Masque the most mature and vivid of Corman’s genre efforts.
The Masque of the Red Death (American International Pictures, 1964)
Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Edgar Allan Poe (story), Charles Beaumont (screenplay) and R. Wright Campbell (screenplay)
Photographed by Nicolas Roeg