Dropping on streaming services and DVD and Blu-ray formats this week is a newly restored version of The Masque of the Red Death. This gothic nightmare filmed in 1964 is oddly prescient for modern audiences with its harsh depictions of contagious disease and class strife. With digital platforms showing a spike in viewership of productions such as Contagion, Outbreak and The Stand among audiences in COVID-19 lockdown, the time was ripe for this horror classic to infect a new generation.
Give it to B-movie maverick, Roger Corman to know when to exploit a global pandemic. His release of the 4k restoration of The Masque of the Red Death follows the original versions recent high viewership ratings on Shudder. This restoration is beautiful, if that’s the word to describe a film bathed in blood as The Masque of the Red Death is. The vibrant colors and extravagant cinematography by Nicolas Roeg are wonderfully on full display in this restoration.
This was the seventh production in the eight film Poe cycle in which Roger Corman produced and directed adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe horror classics, all starring Vincent Price. By this point, Corman and Price were well accustomed to each other’s styles and were able to collaborate on now iconic horror performances. In the character of Prospero, Price played one of his most vile villains. While in many of his films, Price is the “man you love to hate,” in The Masque of the Red Death, there is nothing likable in Prospero who is a loathsome sadist who delights in the psychological torture and sexual domination of others.
In Poe’s original story, Prospero upon hearing of a plague spreading across the land called the Red Death, invites his fellow aristocrats to lockdown at his castle and have an endless orgy (and to think all of us had to make due with binge watching tv shows and baking). They do this while the peasants outside the castle walls are quickly succumbing to the disease which causes massive hemorrhaging. Meanwhile as the wealthy 1% are cavorting inside the castle, a mysterious, red-hooded figure ominously stalks Prospero.
Screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell pad out Poe’s original story with Satanic elements. Prospero is now a devil worshiper whose ultimate goal is to serve his dark lord. A romantic angle is introduced in the form of young peasant couple Gino and Francesca who are kidnapped by Prospero as added entertainment to his party. Prospero’s plan is to force Gino to fight his own father to the death. Meanwhile, Francesca is tempted to sell her soul to Satan in order that she may become Prospero’s bride, much to the chagrin of Prospero’s jealous mistress played by English horror actress Hazel Court.
A subplot comes courtesy from another Poe tale, “Hop-Frog.” In it, a dwarf jester (curiously renamed Hop-Toad) seeks vengeance against Prospero’s party guest Alfredo, played by Patrick Magee. Hop-Toad’s lover, the beautiful dwarf Esmeralda performs a dance for the lustful Alfredo, but when she accidently knocks a glass of wine onto him, he strikes her. This disrespect has Hop-Toad scheming a plot of revenge that in typical Poe fashion is very gruesome.
The Masque of the Red Death is no doubt, the best in the Corman/Poe cycle. This lavish production combines the visceral, Grand Guignol style of horror theatrics with rather gorgeous visuals. The danse macabre at the end of the film is an eerie, but beautiful ballet. The surrealism of the black magic ritual shows an early cinematic use of psychedelic imagery which would be more common in the LSD films that Corman would produce later in the sixties. Corman’s exploration on the universality of death make The Masque of the Red Death the closest he ever came to making a drive-in theater version of Igmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal.
After watching The Masque of the Red Death, pay attention to news reports of large social gatherings where you see people hosting massive weddings and parties. Witness the revelers at Sturgis or spring break mocking the CDC guidelines and forgo wearing masks to engage in drunken partying. Try to spot the lone, red-hooded figure looming over them all. Then go wash your hands.