The name Roger Corman calls to mind a lot of things--MST3K episodes, 2-day film shoots, high profit margins, Lance Henrikson in Scream 3--but 'a quality film' is rarely one of them. The presence of Vincent Price, on the other hand, generally implies that SOMETHING good will happen onscreen, making 1964's The Masque of Red Death irresistible to a curious cinemaniac like myself.
Quick Plot: A mysterious man in red hands a rose to a crone passing by in the woods. You know what that means.
Well, if it was the year 1100, you would TOTALLY have known what that meant. The devil/death is sending a message to a European village that their deliverance is at hand. For most of the lowly townsfolk, this means they'll die of the plague. The wealthy or imprisoned, on the other hand, get to party/get tortured inside the castle of one Prospero, played with juicy evil by a devil-worshipping, gold lace-trimmed puffy shirt wearing Vincent Price.
Prospero isn't all black masses and pentagrams though. The man is quite the party animal, actively encouraging his guests to play dress-up, act like farm beasts, and get wasted while he observes such entertainment as tiny dancers with womanly voices performing what I guess is simply little person ballet, but what somehow feels more akin to Toddlers and Tiaras.
When that gets boring, Prospero passes the time trying to corrupt Christians, particularly when they're good-looking. His favorite good girl, Francesca, stays as a well-dressed prisoner actively trying to free her doomed-to-die lover and father. For the most part, this involves whining about Christianity and turning her head as Propsero orders lashings on others, though slowly but surely, an interesting form of mutual respect begins to grow.
As I explained in my intro, I expected very little from The Masque of Red Death. The only things prompting me to press play were the presence of Price, convenience of a 90 minute Instant Watch, and the mere words "12th century" and "plague" in the film's description.
I am sometimes easy to seduce.
So imagine my surprise to learn that The Masque of Red Death is an ACTUAL GOOD MOVIE. If you’ve seen Uwe Boll’s Rampage, you probably know what that feeling is. It begins with doubt, as you double check IMDB to confirm that you are indeed watching the movie you planned on. Once that happens, you fall into hesitation. There’s no WAY the quality can be maintained coming from the hands of a filmmaker who keeps one eye on the clock while directing...right?
But for the most part, it does. The Masque of Red Death isn’t the greatest genre film of the ‘60s, but it’s a fun ride that toes a gleeful balance between the cheeky and macabre. Poor villagers die, wealthy lords and ladies dress up like fools and die even worse, Vincent Price mugs like a champ and Corman’s colors pop like paintball. There’s little not to like.
Holy Crayola box batman! The rich brightness of virtually every costume, haircut and furniture piece makes The Masque of Red Death an absolutely stunning visual work. Observe one of its most famous scenes, as Prospero flees Death through a series of rooms that change color, Wizard of Oz/The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover style
For all the hubub and worshipping, I expect Satan to have a far more badass mustache than one composed of lampshade fringe
Lessons Learned (About Medieval Times)
Not too surprisingly, gorilla suits were highly flammable
The parties of the upper class made the Playboy Mansion look like Sesame Street
Bangs were totally bangin'
I’ll readily admit my weakness for any film involving plagues, dances of death, medieval torture, Vincent Price in period garb, or noblemen dressed like gorillas. The Masque of Red Death includes all these things, and it includes them extremely well. It’s not a masterpiece, but the film is bursting with life in its depiction of Death. It’s a fun, dark, and unique little watch and if nothing else, it beats just about anything else in the Corman catalog.