The Masque of the Red Death
October 14, 2016
In The Masque of the Red Death, Vincent Price restrains himself from chewing scenery like a rabid red fox. He instead chews scenery slowly and attentively, squeezing out every drop of flavor until the savoriness has wasted away and he’s forced to bite off another chunk. In place, we find, is a performance characterized by its reflecting of pure evil, not by the late-career hamminess which enhanced the entertainment value of many of his films of the 1970s. The Masque of the Red Death features one of his greatest performances.
In the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation (in itself the eighth of the nine Poe pictures directed by Roger Corman and starring Price), Price is Prince Prospero, a Satan-worshipping royal wickedly reigning over a plague-riddled 19th century Italy. When we’re first introduced to the silver-tongued lunatic, he’s visiting one of the local villages susceptible to his power. There is he accosted by a pair of angry civilians horrified by his lack of follow-up in light of Red Death and in light of the food shortage that has only worsened the situation at hand. Being a masochist too authoritative to be stopped, he hardly listens to the concerns being spewed about in front of him and sentences his opposers to death.
Hoping to defend their lives, the daughter of one of the men, Francesca (Jane Asher), attempts to reason with Prospero to little avail. But when it is discovered that one of the townspeople has died of Red Death during his dropping by, Prospero, in a panic, takes Francesca to his castle, her loved ones in tow as the rest of the village is burned to the ground. While the men she strived to save are immediately thrown into the castle’s decrepit dungeon, Francesca, in no doubt for her beauty and for her potential, is invited to stay in the sprawling palace. Dressed to the nines and put through the challenges of etiquette training, Prospero hopes to eventually turn her into a bona fide Satanist. With enough mind games in store to certainly drive her mad, a Hell-craving metamorphosis is a possibility not as far-fetched as we’d like to believe.
But the endgame is, per usual in the works of Poe, an unpredictable punch in the gut. Told with a deft balance of medieval stateliness and supple psychedelic style à la Mario Bava, The Masque of the Red Death is among the most artistically interesting of the Corman/Price Poe collaborations. Though its tone is more mischievous than forthrightly chilling, with hints of Shakespearean broadness and hints of Argento influencing nightmarishness, the film is a humdinger of opulent, majestic horror — it’s a cinematic embodiment of just what made the Price and Corman duets so incomparable.
The Masque of the Red Death was followed by 1965’s disappointing The Tomb of Ligeia, and so I’d like to think of it as the real grand finale to Price and Corman’s Poe pictures. Recapturing what made the first films in the series, House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum, such breathtaking statements of horror, The Masque of the Red Death is a mini-masterpiece snug in all the right places. A-