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Roger Corman’s 1964 movie The Masque of the Red Death is taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s eerie tale from the medieval mist, about a plague closing in on the castle of a cruel and wealthy sensualist. Disease is the implacable god. It’s a horribly appropriate moment for this film’s reappearance.
This is an expressionist horror-ballet, extravagantly shot by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, and for all its theatricality and Grand Guignol, there is really nothing absurd in it. In fact, Corman’s formal artistry and conviction on a limited budget look more impressive than ever, and with his iconic Poe adaptations he did more than anyone in academe to establish the author’s position in the literary canon. That disturbing red-clad figure, and the villain’s horror of the colour red, are surely a premonition of Roeg’s later masterpiece Don’t Look Now, and the mysterious cowled figure and final apocalyptic procession make it almost an indie-pulp American equivalent of Ingmar Bergman.
Sonorous Vincent Price plays Prince Prospero, an Italian nobleman with the power of life and death over the poor villagers who are already terrorised by the “red death” pestilence, foretold or caused by a mysterious figure in a red cloak who sits in the bleak forest, his back against a gnarled tree, impassively dealing out tarot cards. On a vicious whim, Prospero orders a beautiful, pious peasant girl called Francesca (Jane Asher), together with her betrothed Gino (David Weston) and father Ludovico (Nigel Green), to be brought back to his castle, where he is preparing to host a magnificent masquerade ball for all his cringing courtier-sycophants, including the resentful Alfredo (Patrick Magee). To Francesca’s horror, Prospero reveals that he and his favoured mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) are satanists, and that this gruesome festival will be an orgy of indulgence climactically offered up to the evil one, in the very midst of poverty and sickness.
In fact, screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R Wright Campbell drew on other Poe stories, including Hop-Frog, about a person with dwarfism employed as a jester and humiliated by the king. In this movie, Hop Toad (Skip Martin) is a dwarf jester who is required to perform a deeply strange dance for the assembled jeering aristocrats at Prospero’s hideous court with his love, Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw) – and they are then abused and insulted. It really is one of the weirdest things about a captivatingly weird film.
The colour scheme reveals itself like a Dulux sample chart from hell, as characters walk through rooms in Prospero’s castle that are each decorated in one colour – a very bad trip, like the ending of 2001. The “yellow” room, we learn, was used as a sadistic prison by Prospero’s father for one of his enemies and, on his release, the man could not bear to look at the sun. The entire film, in fact, seems to take place at night, or in that artificial day-for-night twilight I associate with Hammer vampire movies. The Masque of the Red Death moves with a sinuous, unselfconscious elegance.
• The Masque of the Red Death is released on digital platforms, Blu-ray and DVD on 25 January.
Source: The Guardian
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