A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Roger Corman’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death may be one of the most decadent, sadistic, Satanic films ever laid to celluloid.
Classic horror is often viewed as quaint, cozy, good for a laugh more often than a shriek. After all, we’ve had an additional 56 years to thicken our skin and harden our sensibilities, in the case of The Masque of the Red Death, the peak of Roger Corman‘s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. And yet Corman’s adaptation offers some one of the grimmest, cruellest, most transgressive scenes in the history of horror cinema, and all with barely a drop of ichor.
We’ll assume yr familiar with the plot for The Masque of the Red Death, but in case you need a debriefing, the film revolves around the wicked Prince Prospero, chillingly portrayed by Vincent Price in one of his strongest, most theatrical performances. While careening through a bleak medieval landscape, bringing to mind the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Ingmar Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal to which The Masque of the Red Death is often compared, Prospero discovers an old woman stricken with the plague. Prospero retreats to his caste to wait out the plague, taking the pious Francesca (Jane Asher) as well as her father Ludovico (Nigel Green) and her lover, Gino (David Watson) for his diabolical entertainment.
Within the castle walls, Prince Prospero reveals that he worships Satan and will not tolerate any Christian worship on his estate. He delights in tempting Francesca, a truly faithful person, attempting to seduce her into the “velvet darkness” of Evil. Which Prospero’s previous paramore, Juliana (Hazel Court), is none too happy about. Juliana’s dedicated herself to the service of Satan, following Prospero’s lead. Threatened by Francesca’s presence, Juliana takes the step to dedicate herself more completely to the Dark Lord.
All of which culminates in the film’s climactic Masquerade sequence, of course, like the story itself. Prospero spies a guest in a red cloak, which he’d expressly forbidden. Frantic, he chases the interloper into the final black chamber, where he’s confronted by the horrors of what lies behind the Red Death’s mask.
Roger Corman’s 1964 epic is truly impressive in its nihilistic decadence. Price’s Prospero would do the Marquise de Sade with his libertine indulgences while his nihilistic worldview would make Nietszche blush. Hearing Price intone, in his sepulchral baritone, “God is dead. We are here to worship the Living God,” takes you aback, even almost 60 years later. Satanic sample diggers, take note: The Masque of the Red Death is rife with blasted, unholy incantations, just begging to fall under your knife for yr next End Of The World DJ sets.
The Masque of the Red Death is a triumph of 60s horror – equal parts Classic, Art House, and Psychedelic. Nicolas Roeg’s Cinematography is hallucinatory and surreal as a fever dream, like a Belladonna trip to a Parisian opera house. Roeg would go on to direct other psychedelic classics like Performance, starring Mick Jagger, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, featuring David Bowie. An orchestral, period-specific soundtrack from composer David Lee, dripping with tambourines, fifes, and hunting brass, and sumptuous costumery by Laura Nightingale, seals the deal, making this one of the most essential and classiest horror films of all time.
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