TITLE: The Masque of the Red Death
YEAR RELEASED: 1964
DIRECTOR: Roger Corman
CAST: Vincent Price, Hazel Court and Jane Asher
ANDREW GARVEY reviews the Roger Corman-directed British horror classic
Arguably the best of legendary writer/director/producer Roger Corman’s 1959-1964 series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, this instalment was filmed at Elstree Studios where costs were lower than in the US, allowing the modest budget to stretch further. That financial decision certainly paid off creatively as almost fifty years later, Masque of the Red Death is widely regarded as a genuine horror classic.
One of his very best screen roles sees a restrained Vincent Price play the villainous Prince Prospero, a Satanist nobleman presiding over a cruel, decadent court in medieval Europe whose land is ravaged by a mysterious plague – the Red Death. Concerning himself largely with his own decadent and profane amusement, Prospero instructs his jealous lover Juliana (Hazel Court) to corrupt captive peasant girl Fancesca (Jane Asher) as his vile guests enjoy themselves in what seems to be a never-ending party.
Still a teenager, Asher was already an accomplished television actress and appeared here in her biggest role to date. Court, born in Birmingham, starred in Hammer’s 1957 classic, the Curse of Frankenstein. Both English actresses do a great job in their supporting roles but the towering Price dominates the film, both physically and with his performance.
Greatly expanding on Poe’s original 1842 tale, which runs a little over 2,400 words (a very, very short story on which to base a ninety minute film), this adaptation remains very faithful to the dark, dark spirit of the original tale. An excellent script, by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell gives Price some superb lines, adds several characters, some great examples of just what a fiend Prospero is, the obligatory Corman dream sequence and even manages to seamlessly incorporate another of Poe’s tales, 1849 revenge tale Hop-Frog.
Englishman Nicolas Roeg, later the acclaimed director of Don’t Look Now, the Man Who Fell to Earth and Castaway, worked as the film’s cinematographer and did a fantastic job. As did production designer Daniel Haller. The sets are lavish, the colours almost eye-wateringly vibrant, the outdoor scenes atmospheric.
Few horror films have ever looked this good and even fewer based on books manage to surpass their source material. Masque of the Red Death does exactly that and even in the 1960s -the decade that gave us such timeless classics as Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby and the Birds – it stands out as one of the era’s very best, most memorable films in it’s genre.
ANDREW GARVEY lives in Staffordshire. He writes (infrequently) about mixed martial arts, professional wrestling, history, horror and folklore. Follow him on Twitter: @AMGarvey Check out more Andrew Garvey articles for the Spooky Isles here.