Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Masque of the Red Death (USA, 1964)

As of 1960, Roger Corman, the great master of low budget drive-in and second-billing features, suddenly found himself with budgets a little larger than usual and, beginning with The House of Usher (1960/trailer), produced and directed a series of exceptional horror films based on a variety of stories, poems and titles by Edgar Allan Poe. While all the films in the series are of note, amongst the best is undoubtedly The Masque of the Red Death (trailer).
A gloomy, atmospheric exercise at overcoming one’s limited budget, the film features not only an excellent cast in good form and an effectively stylish art direction, but also displays a top notch, dreamlike cinematography by future art-house director Nicolas Roeg. Scriptwriters R. Wright Campbell and Charles Beaumont — the latter who was to die of Alzheimer’s Disease three years later — effectively cobbled their feature length script together by intertwining Poe’s dank, gloomy story of unavoidable doom with another less well-known short story of his, Hop Frog. Vincent Price, while not quiet exuding the decadence and innate corruption on par to his tour de force in Witchfinder General (1968/trailer), still does one of his better, less hammy acting jobs as the decadent Satanist Prospero. Prospero’s disrespect for the life of others is apparent in the first scene he appears, when his carriage and guards charge into the peasant’s village and almost run over a child. His despotic power as ruler of the area is likewise quickly established by his interaction with his fearful serfs. Retreating to his castle with Francesca (played by then 18-year-old Jane Asher, who, after being dumped by Paul McCartney, eventually went on to be killed in that depressing cult classic Deep End (1970/credit sequence)) in tow, Prospero plans to sit out the ravages of the Red Death amongst his entertaining and depraved minions behind the locked gate of his fortress. As to be expected, the Red Death is hardly so easily vanquished....
As an added treat, the film also features the striking Hazel Court, a familiar and beautiful face to fans of Corman and Hammer films who eventually disappeared into marriage and television before dying in 2008, plays Juliana, an early practitioner of branding and Prospero’s ill-fated female plaything facing replacement by the reluctant Francesca.
The Masque of the Red Death is a horror film with artistic pretensions that, despite a few dialogue heavy scenes and inconsistent plot aspects, still manages to impress and entertain. Definitely worth catching the next time it turns up on late night television, though watching it on DVD uncut by commercials would be a far more satisfying viewer experience.

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