The Masque Of The Red Death


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Masque Of The Red Death
"A film which is there not just to be watched, but to be experienced."

Probably the finest example of Roger Corman and Vincent Price's work together, The Masque Of The Red Death sees the latter as the fiendish Prince Prospero, a cruel nobleman who makes sport out of tormenting the desperate peasants who live near his castle. The terrifying red death haunts the land, yet Prospero is convinced it can't touch him, perhaps because he has made a pact with a still more evil force. He is obsessed with pushing everything to the limit, gleefully humiliating the party guests who flock to his masquerade ball. But when he becomes determined to corrupt a simple, good-hearted peasant girl, he discovers for the first time that there are things he can't control - an ominous warning.

Nobody can play sinister megalomania like Vincent Price, and he is at his very best here, compounding a forceful charismatic performance with a strange air of melancholy that hints at Prospero's hidden depths. The social distortions which make others vulnerable to his abuses have, in turn, left him frustrated, unable to find satisfaction and not understanding why, as no offence within his power seems sufficient to make a real mark upon the world. As the pleasure of simple cruelties fades he must devise ever more elaborate means of assuring himself of his domination. There is also a hint of some terrible past loss. The character of Prospero draws on the real life Gilles de Rais, a one-time holy devotee whose madness led him to try and provoke God through savagery. If there is a God here, He cannot be so easily manipulated, and His response is more terrible than anything Prospero can imagine.

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With its vivid, saturated colour palette and its spectacular sets, this film looks like a vision conceived in madness, heavily stylised and deliberately set at odds with the natural laws Prospero is seeking to rediscover. It is boldly symbolic without ever coming across as dry or aloof. Its lush Gothic imagery is profoundly seductive, balanced by a certain wry, camp humour, and it's tremendously enjoyable to watch, creating an atmosphere in which the viewer becomes gradually complicit with the horrors unfolding. Add a bombastic yet subtly haunting score and you have a film which is there not just to be watched, but to be experienced. And it's an experience you'll never forget.

It's hard to imagine a film like this being made today. Modern directors would be afraid of going so over the top, of risking such overt and unapologetic artsiness, but The Masque Of The Red Death more than gets away with it, it turns it into a virtue. Some stories need to be told in a big way. More than a simple account of one man's fall from grace, this is a mythic tale, a morality play as relevant now as it would have been in medieval times. Corman has gifted it with an intensity rarely matched elsewhere in cinema.

Reviewed on: 08 May 2009
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A cruel prince devotes himself to Satan and lives a life of excess, but just beyond his castle gates lurks a deadly plague.
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Director: Roger Corman

Writer: Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell

Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, David Weston, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee

Year: 1964

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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