Tuesday, July 12, 2011

#340. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Directed By: Roger Corman

Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher

Tag line: "We defy you to stare into this face"

Trivia:  Many of the sets used in this film were left over from 1964's BECKET

The Masque of the Red Death is yet another entry in director Roger Corman's series of films based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, with Vincent Price once again returning to play the lead. Yet despite the familiar territory he was working in, the part of Prince Prospero was a departure of sorts for Price, who, in earlier Poe films such as The Pit and the Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, portrayed the tortured soul, the pitiful man who saw gloom and doom hiding around every corner. In The Masque of the Red Death, Price's Prospero is entirely evil, affording the great actor a chance to prove to the world he was just as brilliant being bad as he was being depressed. 

Prince Prospero is the tyrannical ruler of a land being overrun by a deadly disease, one the locals refer to as the "Red Death". Offering a safe haven from the Red Death, Prospero invites every nobleman in the kingdom to stay with him in his castle, where they can wait out the illness while attending an extravagant masquerade ball. Along with the nobility, Prospero also invites a beautiful peasant girl named Francesca (Jane Asher), whose father (Nigel Green) and sweetheart (David Weston) are imprisoned in his dungeon. But things aren't necessarily as they seem, and Prospero, who also happens to be a disciple of Satan, may have ulterior motives for allowing so many into his home at one time. 

A devil worshiper with a sharp, sarcastic tongue, Prospero is a very, very bad man, and we learn just how bad in the film's opening scene, where he pays a visit to a local village. Shortly after arriving, Prospero is insulted by two peasants, and promptly orders his guards to put them both to death. Just then, Francesca, who lives in this village, runs forward and pleads for their lives, begging Prospero to show mercy. Prospero, sensing he might have a bit of fun at Francesca's expense, says he will spare only one, and that she must choose which of the two will live, and which one will die. As it turns out, one of the men is Francesca's father, the other her lover, making it a near-impossible decision.  To further complicate the matter, if she refuses to choose, then both will die. It's almost at this exact moment the Red Death is discovered in the village, causing Prospero to cut his stay short. Hoping to continue his little game later that evening, he orders his men to bring Francesca and the other two back to his castle, then instructs the soldiers to burn the village to the ground, leaving dozens of men, women and children to watch as their entire world goes up in flames. It's a fine introduction to a truly sinister character, one whose vicious nature has yet to be revealed in its entirety. 

You can always rely on the Corman-directed Poe films to have lush wardrobes, detailed set pieces, and an impressive atmosphere, and The Masque of the Red Death is no exception. These, combined with a deliciously menacing performance by the great Vincent Price, make The Masque of the Red Death an elaborate entry in an entertaining series.