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Halloween: NO TRICKS, JUST A TREAT
The Masque Of The Red Death (DVD)
Member Name: Mauri
The Masque Of The Red Death (DVD)
Advantages: Visually great and good story
Disadvantages: Maybe not as scary as some would like
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 30’s, 40’s to film baddie in the 50’s and to being the star of many horror films in the 60’s and 70’s. 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 60’s 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 Prospero’s latest most debauched and depraved celebration the Masquerade Ball. Who is he and what is his purpose?
Corman’s 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 60’s 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, Prospero’s 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 Prospero’s 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 Corman’s 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 today’s ‘guts and gore’ school of horror this film can be viewed as fairly restrained but then again I don’t find today’s 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 60’s and 70’s. Magee gives a rousing performance as the treacherous Alfredo probably the only character that can match Prospero for sheer evilness. Hazel Court’s (also previously in Corman’s The Raven) performance as Prospero’s 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 Poe’s 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 dwarf’s hate. I assume Corman decided to combine two of Poe’s 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), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976).
Movie buffs will also enjoy the Corman’s cheeky tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s 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
Summary: Roger Corman's adaptation of the Poe classic starring Vincent Price