The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

For all the chiding I write about Roger Corman’s later producing efforts, you have to admit the man knows how to direct a movie. This is the best case I can make for his skills, a film packed with delirious visions and gothic menace. It’s everything you want it to be and more.

The seventh in a series of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptions by Corman, this movie also incorporates part of the Poe story Hop-Frog and some of Torture by Hope by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. Corman had wanted this movie to follow 1960’s House of Usher, but worried that people would think he was stealing from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Corman liked an early script by Charles Beaumont, who also wrote The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao and more than twenty Twilight Zone episodes, which had Prince Prospero as a Satanist. Beaumont was too ill to come to England to finish the script (he died at a very young age), so R. Wright Campbell finished writing it.

On a mountain in medieval Italy, we see an old woman receive a white rose that becomes covered with blood from a red-cloaked man who soon returns to shuffling his Tarot cards.

Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, never more perfect) visits the village that he lords over and is confronted by two angry young villagers. He sentences them both to death, even as one of their daughters begs for their lives. That’s when the evil man learns that the red figure was the plague called the Red Death and it has spread from the old woman to the entire village. Prospero demands that the village be burned down and takes the man’s daughter, Francesca, to his castle. She’s played by Jane Asher, who was once famously the girlfriend of Paul McCartney.

Back at the castle, Francesca is tutored and dressed in the finest clothes by Prospero’s jealous mistress Juliana (Hazel Court, Devil Girl from Mars). Meanwhile, nobles have gathered and are being entertained by the dwarves Esmeralda and Hop-Toad. One of them even strikes the poor girl to the anger of her would-be lover.

Juliana wants to be part of Prospero’s Satanic cult and that night, she lies with him in his Black Room while Francesca watches, overcome by either lust, fear or some combination of both.

Meanwhile, the two men who were condemned to death known as Gino and Ludovico are being trained in the art of being gladiators for the nobles’ amusement. As Prospero continues seducing Francesca, Juliana pledges her soul to Satan, gives our heroine the key to the men’s cell and tells her to leave the castle.

As they try to escape, they end up killing three guards, acts of which Prospero finds humorous as they are supposed to be good men. Since they refuse to fight one another, the villain asks them to play a game: they will cut themselves with daggers. Only one has poison on it and Ludovico draws the final blade. But he doesn’t get a chance to use it — Prospero quickly stabs him. He then sends Gino out of the castle to be infected by the Red Death.

In the woods outside, Gino meets the red-cloaked figure, who gives him a tarot card that he says represents mankind. While that weirdness is going on, Juliana has her final initiation in a psychedelic sequence that sees periods from across history stab her as she lies on an altar. After this self-sacrifice, she declares herself the bride of Satan. She then walks into a room and is killed by a falcon.

Yes, I just typed that sentence. As the nobles gather about her body, Prospero laughs and says that now she really is married to Satan.

The villagers try to get into the castle, dying from the red death, while Prospero orders them all killed, except for a small girl. As the rest of the guests gather for a masked ball, Hop-Toad tricks his nemesis Alfredo into dressing as an ape. He covers the man in brandy and sets him on fire before running into the night.

As Gino tries to rescue his love, the red-cloaked figure tells him to stay there and he will send the girl out to him. The party has grown depraved, but all Prospero is interested in is the red-cloaked figure who has broken the only rule of the party: no one is to wear that color. He and Francesca follow it into the Black Room, where the evil man thinks he is about to actually meet an emissary of Satan.

Prospero asks to see its face, but is told that there is no face of Death until the end as the entire party becomes a dance of death, as the nobles succumb to the plague as they keep swaying to the beat. Prospero asks for Francesca to be spared and given the same title he will have at Satan’s side, but even she knows what he can’t grasp. This isn’t Satan. It’s death. She tenderly kissing him goodbye as she runs toward freedom.

Prospero’s beliefs won’t stop the plague. Under the cloak is Prospero’s own dead and blood-spattered face. He has finally seen his own death and despite trying to run, his duplicate is always in front of him before he finally strikes him down.

At a drive-in viewing, the end of this movie screwed with me so badly I started shaking. All the colors of Death meet and reveal how many they have killed, with the red figure saying, “I called many…peasant and prince…the worthy and the dishonored. Six only are left.”

Only Francesca, Gino, a young girl, an old man, Hop-Toad and Esmeralda survive as the figure states, “Sic transit gloria mundi” or Thus passes the glory of the world.”) By the time the cloaked figures moved out in a formation and the words “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all,” were said, I was quaking in my car. That said, I may have been ingesting all manner of substances and it was 4:52 AM on a foggy night. The perfect time to see a film and the perfect way to embrace it to its fullest!

One of the many reasons this film looks like nothing else is because of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to make Don’t Look Now and The Witches. Another is that the sets were all left over from the Academy Award-winning film Becket.

Interestingly enough, I learned that each of the colors of death at the end personifies a different plague of the Middle Ages. Black = Black Death, Gold = Leprosy, Violet = Porphyria, Blue – Cholera, Yellow = Yellow Fever, White = Tuberculosis and Red – Rabies. That was some IMDB trivia with no citation, so feel free to disprove that.

So how is this a Satanic film? Well, Prospero, despite being the villain, does follow one of the Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth: Do not harm little children. He also follows one of them even more to the letter: If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy.

He also follows many of the points of LaVey’s Pentagonal Revisionism: A Five-Point Program:

Stratification: There can be no more myth of “equality” for all—it only translates to “mediocrity” and supports the weak at the expense of the strong.

The opportunity for anyone to live within a total environment of his or her choice, with mandatory adherence to the aesthetic and behavioral standards of same: The freedom to insularize oneself within a social milieu of personal well-being. An opportunity to feel, see and hear that which is most aesthetically pleasing, without interference from those who would pollute or detract from that option.

But to me, the most inherently Satanic moment in this film is in the words of the Red Death: “Each man creates his own God for himself. His own Heaven, his own Hell.”

Magus Peter H. Gilmore of the Church of Satan was kind enough to send some thoughts on this work of art: “In The Masque of the Red Death, while Prince Prospero is a Devil worshipper, he does have an essentially Satanic monologue wherein he deals with the human condition. As he brings Francesca into the purple room, at about 19 minutes into the film…”

“The practice of creating one’s own environs (a “total environment”) apart from current societal norms, as a way of satisfying aesthetics and as a means of limiting unwanted interaction with others, operates in many of the list’s films. As does the acceptance of mortality and often the loneliness of the individualist who blazes his own way apart from most others.

Romantic obsession, too, figures powerfully, for such drives can lead to passions that heighten existence, even if the consequences might shorten one’s life span. As is said by Satan (Nick) played by Claude Rains in Angel on My Shoulder (1946) “Live fully while you may and reckon not the cost. Deny yourself nothing, flame and blaze like a torch and toss the fire about you!””

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