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A quiet Sunday with nothing much on television meant a look through our DVD collection for something to watch. We chose a film I had never seen and my fiancé had seen, but years ago - The Masque of the Red Death. This is a horror film from 1964, based on one of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories. It is directed and produced by the legendary Roger Corman and stars the equally legendary Vincent Price.
The plot is based around Prince Prospero, played by Vincent Price. He is a power-hungry Satanist with a penchant for torture. He lives in a castle with an array of courtiers and nobility he has allowed to shelter there, to hopefully avoid the Red Death that is killing people in the area. He relishes having the power over people, literally deciding if they will live or die as he wishes.
On one foray to a neighbouring village, he captures three people - the beautiful young red-haired girl Francesca (played by Jane Asher, long before her cake-making days), her father Ludovico (Nigel Green) and her lover Gino (David Weston). They are brought back to the castle, where Prospero imprisons the men and takes Francesca into his court, where she accompanies him alongside his partner Juliana (played by Hazel Court). The court wines and dines and holds strange soirees, where they are entertained by dwarf jester Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and his lover, the tiny dancer Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw).
There is an inherent menace pervading the whole of the story, as you wonder how many will survive by the end - whether they fall victims to the Red Death or to Prospero. Early on, you realise that no-one is safe. This is not one of those films you watch where you feel all the main characters are bound to survive until the end. Instead, various key characters are killed off - and many meet a grisly and gory end. Despite this film being made in 1964, it still has a 15 certificate and rightly so, as some of the murders are prolonged and disturbing.
I own this DVD as part of a three-disc Roger Corman Collection box set and I have previously seen The Pit and The Pendulum, so had an idea of Corman's style. The look of this film is my favourite part of it, I love the set, the colours and the whole feel of the movie. The castle itself is beautifully done, with its yellow room, white room, purple room (I want one!) and its dark inner chamber all contrasting with the brightly lit ballroom with its beautiful dresses and laughing courtiers. The lighting is impressive too and I especially love the use of the colour red, which reminds me of the wonderful Hammer Horror films - though The Masque of The Red Death is more lavish and looks more expensive.
The acting is slightly patchy, with Vincent Price being Vincent Price, as you would expect. As I love Vincent Price, this isn't a problem for me, but some may find his acting style rather irritating and a tad arch. Jane Asher is fairly good as Francesca, though the part requires little more than looking sweet and being rather naive. She would have been around eighteen at the time. I found the characters of Hop Toad and Esmeralda intriguing, though the fact their voices were dubbed to make them much deeper was rather distracting. One of the darkest characters is Alfredo (played by Patrick Magee) who comes across as a sadistic pervert and possible paedophile, and the development of his relationship with Hop Toad gives the viewer one of its most memorable (and disturbing) scenes.
The special effects are fairly well done. Some are more realistic than others, with lashings of bright red painty blood everywhere, but things have certainly moved on from the plastic bats on string of the early Dracula movies. Overall, the effects here are good; they add to the tone well and in some cases are superb.
The tone of the film becomes quite "trippy" at times with strange dancing and courtiers pretending to be animals, which the others find inexplicably hilarious. One suspects this may have made more sense if Corman had been on LSD at the time, and the same could be said for the bizarre dream sequence with Juliana threatened by weird men of varying ethnicities. Cynics may say this was simply an excuse to show close ups of Hazel Court's heaving bosom in an almost see-through nightie - and I would be inclined to agree with them.
The Roger Corman films are very well known amongst horror fans and deservedly so. If you have never seen any, The Masque of the Red Death is a good place to start. Vincent Price is always worth watching too, in my opinion. This film can be bought on DVD for around £4 or you can spend just under £10 to get The Roger Corman Collection, which consists of three films on DVD - this one plus The Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher.
The Masque of the Red Death has a running time of 85 minutes. Apart from subtitles in seven languages, this DVD has no extras. It does however have one of the worst puns ever in the synopsis - "Death and debauchery reign in the castle of Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), and when it reigns... it pours!" Oh dear...
When riding through the nearby town en route to his castle, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) stops to demand a raise in taxes of the poor peasants, but his attention turns to the beautiful Francesca (Jane Asher) and he immediately yearns to possess her.
Taking her lover Gino (David Weston) and her father Ludovico (Nigel Green) prisoner, Prospero flees with the girl and orders the town to be burnt to the ground after discovering a victim of the Red Death.
Holing up in his castle with his dazzling guests, Prospero decides to wait out the terrible plague as it cripples the countryside.
Meanwhile, he entertains himself by taunting and humiliating his guests, struggling to corrupt the untainted Francesca, and worshipping Satan with his consort Juliana (Hazel Court).
All of this is to culminate in a grand mask ball, but can Prospero keep the Red Death from his door forever?
Directed by Roger Corman, "The Masque of the Red Death" is one of many 60's horror movies he made, based loosely upon Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name.
Now, I'm not a fan of Vincent Price, as his send-up of himself on "The Muppet Show" pretty much summed up his ham-acting ability, and probably the best he amounted to was as the evil Matthew Hopkins in "Witchfinder General".
Here, he smells of pork products throughout, with his evil grin, sinister eyes and maniacal laughter, and it just grates the screen.
It reminded me of the episode of "Frasier", where Derek Jacobi played an ageing theatrical actor the Crane brothers adored when they were children, but at rehearsal he turns out to be an atrocious amateur.
But then there's not much to be said for the plot either, as the film doesn't really try to get up steam or go anywhere - rather it's a couple of small substories fitted together, including one about a midget getting revenge that had no real bearing on the narrative as a whole.
Ultimately, there's no real development of character.
Price's Prospero begins the movie evil, and he remains evil.
Asher's Francesca begins the movie good, and she remains good.
Ultimately it's a movie where everybody gets their just deserts, so expect all those at the beginning of the movie who appear villainous to end up in a bad way.
The best bits of the movie are probably the two nastier death scenes and that's about it.
After roaring out "I have tasted the beauties of terror!", Juliana is attacked by an eagle and ends up covered in jam-like blood, and a man in a gorilla costume is tied up and burnt to death.
This amounts to about ten seconds of screen time.
However, the film does have a somewhat timelessness feeling to it, what with the lack of historical details and the overly colourful costume & set design, but this is probably due to Corman's want of a more theatrical look.
What we end up with is a shoddy-looking, unfocussed and rambling mess, leant up against the gammon acting talent of Vincent Price.
The rest of the actors are a poor bunch, except perhaps for Patrick Magee as the sinister 'I'll do anything to anything' Alfredo, who gives a performance the viewer would much prefer to see get his comeuppance over Vincent Price.
So what if Price worships the Devil?
Magee just slapped that little ballerina round the face!
Horror-wise, I was not impressed with "The Masque of the Red Death", and I like a good 60's horror now and again, but this was just an endurance trial to get to the end, with its boring almost nonexistent plot and the continual grin of Vincent Price throughout.
And the less said about the finale the better.
Casual viewers be warned, this is for Price fanatics only.
[The DVD can be purchased from play.com for £2.99 including postage and packing (at time of writing).]
(This is a review of the MGM DVD.)
Roger Corman has become a legendary figure in American exploitation cinema. The archetypal low-budget director, churning out films in a matter of days and raking in the money for his distributors, hes probably best known for his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of the early 60s. Brightly coloured period gothic melodramas which usually owed little beyond their names to Poe, they made heaps of money and turned Vincent Price into one of the greatest of all horror stars.
This one, the best by a long way, was one of the last. It was made in 1964 in England (Corman brought the production over the Atlantic for tax reasons) and is probably the most watchable film Corman ever made. Ever the spendthrift, Corman used impressive medieval sets left over from a previous film, giving Masque a much more prestigious look then most of his Poe movies.
Its a mix and match of two of Poes short stories, the Masque of the Red Death (unsurprisingly) and Hop-Frog. To me, this is the film in which a dwarf sets fire to a man dressed as a gorilla and everything else is a mere footnote, but I have to grudgingly concede that theres more to it than that. Evil prince Prospero (we know hes evil because he almost runs over a small child at the beginning) locks himself in his castle with a choice band of decadent nobles. Meanwhile the red death (a kind of plague rather charmingly personified by a man in a red cloak) ravages the country. Further developments are added by Prosperos attempts to corrupt a virtuous peasant girl.
Vincent Price is Prospero, of course. This is one of his most arch performances, in which he conveys a whole world of weary cynicism with a slight wrinkle of the forehead and a lifetime of hedonism and debauchery with a curl of the lip. His voice is, as ever, magnificent. Prices trick was to give a thoroughly committed performance while managing to be screamingly camp at the same time both working within the confines of the film and somehow standing to one side of it, nudging the audience. After this his camp was all too often taken to self-defeating extremes this might be his finest archetypal Price performance. He even pulls off wearing tights with dignity intact.
The rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces. Hazel Court, as Prices satanic totty, had already been in several Poe films for Corman, and very fetching she is too. The innocent peasant girl is played by Jane Asher. This isnt the matronly cake-baking Jane Asher we have nowadays, this is 60s Jane Asher, the Beatle girlfriend, and shes a little hotty. Shes good in this, although her finest hour as a sexpot was in the incredible Deep End a few years later. Her father is played by sturdy, dependable Nigel Green, familiar from various Harryhausen, Hammer and Fu Manchu movies of the era. The dwarf is played very well indeed by Skip Martin (no stranger to British exploitation of the 60s and 70s). Hes best described as sardonic. The other major character is a villainous nobleman, Alfredo, played by uber-weird Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee, who went on to do a lot of horror. One of Becketts favourite actors, he has the same utterly committed but camp as the very devil approach to acting as Price, and a similarly distinctive voice, all low rasp and bizarre intonation. This is easily the best cast Corman had for a gothic horror, and he makes the most of it.
The film looks wonderful. As well as the lush sets and impressive costumes, its photographed beautifully (the cinematographer was Nic Roeg, later a rather over-rated British arthouse director). The colours are vibrant and lustrous, and the way different rooms are colour-coded was later copied by Peter Greenaway. The incidental music is a bit of a let-down, sounding like generic adventure-film music. It would have been far more appropriate to, say, a Sinbad movie (and knowing Corman it might well have been music re-used on the cheap).
As ever, the question is whether its effective as horror. And as so often, the answer is not really. Prospero is meant to be a Satanist (although his possibly-mildly-shocking-in-the-mid-60s comments about the nature of the world are just laughable) but his evil doesnt really extend much beyond being mean to peasants and rude to nobles. The decadent partying of the corrupted aristocrats involves pretending to be different types of animals (something they all find *hilarious*, although it seems to upset Jane Asher). And even the castles obligatory hidden room seems to hide nothing scarier than a clock. Its more like a fairy tale with gothic trimmings than a full-blown horror film.
Where it does work, kind of, is in the final masked ball sequence. I shouldnt really spoil it, but even though its preposterously over-wrought it still summons up a certain frisson. And the red death itself is an unpleasant enough looking fate even if it doesnt make a lot of sense. Obviously inspired by Bergmans Seventh Seal (or perhaps just by the two most famous stills from it), the cloaked personification of death works quite well, although it gets a bit silly when we meet all his relatives in a pointless coda. Theres also a curious amount of modernist dancing, which at least scores points for not being what you expect to see in a film like this.
Im not quite sure what earns this its 15 certificate. Theres some blood, but much less than youd get in the average Hammer horror, and no real gore otherwise. Theres always a dream sequence in a Corman Poe movie, all dry ice and distorted images, and this one does feature Hazel Court in a diaphanous nightie and no bra, but that cant have got the film a 15 rating, surely? I first saw it when I was about 12, and that seems to be about the right age. It tries quite hard, but it really isnt the stuff of nightmares.
But in spite of that its still a film I have a lot of affection for. It looks good enough to keep the interest even if the plot and dialogue dont make a lot of sense. And there are enough striking moments and good acting to keep me interested.
The DVD has no extra features at all (unless you count the dreadful anti-piracy ad you have to sit through before you can watch the film). The blurb on the back of the case is poor, suggesting the film is some kind of laugh-a-minute camp fest. The picture quality is very good, though, and given that you can get this on amazon for about £3 theres really nothing to complain about.
Masque Of The Red Death (FILM ONLY REVIEW)
Some think of Halloween as a time to scare people or scare themselves. A few years back if you mentioned scary movies you had to talk about one of the all time great horror stars Vincent Price. His career spanned many decades from studio actor in the 30s, 40s to film baddie in the 50s and to being the star of many horror films in the 60s and 70s. Many will remember him as the voiceover in the famous Thriller video by Michael Jackson or more recently playing the creator of Edward Scissorhands, one of his last roles.
The 60s was probably his best creative period and it is at this time when he made a number of films with cult director Roger Corman. These included The Fall Of The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) and The Raven (1963). Apart from being directed by Corman and starring Price what connects all these films is that they are all adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. The Masque of the Red Death made in 1964 continued this trend and is probably the best of the collaborations between Price and Corman.
The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal--the redness and the horror of blood. (Edgar Allen Poe)
'The Masque of the Red Death' is set in an unspecified renaissance country a feudal land where power lies in the hands of princes and noblemen. The countryside is being stalked by death; a red plague spreads through the land. Prince Prospero the ruthless local landowner doesnt care, he is a Satanist worshipping the Lord of the Flies and believes that since the Red Death is the work of the devil he will be protected from it. He locks himself away in his castle with a number of likeminded guests, his minions and the debauched nobility of the land. Feeling safe within the castle walls Prospero and his followers throw extravagant orgiastic parties, while the peasants outside are dying. When a beautiful young peasant girl Francesca comes to his attention he is perversely attracted by her devotion to God and Prospero decides he must have her and force her to renounce her beliefs by breaking her faith and spirit. He takes her and if she doesnt submit to his advances Prospero will kill her kin. She in turn swears that if anything happens to them she will die and so will Prospero. As the Red Death gets closer a mysterious hooded man attends Prosperos latest most debauched and depraved celebration the Masquerade Ball. Who is he and what is his purpose?
Cormans work is distinctive, in his early days as a filmmaker he made worthy low budget productions mostly filmed on very short schedules. He often featured unusual themes in his work using lead character that were not your regular Hollywood stereotyped heroes. His passion and approach to filmmaking also elicited tremendous commitment from his actors and crew. Indeed a list of early crew members included Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron who all went on to better things in the film business and who all cite Corman as a important influence in their work.
Corman moved into bigger productions in the 60s and his series of Poe adaptations for American International Pictures led Corman to flex his cinematographic muscles once more. Like the others Masque of the Red Death (MRD) was filmed in CinemaScope an early technical advance in filmmaking that allowed films to be made so that wide-angle panoramic scenes could be used on 35mm film. This treatment enhances the spectacle of the film and the use of vivid colour processing gives the film a sense on grandeur with an increased depth and near 3D feel. Corman also uses a fluid camera style which track and pans the scene across the screen increasing the tension of the action.
This approach pays dividend the look of the film is superb, lush rich colours all shot in half light conditions give the action a gothic supernatural feel. The use of colour is particularly outstanding and the sequence where the Juliana, Prosperos sister moves through a set coloured rooms; Orange, White, Blue, Black is one of the most striking in the film. The extravagant use of colour is also complemented by the lavish set designs, which incorporate a great amount of detail to reproduce the faux-historical setting. Corman contrasts the grey desolate landscape stricken by the red plague with the brightly lit opulent interior of the Prosperos Castle and with the people wearing their richly coloured robes. This serves to emphasise the plight of the ordinary people in the story and also shows off the new technology Corman had got his hands on.
Despite Cormans new found funds to finance his films he still remained true to his cost cutting philosophy and no money was wasted on this project in the end he made the film within the original budget and it was a huge commercial success.
By todays guts and gore school of horror this film can be viewed as fairly restrained but then again I dont find todays horror films that scary or shocking and at least MRD does have an unsettling suspenseful aspect to it created not by splashing fake blood around the set but by using the medium of film the grip the audience in a more subtle sensual way.
Vincent Price is superb in the role of the Devil worshipping Prince Prospero. A man so corrupt and evil that he has no trace of humanity left within. Price plays him with gusto and portrays through him a simmering, nonchalant kind of sadism that is more frightening than any act of violence although we see plenty of those too.
The film also features a very talented largely British cast. A young Jane Asher plays the virginal and virtuous Francesca who Prospero intends to corrupt. We find excellent performances from Patrick Magee a veteran of British horror films in the 60s and 70s. Magee gives a rousing performance as the treacherous Alfredo probably the only character that can match Prospero for sheer evilness. Hazel Courts (also previously in Cormans The Raven) performance as Prosperos sister Juliana who is intent on giving herself up to devil as his bride is also noteworthy.
At the heart of the story is the interaction between the evil Prospero and the good Francesca. Prospero is a heartless, soulless, sadistic figure that meets his equal and opposite in Francesca. Although resigned to her fate she continues to battle against Prospero and using her innate goodness refuses to submit to him in spirit if not in body.
There is also an interesting subplot to the story, which was taken from another of Poes stories Hop Frog, which features a dwarf that exacts revenge on his cruel masters at a Masquerade Ball. In this film the characters mane has been changes to Hop Toad but the story is essentially preserves with wicked Alfredo being the target for the dwarfs hate. I assume Corman decided to combine two of Poes tales since the MRD is only a few pages in length and would not supply enough material to make a full-length feature film. In any case the combination scripted by Charles Beaumont frequent contributor to the Twilight Zone, works well and adds needed depth to the plot.
The beautiful yet disturbing look and feel of the film is in great part due to the cinematographer Nicholas Roeg Yes that Nick Roeg! Who went on to direct some other visually stunning movies such as Performance (1970), Dont Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).
Movie buffs will also enjoy the Cormans cheeky tribute to Ingmar Bergmans Classic medieval epic The Seventh Seal in this though Death prefers to play cards rather than chess! Although MRD is about as far from Bergman as you can get in cinema styles Corman does acknowledge the Swedish director throughout. Corman also bring out the atmosphere of the original story by Poe, which also depended on texture and sensuality in the writing for its effect rather than shocking the reader. The symbolic use of colours in the story is especially is well adapted for the screen.
Directed by Roger Corman
Vincent Price .... Prince Prospero
Hazel Court .... Juliana
Jane Asher .... Francesca
David Weston .... Gino
Nigel Green .... Francesca's father, Ludovico
Patrick Magee .... Alfredo
Skip Martin .... Hop Toad
The film now carries a certificate 15 (UK) more than adequate for modern audiences and lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes. The DVD version can be bought from Play.com for £5.99 delivered at the time of writing this review. Unfortunately there are no extras on this version apart from the usual features.
If on Halloween you fancy turning out the lights lighting a few candles and immersing yourself in some classic old school horror then The Masque of the Red Death is the film to watch, a classic of the genre featuring Vincent Price one of the masters of its golden age. A moody, visually appealing, stylish, creepy and sometimes silly film that you will remember for many Halloweens to come.
© Mauri 2006