The Masque of the Red Death (1964) **
“The Masque of the Red Death” was apparently the story that inspired Roger Corman to start making movies based on the works of Poe. You might ask why, in that case, his first crack at the subgenre was The Fall of the House of Usher, and I honestly couldn’t give you an answer. But for whatever reason, Corman didn’t get around to filming The Masque of the Red Death until 1964, when it was obvious to everyone except possibly the director himself that he was getting sick of Poe adaptations, and the result was a disjointed, muddled, and nearly lifeless movie that just barely squeaks by on the basis of excellent visual composition and a splendid performance from star Vincent Price.
This would have been a difficult movie to make under the best of circumstances, though, because the original story is scarcely five pages long, and is written like a campfire tale. Characterization is literally at the level of “there’s this guy, see, and one day he...”, while months’ worth of action is passed over in single sentences, and every other element of the story is utterly subordinated to the final shock in the last paragraph. As temptingly cool as the underlying premise is, it would be a challenge to turn “The Masque of the Red Death” into a fifteen minute short, let alone a feature film. So inevitably, screenwriter Charles Beaumont was forced to invent scenes, characters, and motivations wholesale, and even then, he felt compelled to splice in a second Poe story, “Hop Frog,” as a subplot in order to bulk up his script to the required length.
The film begins with an old peasant woman encountering a strange man in a hooded red robe, sitting beneath a tree and dealing himself a Tarot hand. The man flags the old lady down, and gives her something to take with her to her village. She is to be his messenger, the hooded man explains, and sends her on her way.
Just hours after her arrival back home, her village finds itself playing host to its lord, Prince Prospero (Price). The prince has come to announce the date of the annual feast he holds for the nobility at his castle, the leftovers from which he has traditionally given back to the peasantry in what could arguably be seen as the feudal equivalent of an income tax refund. But this year, the peasants are not so placid in their acceptance of Prospero’s “generosity.” As a young man named Gino (Witchcraft’s David Weston) explains, one of their women met a holy man in the woods that evening, who told her that their day of deliverance was at hand. With news like that, Gino and his people feel little inclination to kiss Prince Prospero’s ass, whatever his rank. The prince is enraged, and he orders his soldiers to kill Gino, as well as an older man named Ludovico (Nigel Green, from The Skull and Jason and the Argonauts), who makes the mistake of sticking up for Gino. And when a lovely young girl named Francesca (Jane Asher, who had a tiny role in The Creeping Unknown/The Quatermass Xperiment) sticks up for both condemned men (she’s Ludovico’s daughter and Gino’s fiancee), Prospero plays the sort of nasty trick on her that Vincent Price characters are justly famous for, “magnanimously” agreeing to spare one of the men, and insisting that Francesca choose which it will be.
But Prospero’s fun is soon interrupted by prolonged and hideous screaming coming from one of the village huts. When he sends one of his men to investigate, that man finds the old lady from the first scene, keeled over dead on the floor, her skin covered in hundreds of tiny hemorrhages. The symptoms are unmistakable— the dreaded Red Death has come to Prospero’s domain. When the prince hears that, he orders his soldiers to pack up Gino, Ludovico, and Francesca, and burn the village to the ground while he and a handful of men escort the prisoners to the castle. Prospero may fear the Red Death, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let it spoil his fun.
Then again, Prospero is almost certainly damned anyway. It isn’t just that he’s an evil bastard, although he certainly is that; more importantly, Prince Prospero and his wife, Juliana (Hazel Court, from The Curse of Frankenstein and Dr. Blood’s Coffin), are practicing Satanists. That would go some way toward explaining all the evil, wouldn’t it? In the prince’s case, Satanism looks a lot like a combination of sadism and hedonism. Whether he’s torturing prisoners, trying to force Gino and Ludovico to fight a duel against each other, or romancing the captive Francesca, all Prospero is really interested in is his own pleasure. And so it is scarcely surprising that he takes advantage of the need to quarantine his estate against the Red Death to convert his planned banquet into a weeks-long debauch. The assembled nobility will be plied with all the food and drink they can keep down, and presented with amusements ranging from dancing midgets to a lethal game of chance involving Gino, Ludovico, and five daggers, one with a poisoned blade (think of it as a renaissance version of Russian roulette). And as the climax to the celebration, an all-night masquerade will be held in the great hall of the castle. All Prospero’s nobles need to do to get in on the excitement is follow a few simple directions in traveling to his estate: stay the hell away from any peasant villages where the Red Death might have broken out. The fate of one lord who disregards the prince’s instructions is enough to ensure that everyone else does exactly as they are told.
Meanwhile, Prospero has been working on Francesca, and the girl proves surprisingly susceptible to persuasion. Though she professes a firm belief in Christianity, her simple peasant’s faith has no answer for the thorny philosophical questions with which the prince bombards her— how, for example, does one reconcile an all-powerful, benevolent deity with the undeniable domination of the world by cruel and evil men? When Prospero asserts that if ever the universe was ruled by a god of love and mercy, that god is now long gone, Francesca can offer no reply. The prince’s interest in converting the girl makes Juliana very nervous, however. She, after all, has no desire to see her place at Prospero’s side taken by some low-born wench who just happens to be a better-than-average piece of ass. Unfortunately for Juliana, though, her strategy for shoring up her position yields results rather different from those she sought, and the scheming lady ends up with a whole new appreciation of the capabilities of hunting falcons.
Juliana’s fate is only slightly less grisly than that of Prospero’s friend, Alfredo (Patrick Magee, from And Now the Screaming Starts and Dementia 13). Alfredo has, over the course of his stay with Prospero, developed quite a letch for Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw, who was all but invisible in The Haunting the year before), the beautiful midget dancer who performs at Prospero’s court. But given that Alfredo is one of the prince’s closest friends, it goes without saying that his affection for the girl doesn’t lead him to treat her any better than he would any other commoner, and his sustained nastiness toward her brings upon him the vengeance of Hop Toad (Skip Martin, from Vampire Circus and Horror Hospital), the male dwarf who works as Esmeralda’s partner in her act. Hop Toad gets his revenge by suggesting a costume for Alfredo to wear to the masquerade. The dwarf knows that Prospero owns (for no very good reason) a gorilla suit that should fit Alfredo nicely. Hop Toad contends that if Alfredo wears this costume to the masque, and makes a big scene by molesting all the women and generally causing a ruckus, he’ll be the life of the party. Hop Toad can then come in and pretend to bring him under control for further laughs and hilarity. Alfredo agrees that Hop Toad’s idea sounds like a hoot and a holler, but what the dwarf neglected to mention was that he would “bring Alfredo under control” by chaining him to the chandelier, hoisting him to the ceiling, and setting him on fire. But Prospero gets the joke, and when it’s all over, he orders Hop Toad rewarded with five pieces of gold.
And now, at last, we have arrived at the point of the movie, and the only part of it that has much to do with the story from which it takes its title— the masquerade. Gino breaks out of Prospero’s castle, and on his wanderings through the surrounding woods, he meets up with the same red-robed man as the woman in the first scene. After a short talk, in which Gino explains who he is and where he has come from, the hooded stranger has Gino lead him to the castle, and before sneaking in, the man in red promises his companion that he will see to Francesca’s safety. Now obviously, there can be little question at this point who the hooded man really is, though Prospero himself doesn’t get it at first. The prince’s initial assumption is that his unannounced guess is his long-awaited master, Beelzebub, or at the very least his emissary. But when his guests start hemorrhaging to death all around him, Prospero puts the pieces together, and he is stunned to learn that his life-long devotion to Satan is no protection against the Red Death.
If you ask me, I think what Corman should have done was get Richard Matheson to write a “Masque of the Red Death” segment into the script for Tales of Terror back in 1962. Then the story’s greatest strengths— its brevity and directness— could have been deployed in service of the film adaptation, rather than standing as the basis for an unfavorable comparison. Poe’s story just doesn’t have enough meat to it to support a feature-length treatment, and all the extraneous material Beaumont was forced to add mainly serves to bog the movie down in directionless subplots. But there is one thing Beaumont added to the story that I really did enjoy. After all the plot threads are tied up, and everything seems to be fully over, the camera returns to the Red Death, sitting, as is his wont, beneath a tree, playing with his Tarot deck. Suddenly, he is joined by a similarly garbed figure, but wearing a black robe, rather than red. That’s right, the Red Death and the Black Death have gotten together to compare notes! And before long, a veritable rainbow of multicolored Deaths have arrived on the scene; I gave up guessing which diseases they were supposed to represent after Yellow Fever put in his appearance. It’s a fun scene, and it makes a great ending to a mostly forgettable movie.