An old women wanders a stage-bound hillside, collecting firewood. She encounters a man dressed in a red hooded robe who gives her a rose and tells her to return home, proclaiming that the “day of…deliverance is at hand.”
So begins Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death. Part of the American International Pictures series of films based on Edgar Allen Poe’s works, Masque stars Vincent Prince as Prince Prospero, a man of calculating evil who rules over a Medieval wasteland. While tormenting a village of his peasants, Prospero discovers that the old woman’s “deliverance” is the Red Death, a disease that causes one to bleed from the pores, dying in agony.
As the plague spreads across the countryside, Prospero gathers the local nobility into the safety of his castle. Of course, how safe can you be with a man who worships the devil, likes to spout off about the true nature of terror and occasionally murders people? As it turns out, not very safe.
The local 1% engages in the usual debauchery, while Price tries to convince local villager Francesca (the beautiful, but a little bland, Jane Asher) to embrace evil. The gathering soon devolves into death and madness. Prospero’s consort, Juliana (Hazel Court, who oozes smoldering sensuality) pledges herself to Satan as his bride and, after a experiencing a drug-induced hallucination of Hell that leaves her wanting more, is killed by a raven. Alfredo (the great Patrick Magee as a sadistic, sexually deviant noble, a base version of Prospero) is incinerated while wearing an ape costume during the climatic masquerade ball. Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green) – Francesca’s lover and father, respectively – are forced to play a game involving a poisoned dagger that ends with one of them dead. Fun and games in 14th Century Europe.
As the masquerade ball nears its climax and Francesca is apparently ready to give herself over to Prospero, the “Man in Red” makes an appearance and gives Vincent Price a final, fatal insight into how the world really works.
If there is a central theme, it is the victory of entropy over everything else. Prospero thinks that by declaring God to be dead and creating an Id-driven, solipsistic universe, he has achieved insight into mankind’s place in the world, as a passion driven animal. Francesca clings to a fuzzy notion of a God of Love, although, as she admits when Prospero tries to engage her in a philosophical discussion, “I have no learning.” Her’s is the faith of the innocent…or, as Prospero obviously believes, the common herd. Gino and Ludovico, focus on a more relationship driven world, one in which the bonds of friendship and love will win out over the immoral world of the lonely Prince Prospero. Juliana is has made Prospero’s attention the center of her universe, doing anything, even risking her soul, to gain his approval. Prospero’s various sycophants are followers, doing whatever degrading acts he commands, whether for safety, wealth or, in the case of Alfredo, the license to indulge one’s animal instincts.
The Red Death wipes all of these attempts to define existence away. Although ostensibly a personification of Death, it is more accurate to see it as the force of universal entropy. It not only brings an end to life; it crushes belief and reveals the universe to be a blank slate, one that we all imprint meaning on; but all meaning is ultimately pointless. In the end, the Red Death – the force of entropy – is the only truth.
It is the sophistication of theme and presentation that makes Masque such an impressive film. Sumptuously filmed, with vibrant colors, a suitably disturbing soundtrack, impressive sets for a film of this budget (recycled from the film Beckett) and an effective cast, without this thematic sophistication, it would be intellectually empty. Instead, it is a brooding meditation on the meaning of all things, one that rewards the careful viewer with a provocative examination wrapped in the trappings of a moderately budgeted period horror movie.
- Just about any of Vincent Price’s soliloquies on the meaning of life and the manifest failings of humanity. From such an accomplished and charismatic actor, what could seem to be amoral justifications for atrocities, come across as well-reasoned lessons on human nature. It is easy to see how someone like Francesca could, in the end, come at least part of the way towards Prospero’s world-view.
- When the village is being torched by Prospero’s men, a peasant runs out of burning hut, clutching a baby. Another peasant picks up the kid and leaves the burning man lying on the ground, unaided. It succinctly sums up the tension between human mercy and the brutality of existence that will be repeated throughout the film.
- The use of obvious sets for outdoor scenes contributes to the feeling that our reality is just a facade, something laid over a truth that will be revealed over the course of the film.
- Hazel Court and Jane Asher are a pair of truly fetching redheads…wait, redheads…in a movie…about the Red Death…it’s all connected.
Viewed on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment.