The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Director: Roger Corman
Writer: Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell; based on The Masque of the Red Death and "Hop-Frog"
by Edgar Allan Poe
Producer: Roger Corman and George Willoughby
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
by Jon Cvack
The Birds (1963) and a few other films aside, I’m not sure what it is about color horror films from the early to mid-60s that makes them look so boring. Nearly every single time I return to these Vincent Price B-horror films I’m disappointed, hoping for so much more, often with premises that could have made for great material, and yet always possess that flat, bland lighting while it’s black and white peers pushed its style to the limits of creating the atmosphere necessary for any good horror film. I’m fairly certain that color film was more expensive and required more light to shoot in, and with such fast production schedules, there simply wasn’t enough time to light the scenes well.
The Masque of the Red Death starts out strong, shot out in the fields surrounding a castle that sits far in the matted distance, with the trees stripped of leaves and a low hanging fog all around. An old woman meets a hooded figure dressed in red from head to toe who gives a woman a white rose which then drips with blood. We then meet Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) who arrives at a village with his guards, discovering the old woman actually has the plague and orderingg the village burned to the ground to avoid its spread, sparing the one attractive girl Francesca (Jane Asher) who he brings back to the castle.
There he entertains his cronies with lavish parties and expensive meals, with all the sex and alcohol they could ask for, all while trying to seduce Francesca who later learns Prospero and his friends are Satanists and so begins a strange series of events that I’ll leave you to read the extensive Wikipedia synopsis to discover all of the bizarre story details. Essentially, the Satanists are participating in endless amounts of debauchery while thousands die outside the castle doors, all while this Red Hooded figure is getting closer, before finally getting inside the castle, approaching Prospero, declaring, “Each man creates his own God for himself - His own Heaven, his own Hell”, removing his mask and - SPOILER - revealing himself to be Prospero himself; that is, Prospero is in his own hell, having sold his soul to Satan for a brief life of hedonism that cycles on repeat.
The synopsis reads like an incredible story and makes Edgar Allan Poe’s source material that much more clear. Unfortunately, the film someway/somehow buries these exciting ideas. It’s not so much that I didn’t follow them as that I was so bored with how the story looked that I couldn’t pay attention or connect the pieces all that well. Not knowing it was an Poe short story, I thought it involved a shitty Satanist Vincent Prince who eventually faces his sword, with one really cool and terrifying scene of a furry man in a gorilla suit burning alive. The issue is the complete lack of feeling in each and every scene, as though I was watching each person acting rather than experiencing what they feel; either through performance or the design. Reading a more concise breakdown, I see a story about a man driven by greed and lust while thousands of his sick and poor countrymen die outside. Beyond his lust for Francesca, the film never seems to explore what drives Prospero, or the type of pleasure he receives from living out his every desire.
BELOW: A far better - and shorter - adaptation
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