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‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ is a visually beguiling collaboration

The Masque Of The Red Death (1964)

Directed by Roger Corman

Nicolas Roeg was one of the more successful cinematographers to graduate from the apex of the camera team to the director’s chair, a difficult transition which he arguably traversed with far more dexterity and than his European peers Freddie Francis, Jan De Bont, or Jack Cardiff. As part of the exhaustive BFI film season on his delirious miscellanea of work (running throughout March), horror fans welcomed a rare opportunity to see his unique collaboration with the supreme schlock stylist Roger Corman on the final entry of his celebrated cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that terrified and titillated audiences throughout the early 1960s. As the UK’s Hammer studios mined the Victorian howls of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, Corman turned to his countryman Poe to craft his gothic grotesques, in a cycle of films descending from The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) chopping to The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) exhuming The Premature Burial (1962) before Tales Of Terror (1962) flew to The Raven (1963) before alighting on The Masque Of The Red Death (1964). It’s the most warmly loved and most adept series of literary horror film adaptations since the Universal cycle of the 1930s.

In a gloomy, mist shrouded Middle Ages, a haematic cloaked seer walks abroad, like a single Greek chorus this mysterious figure is a prologue to the tale of  the sneering Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) a cruel and callous figurehead of a unspecified European duchy whose embrace of an unholy alliance with Satan begets his aristocratic status. Whilst mingling amongst his subjects he demands that a wispy peasant girl named Francesca (Jane Asher) selects between her lover and father the fate of execution or life, yet another episode in a long sadistic streak of inflicting cruel conundrums upon his snivelling populace. Intrigued by the unsullied purity of Francesca’s virginal naivety Prospero admits her to his court, a secure castle where the merchant class is safe from the ravaging Red Death plague that in infecting his realm. In this stronghold we see the full depravity of his rule stripped bare through the eyes of Juliana, it is a deceitful court with a confusion of plots, schemes and premeditated mayhem being spun between the ghastly gentry. The most prestigious social event of the season, the Masque of Death is soon approaching where some of these nefarious plans seem destined to fruition…

Of all the hellish phantasms to haunt the silver screen, The Masque of the Red Death has to be one of the most beguiling from a visual standpoint; like the best of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, it’s a lurid kaleidoscope of macabre colours, from the interior chambers of Prospero’s dark lighthouse to the monkish garb of the ghostly chorus. Corman and Roeg’s camerawork is fleet and fluid as it stalks the castle’s interiors and exteriors, singling out the deliciously baroque production design of Robert Jones – not bad for a film which was shot in two or three days on a recycled set. Masque contains one of the iconic Vincent Price pantomime performances, his perverse Prince Prospero is quite the intellectual Satanist, holding a verbal court on the intrinsic evil of man with a black-hearted glee, one wouldn’t be surprised if his ancestors didn’t stowaway on the Mayflower a couple of centuries later and sire a similarly pessimistic Tyler Durden. I was pleasantly surprised to see personal favourite Patrick Magee’s appearance as Prospero’s competitive henchmen (Magee is probably best known as the tortured writer in A Clockwork Orange), I’ve seen the film a few times as a teenager but never realized the pollination between the two American leviathans of Corman and Kubrick.

Corman is usually considered as one of cinemas most effective carnival hucksters, building a seducing poster and trailer campaign around movies that were often shot in two or three days on the same sets, utilizing alternate camera angles and discreet tweaks to the props and costumes to mask the repetitions that made almost all his films tidily profitable – I’m sure I read somewhere that only one movie in his entire sixty year (and counting) career failed to re-coup its budget. One great observation from the UK film critic Kim Newman identified that in 1959, the year that the bloated Ben Hur won best picture, that Corman released no less than five pictures, three of which he personally produced, whose combined run-time was actually less than Charlton Heston’s tiring 212-minute epic. These accusations are not without merit of course, but I would argue that in some films, particularly the Poe cycle, that he actually demonstrates a distinctive use of the camera. In Masque, the aforementioned camera movements and its tableau framing and tracking manoeuvres all generate a sense of oozing menace, along with the broad performances, crashing score and heaving dialogue.

The film strives for a visual sensation rather than engaging cerebrally, and this is where it thrives; the brisk plot is of the usual wafer-thin variety of the Corman stable, but it does leave a diabolic impression in the psyche. The print was a little scratchy, but this wasn’t too distracting – if anything, it gave the screening a sense of authenticity of its period. If you squinted, you could imagine yourself in some jaunty West Coast drive-in. The film’s climax is fiendish, expiring on a Gothic grandeur with a crazed choreography of debauched depravity, a just and deserved fate that dissolves upon the primary hued apparitions, the mythical avatars of a diseased apocalypse whose coda is eerily evocative – it’s a memorable tableau that somehow references the admired musings of Bergman’s Seventh Seal in both their ghostly visage and poetic dialogue. Sometimes it’s inspiring to see how the allegedly high art machinations of the cinema can percolate into the supposed mainstream, isn’t it?

John McEntee