The Masque of the Red Death
A Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring the great Vincent Price and the lovely Hazel Court with unforgettably technicolour cinematography by Nicholas Roeg!
This one's ideally suited for a tired late-night viewing with the sound turned so low that it's mistaken for a lurid dream. It was also perfect, though, for a rainy bank holiday weekend afternoon.
Vincent Price – with his voice like cake so rich you know it's killing you – plays the Satanic prince Prospero. He hosts a series of debauched balls in his opulent castle whilst, outside, peasant and uninvited nobility alike are decimated by a deadly plague – The Red Death.
Because the source material stretches to little more than five pages in most books, this one actually incorporates elements from two Poe stories. Interwoven with The Masque of the Red Death is the ever-satisfying story of Hop Frog; which, of course, climaxes with the decadent nobility dressed as a gorilla, immolated whilst suspended from a chandelier.
Here, though, Hop Frog is for some reason called Hop Toad. His beloved Tripetena is replaced by the creepy, creepy Esmerelda. Evidently they thought the sight of a female dwarf might upset the audience. Therefore, Esmerelda's played by a child with a dubbed adult voice – easily the most disturbingly uncanny element of the whole film.
I've always been drawn to the Hop Frog story. This might be because it inspired the song which sparked what I know will be a lifelong obsession with the music of Lou Reed:
Price's Prospero is brilliant. He's a complete and utter amoral bastard, but he speaks so passionately and eloquently about his Satanic faith that you can tell that he genuinely believes himself to be doing the right thing. All of his decisions are made based upon a dark and twisted belief system – an unholy code – which makes his performance a lot more cutting and believable than the glut of tedious self-righteous serial killers currently plaguing horror.
Also, he occasionally has moments of weakness. For example, upon slaughtering the last surviving victims of the Red Death, he insists that a child be spared. Despite his guard's protests, he doesn't give a reason – he just insists that she be spared in increasingly strained tones.
Powerful moments like this – where humanity appears to be struggling against staunch Satanic doctrine – ensure that the film and performance alike transcends any possible accusations of campiness.