|Pandemics are nothing new in the great scheme of things, but that does not mean they are any the less harrowing when they arrive, nor does it feel any the less apocalyptic to be in the middle of one unsure of how they will finally draw to an end. Therefore films like Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Masque of the Red Death could feel very timely when watched when there was any kind of global crisis underway, not simply a deadly virus holding the world in its grip. This was down to its depiction of a land gradually wasting away as more and more of its denizens were afflicted by the titular Red Death, a variation on the Black Death of many centuries ago.
This Red Death appears to cause its destruction by making the victims bleed to death through their skin, leading to the celebrated, queasy masque that climaxed the picture. Corman had of course been making Poe films ever since 1960's House of Usher which had transformed his career from the purveyor of cheapo horrors, sci-fi and Westerns that garnered some admiration in some quarters for their innovative nature. Allying himself to the great literary horror author's cause did wonders for his standing, and his bosses at American International Pictures were both pleased with the prestige and welcoming of the impressive profits they were bringing into their relatively low budget studio.
By the time 1964 arrived, Corman could afford to be even more ambitious, and effectively made his version of Ingmar Bergman's heavyweight arthouse classic The Seventh Seal, only with a more accessible style. Or was it? Some complained he had become pretentious here, had ideas above his station if he thought he could rival the Swedish master, but as time progressed The Masque of the Red Death's reputation rose to turn cult classic, and its high-falutin' take on the battle between life and death, God and Satan and humanity amongst itself was embraced by both horror fans and cineastes who appreciated the class and grim philosophy Corman brought to the olden tale.
His star was Vincent Price, as it had so often been with the Poes aside from The Premature Burial which had featured Ray Milland, and the actor had enjoyed a new lease of career life thanks to his chiller and villainous roles. Here he patently relished the chance to intellectualise his character Prince Prospero's evil, silkily purring his way through screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell's dialogue as the plot developed the medieval era setting and its plot of the rich and privileged allowing the poor to die outside the castle gates, while they had a fine old time living it up in perfect decadence inside. And yet, as we have seen from the opening sequence, death does not discriminate when it comes to a plague.
This meant you were waiting for the disease to make its presence felt in the nobility, who believed such a demise was not for the likes of them; there had been some complaints - observations, anyway - that Corman's Poe movies featured not very much happening until the final reel when all Hell broke loose, relying as they did on Daniel Haller's production design for a lot of their atmosphere. As well as Price's vivid presence, of course, and some brash colour cinematography, which here was given to Nicolas Roeg to attend to, half a decade before he started his own directorial endeavours with another cult classic about the rich keeping the poor corrupted in an isolated building away from the danger outside, that being Performance.
The person being corrupted in this was teenage Jane Asher as Francesca, an innocent villager Prospero realises he can induct into the ways of debauchery by sheer force of persuasion and will. She protests his every move on her soul, and at least half of the tension stems from whether he can win her over or not, the other half from gradually twigging nobody, but nobody, is safe from the Red Death, be it embodied as a mysterious extra guest or as the actual effects of the virus. The seductive quality of evil was invoked by comparing it to the inexorable spread of the pandemic, with almost everyone succumbing eventually, a deeply cynical view of human nature suggesting we were all in thrall to our worst urges should our self-control be chipped away until there was nothing left, just as a disease will ruin our bodies.
It wasn't just Vincent and Jane in this, there were a bunch of Brit thespians to contend with too, the production having been filmed there to take advantage of the tax breaks that allowed the nation's film industry to flourish for a few years thanks to Hollywood money. Hazel Court offered perhaps her definitive horror performance as Juliana, Prospero's romantic partner giving herself to the Devil in return for power that never comes. Meanwhile Patrick Magee and dwarf actor Skip Martin acted out Poe's lesser story of Hop Toad and his revenge on the man who slighted him and his wife, which also slotted into the themes of how vulnerable we are to the allure of giving in to our worst impulses. And Shakespearean actor David Weston and rising star Nigel Green were present as Juliana's suitor and father respectively, forced to fight to see who would prevail, but among the few resisting Prospero's scheming. A film that has influenced anything from TV's The Prisoner to Sophie's Choice to Game of Thrones, The Masque of the Red Death could get stylised, even akin to experimental theatre in places, but its stark depiction of wickedness in a dying world fascinated long after.
[StudioCanal release this on a restored and uncut Blu-ray with the following special features...
NEW: Colour and Censorship in The Masque of The Red Death - Interview With Keith Johnston
NEW: Audio Commentary With Kim Newman and Sean Hogan
Audio Commentary with Roger Corman
Roger Corman: In Conversation with Kim Newman at The BFI
Roger Corman: Behind The Masque
Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery
Booklet written film presevationist at The Academy Tessa Idelwine