The Masque of the Red Death is a 1964 film directed by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price as the protagonist. This is the seventh in the series of eight films that the prolific American director made drawing from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, in this case the two stories entitled Hop-Frog and, of course, The Masque of the Red Death. I won’t use much space here to present Roger Corman, limiting myself to saying that his name is legendary for a certain type of low-budget cinema: he directed and/or produced more than three hundred titles between the fifties and the nineties. Also it is with him that James Cameron started working in the world of cinema before becoming the director that we all know (and not only with him: among other things, Cameron worked on the special effects of Escape from New York by John Carpenter).
But let’s talk about the movie with Vincent Price. Corman shot it in England in just five weeks, which according to him was equivalent to four weeks in the United States due to the much slower pace of work (back to Cameron, he also complained about a similar thing during the making of Aliens in 1986). The short time available was of course due to the low budget, which is not only noticeable in the quality of the images, but also in some scenes that were not properly on-focus and can still be seen in the final version of the film, I suppose for the impossibility of reshooting them .
Fortunately, the sets do not show in any way by the budget limitations: they are nothing short of sumptuous, given that the production was allowed to reuse those used for Becket, a big British production which also came out in 1964. But, above all, the movie doesn’t feel cheap in its spirit which is as far as possible from a simple and uninspired b-movie. Corman decided to develop deep and interesting themes and even built upon those already present in Poe’s stories. But first let me summarize the plot briefly.
The city of Catania, governed by the evil Prospero (Vincent Price), is struck by a terrible infectious disease, the red death. Prospero locks himself in his castle (not before having kidnapped the beautiful Francesca, Jane Asher, together with his father and his boyfriend Gino, David Weston, who are sentenced to death), and invites his noble friends to have fun safe from the plague. This plot has all the ingredients to deliver a terrible movie with gratuitous violence and nudity, but this is not the intention of Corman who instead decides to focus on the story and on character development.
Not only is the film a reflection on life and death and how impossible is it to escape from the latter, like Poe’s eponymous tale, but also explores why Prospero enjoys so much inflicting pain and death upon the others. The choice to make him a follower of Satan (in addition to paving the way for non-trivial reflections on religion) makes Prospero a well-rounded character, with crazy but understandable motivations. Only by understanding death he thinks he can dominate it and escape it, which of course will prove to be completely foolish. And it’s beautiful how death punishes all the characters in the story except the purest ones. In fact, a little girl survives together with the lovers Francesca and Gino, the little ballerina and the dwarf who punished the nobleman who treated her badly (the nobleman is played by Patrick Magee, then seen in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick), and a village elder. For all the others there is no salvation: the nobles who seek only wealth and leisure, the poor who renounce moral integrity in order to save themselves, Prospero’s lover who renounces his soul for him, and Prospero himself in his crazy pursuit of immortality… they all die.
Everything is told in an almost fairytale atmosphere with a use of colors faithful to Poe’s story that acquires considerable force on the screen. The choice to bring together the various messengers of death in the final scene is beautiful, with the colors ordered like the Prospero’s rooms which ended with the black one with the altar in honor of Satan (all the scenes shot there are amazing, with the window throwing a red light on all the characters). And how can we not mention the performance of Vincent Price, the true star of the film? Without him, perhaps we would have already forgotten this work, but his acting and his presence on screen made it immortal.
What else to say? The Masque of the Red Death is a gem that you don’t need millions of dollars to make good movies if you have good ideas. This movie offers finely chiselled dialogues, interesting themes, an amazing Vincent Price, and even many directorial ideas that almost make the viewer forget about the small budget. Corman doesn’t limit himself to shooting one scene after the other, rather he makes daring choices in terms of composition of the shots, lights, and also editing (for example with various interesting match cuts like that of Prospero’s sword launched from the walls turning into the one thrown at Gino’s feet by the guard in the dungeons). In short, this is a movie worth seeing! Ciao!