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The Masque of the Red Death

*****
1964

‘…a revelation in this restoration…’

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

 

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  1. It always looked like AIP spent a fortune on this whereas for others it was they were re-using any old set they could find. My favourite of the lot and looking forward at some point when I get my Blu Ray up and running to having a watch.

  2. Vincent Price? I feel intrigued even though I have only been familiar in passing. Thank you for the recommendation. I agree that so much decent stuff flys under the radar, so this is a catch! Now, hopefully I can reel it all the way in. 🤠

    • This is a very classy, very good-to-look-at film that ofefrs something more than gore or jump scares. Well worth seeking out…reel it in!

      • Yeah, there is actually some science behind wearing all one color. I know that a lot of prisons dress the offenders in all orange and it is suppose to help them get along. Although I’m wondering what would happen if you dressed them in red or white even . . .

          • Sad, indeed. Step up your game, ha ha. The trend could float all the way down to the Commander! w00t, looks like amazon has this one for rent at a smashing $3.99. I would be watching tonight, but I have a video game release to spin for a whirl.

              • Yep, it’s called Medium, it’s something of a different variety where you play in the normal world and the underworld at the same time. Just came out this morning. I’m super pumped about it, I just hope they don’t wear out the story element in the game, I’m about that action as you are aware.

    • You’re welcome, and this one has two Poe stories for the price of one, Hop Frog gets an outing here too…

  3. I completely agree. The Masque of the Red Death is my favourite of Corman’s Poe films (I know others prefer the more gothic The Fall of the House of Usher). Vincent Price relishes his characters cruelty, but it’s the production design and Roeg’s camerawork that make it really stand out – I love that sequence of coloured rooms, and the idea of deliberately locking someone in one of them (was it the yellow one?) so they would go mad is a particularly cruel form of sadism.

    I saw this restoration at the 2019 London Film Festival and the colours popped, so I’m looking forward to receiving the bluray for an upgrade on the copy I currently own. Although they reinstated a couple of previously censored shots they were fairly minor, and I barely noticed the difference. It’s the restoration that’s the draw of this edition.

    • You comment is absolutely bang-on; yes, there’s a few fragments of film added, or restored, but I think it’s less than a minute and Newman wisely plays that aspect down. But not all films need restored; this one really takes flight on the new format, and is a film I would cheerfully buy for someone with a new blu-ray player. The way that castle seems to get bigger and bigger, yet the coloured rooms feel claustrophobic; it’s a really amazing film to look at, and the visuals are supported by a tightly wound narrative so the whole package works.

  4. So did you take down your previous post on this?

    I’m sure the restoration looks great. As a movie it didn’t stand out for me much above the usual Corman fare.

    • Yup, there were a few things in the old post that I did want to keep. But I’d press on with the notion that this is Corman’s best Poe; the production is lavish, not something we often say about Corman, and there’s a unique, decadent, dangerous atmosphere which I really love. Have seen so many different versions , tv, cinema, and now restored, but I think this one is well worth a fresh examination. Get your local library to throw out some of their Leprechaun movies and get this in instead!

      • I actually went back and watched this after your previous post and didn’t come away all that impressed. I mean, it may be Corman’s best Poe, and that’s something, but it didn’t have the life-altering effect on me that the Leprechaun films did. Still, a better recommendation than the one for The Kremlin Letter. I finally finished that and it was awful.

        I now have The Lookout sitting by my DVD player and I’m wondering . . .

        • Hey, I’m offering you my opinion, I can’t tell what you’re going to make of it. But The Kremlin Letter has a great, cold-as ending, well worth sitting few a few wrong turns. And I can’t think of any film more appropriate to where we are in 2020 than Masque. The Lookout is good too, pop that baby in!

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