I’ve been running a regular category called “Why Can’t I See This Movie?” which complains about the lack of circulation in various worthwhile titles. Ten months ago, as the first wave of the Covid-19 virus hit, I had good reason to make a case for a re-issue of horror classic The Masque of the Red Death, and evidently I wasn’t the only one who noted the potential relevance; this week, there’s a spanking new blu-ray restoration of the Roger Corman/Nicolas Roeg collaboration out, and it’s an absolutely essential purchase. So I’m reprinting a shortened version of my original review, renosed with a discussion of the new package; it’s a revelation in this restoration.
Shot by the great Nicolas Roeg as a gun for hire, The Masque of the Red Death is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and was originally published back in 1842. Poe knew all about cholera and tuberculosis from his own personal experience, but the Red Death featured here is a fictional disease, as befits a writer’s fantasy. Writer/director Roger Corman and Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont shift the story to Italy, where the plague ravages the country, and the rich seek to protect themselves by building a wall to keep the victims of the pestilence out of their reach, as well as their sight. The amoral Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) plans a feast to celebrate their good fortune, little imagining that the barriers he’s created to keep the disease out will in fact seal it inside the palatial compound he’s constructed. Although his actions have made the plight of the locals considerably worse, Prospero offers no sympathy or empathy, just Trump-ish denial; he forbids anyone to wear red to his party in case it evokes thoughts of what he seeks to keep outside. Instead, Prospero creates opulence, hoping to distract with his own wealth, a series of rooms in different colours, leading to the Black Room where Prospero will eventually confront the red-cloaked figure that pursues him.
Producer Sam Arkoff thought the result was ‘too arty farty’ but this is the best of Corman’s many and varied body of films, providing a ingenious gloss on Poe’s story, with lots of cruel action to demonstrate how the lack of a moral compass in a leader leads to physical decay. Genre fans will enjoy seeing Hazel Court and Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Nigel Green, while Roeg’s vision brings something unique to Corman’s not-always-so-well-upholstered series of Poe-inspired works. Price makes a perfect Prospero, a Satanist wrongly believing that money will prove his salvation; no matter how elaborate his castles and parties are, the corruption he imagines that he can escape is baked into his very soul, wriggle on the hook as he might.
There is nothing new under the sun; fictional plagues run from Greek tragedy to Contagion, but Poe’s dark imaginings, borne from personal experience, are worth reviving in these troubled times. Like most great horror stories, the terrifying notion here is a timeless one; that the die is already cast, and we, in our hubris, just don’t know it yet. At the end of the movie, we return to our lives, and strive to make sure that Poe’s dark fantasy does not become our unwanted reality.
I’ve been a late convert to blu-ray, but I’m a convert; a player would set you back a few notes, but any PS3 onwards will do the same job, and this is the kind of film that shows off the format to great advantage. Roeg’s sense of colour is striking, as are the lavish sets, diaphanous costumes and dynamic production design; the multi-coloured rooms are something to behold, and even the fake background elements are imaginatively and tastefully done. Extras included Corman discussing the film with Kim Newman at the BFI, a short documentary, and an enjoyably rambling commentary by Newman and Sean Hogan. I’ve made no secret of my opinion that Newman is one of the sharpest critics alive right now, and even if he’s short on analysis or personal insight, he’s got a magic porridge pot to delve into in terms of context, and it’s one of the few commentary tracks that keep you going right to the end. Newman notes that you can tell that this prodiction is a cut above the rest because they bother to spell Edgar Allan Poe’s name right, setting a low bar perhaps, but Masque of the Red Death is one of the great horror films of all time, and demands your attention in our current lockdown.
Thanks to StudioCanal and Zoe Flower for early access to this title.
MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL AVAILABLE FROM 25 JANUARY 2021