The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is to my mind the greatest of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films.
Vincent Price, Corman’s favorite leading man for the Poe adaptations, trades in his haunting, haunted portraits to play the demented, debauched Prince Prospero. It is the height of the black plague and his castle is the sole sanctuary, but the price to enter is to become a plaything of the sadistic tormentor and he wields the power of life and death with no pity: his subjects are toys and he revels in their humiliation and torture.
While he locks out the peasants, he invites the innocent and beautiful Francesca (Jane Asher), who agrees only to save her brother and father. Prospero makes it his mission to break her spirit and her faith and prove to her that humanity is beyond redemption, and he’s helped by the wicked denizens of his shadow court, especially the corrupt nobleman Alfredo (Patrick Magee) and his scheming former mistress (Hazel Court).
Where Corman’s previous Poe films were scripted by Richard Matheson, the filmmaker turned to Charles Beaumont, another specialist in fantasy and horror (and a fellow Twilight Zone veteran) but with a more macabre sensibility than Matheson. Beaumont and collaborator R. Wright Campbell add elements from a second Poe story, “Hop-Frog, or the Eight Chained Orang-outangs,” which brings in a parallel tale to Francesca’s journey: the dwarf jester Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and midget ballerina Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw) who are paraded out as a kind of freak show for his jaded guests. Corman, meanwhile, draws inspiration (and in some cases imagery) from Ingmar Bergman.
Once again shooting in England with a largely British cast and crew, Corman creates his grandest production yet. Along with production designer Daniel Haller reusing sets from previous Poe adaptations, Corman was able to use leftover sets from Beckett, and cinematographer (and future filmmaker) Nicolas Roeg adds new flavors to his style. He turns Francesca’s night walk through the castle into a hallucinatory odyssey in dreamy colors.
The combination of greater resources and new collaborators, and perhaps the distance from AIP offices, enabled Corman to make his most daring character study, his bleakest portrait of human greed and sadism, and most stylistically impressive film.
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The Masque of the Red Death [Blu-ray]
The Vincent Price Collection (The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Witchfinder General) [Blu-ray]
The Masque of the Red Death / The Premature Burial [DVD]
The Blu-ray features commentary by film historian Steve Haberman, an interview with producer/director Roger Corman, and an introduction and afterward by Vincent Price recorded for a public TV broadcast.