The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee
Director: Roger Corman

The penultimate entry in Roger Corman’s much-lauded eight film cycle based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Masque Of The Red Death saw the director playing with a higher than usual budget and every penny of it is up there on the screen.

It’s a stunning film in every way, but visually most of all, with a vibrant use of colour dazzling in every single scene, from the most innocuous of detail to the grandest of sets. It’s also a nasty, unpleasant film at times, with something to say about the class divide, religion and power dynamics, but man, does it look pretty while it does it.

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is a cruel and petty local nobleman who has pledged his life in the service of his lord and master- Satan. While passing through one of the villages where his power is absolute, he comes across two poor and starving villagers, Gino and Lodovico, who sentences the pair to death. They’re saved, at least for now, initially by the intervention of Francesca (Jane Asher), not only Lodovico’s daughter but Gino’s lover, then by the discovery that plague has come to the land- The Red Death.

Prospero orders the village burned to the ground and all the surrounding nobility to join him for a decadent ball in his castle where they can wait out the plague. He’s also developed an instant obsession with Francesca, forcing her to come along with him.

The Prince soon discovers that neither his faith in Satan nor his fortified walls are any protection from the Red Death, as the day of deliverance is at hand…

Decadence. It’s a concept that’s dripping off every aspect of Masque Of The Red Death. It’s what fuels Prospero’s cruelties, his worship of Satan, his entire reason for being. It’s what drives the biggest divide between the starving poor down in the villages and the laughing rich up in their castles. Anything that doesn’t exist purely for their pleasure is immaterial. For these people, everything and everyone is there to be used, abused and enjoyed, then disposed of when boredom sets in, never to be thought of again.

It’s also what is almost leaping out of every shot in that stunning, stunning array of colours that are as vivid as any ever captured on celluloid. From the seven colour-coded rooms and the sumptuous costume designs to even the piercing blue of Jane Asher’s eyes, this is a film that’s nothing short of visually stunning, to the point of almost overwhelming at times.

As the wicked Prince, you can tell that the great Vincent Price is having a whale of a time. There’s a sparkle in his eye throughout and his deft touch with a character carries Prospero’s journey from irredeemably evil nobleman to…well, still an evil nobleman, but one who has learned some empathy and has genuinely developed feelings for the peasant girl he abducted for his own amusement. It’s a wonderful role for Price and he’s makes it how own so effortlessly. You know he’s an awful, awful human being, but when Francesca tenderly kisses his cheek as she is allowed to leave and escape Death, its emotional and it’s all down to the talent that was Vincent Price.

It would have been easy for a young female actress to get lost up against such a larger than life performance, but Jane Asher does incredibly well. It helps that Francesca is such a strong character that she has enlightened to work with, though. Despite being a prisoner with potentially a grim fate ahead of her, she’s resolute and strong in her Christian faith, but also willing to do whatever she needs to both survive and try and save her lover and father. She’s appalled by the behaviour of her supposed betters at the castle, but still goes along with Prospero’s whims for her, smartly biding her time. Asher really sells this strong young woman, so much so that you rarely feel she’s in any real danger, purely because she’s not. Not really. She’s too smart and calm for that.

There’s some wonderful supporting characters and sub-plots going on here too. The jealousy of Prospero’s initially cold consort Juliana (Hazel Court) leads her on her own journey that ends up with her liberating Francesca, but not before a wild and very Corman psychedelic dream sequence where she literally becomes a bride of Satan and man, does that scene not just pop out the screen?

There’s another lovely sub-plot based on Poe’s Hop Frog, involving the elaborate revenge scheme of Prospero’s dancing dwarf of the same name that pads the run-time out. It doesn’t feel massively like padding though, even if it’s completely of no effect to The A-plot, purely as it’s a good story well told and adds depth and colour to the film’s overarching themes.

Class. Money. Religion. Love. Hate. Lust. All human life is in that castle, but when Death comes for them, none of it matters. Death doesn’t care if you worship Satan or Christ. Death comes for us all in the end.

And sometimes, there’s more than one aspect of Death, they all wear brightly coloured robes of a single colour and meet up at the end of the day to compare notes on how many thousands have died at their hand that day. God bless you, Roger Corman. God bless you.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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