Monday, August 10, 2009

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The 1960’s brought us a plethora of Edgar Allen Poe stories that were adapted for the screen. Behind these was the “King of the B’s” Roger Corman, who brought audiences Poe titles like The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963) and, of course, The Masque of the Red Death. The Masque of the Red Death is arguable the best of Corman’s Poe adaptations. It is an ambitions film, featuring lavish sets, period costumes, Bacchanalian indulgences and a strong performance by the prince of horror himself, Vincent Price. Though the film takes a few liberties with Poe’s original story, namely adding some Satanism to the mix, it remains fairly faithful to the short story and certainly stands heads above other Corman films.

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is a wicked ruler, leaving the peasants to die from a strange plague called the Red Death that is sweeping the land while he and his noble friends wall themselves up in his castle. They ignore the outside world and indulge in every kind of debauchery available while breaking all the seven deadly sins of greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, pride and even wrath. Prince Prospero is a Satan worshipper, though, and enjoys watching the corruption of his guests. He is baffled by peasant Francesca’s (Jane Asher) steadfast faith, and is determined to corrupt her pure spirit. Meanwhile, the Red Death creeps closer and closer to the castle, and no amount of brick and mortar or weapons can keep Death away.

The Masque of the Red Death is one of my favorite Poe stories, and Corman’s film is like watching it come alive. The stunning visuals and vibrant colors are all captured in the film. I especially liked the set design and how the different colored rooms in Prospero’s castle were presented. The contrast of light and dark is well represented within the visuals of the film; even the order of the rooms goes from bright to dark to bright to dark again. The good vs. evil theme was supported by the color schemes, including the fact that Francesca wore white in her first appearance of the castle and Prospero’s garb was always dark.

Besides the obvious color symbolism, the medieval and gothic visuals are striking. This is one of Corman’s most colorful films, and the large palette used seems decadent and sinful in itself! The bright, bold interiors of the castle are quite a contrast to the bleak peasant village and fog-shrouded countryside. The theme of class struggle within the film can be seen not only in the actions of the nobles, but also in the gaudy colors they parade around in. Of course, all, both peasant and noble, are made equal by the Red Death! This is another theme the film explores. It doesn’t matter what you believe or how much money you have because no one escapes death.

Moving on from the abundant themes found within the film, I must say that Vincent Price’s performance as the cruel Prince Prospero is a joy to watch! He is absolutely perfect as the villain, even forcing his guests to behave like animals at one point!! He does everything for his own amusement and entertainment and his lavish, non-stop ball is just a means for him to further corrupt his guests. His cold, detached demeanor makes you shiver in anticipation, but his maliciousness makes you want to keep watching what he’ll do next! On the contrary (because the film is all about contrasts), the peasant Francesca, played marvelously by Jane Asher, does things for others instead of herself. She basically sacrifices herself to save her father and the man she loves from Prince Prospero, all the while infuriating and fascinating Prospero with her acts of love and kindness.

In a film all about juxtaposing good vs. evil, it’s odd to note that though Prospero is obviously evil, Price gives him a charming subtext that is almost irresistible. No matter how evil we see him as, we can’t help but want to know more about him. It’s hard to say if this is because of how the character is written or because of how Price played him, but this temptation to follow Prospero remains.

Overall, The Masque of the Red Death is probably the best adaptation to date of the Edgar Allen Poe story. It stays faithful enough to the story but holds the audience’s interest by adding a satanic subplot to the proceedings. It also explores the sharp contrasts between good and evil through use of symbolic use of colors, costumes, sets and other visuals. The Masque of the Red Death is Corman at the top of his game during his “Poe” period, and I encourage anyone who is a fan of the “King of the B’s” or Vincent Price to check out this lavish production!

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