This film is based on the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time to do so. Don’t worry; it’s very short, and it’s one of the greatest stories ever written.
The film begins with an old woman gathering firewood in a bleak landscape when she encounters a strange figure clad entirely in red. And right away, we suspect there is something odd going on, because Edgar Allan’s story makes no mention of any peasant women gathering wood.
The figure in red hands the woman a rose, and tells her to take it to her village and inform them that their day of deliverance is at hand.
She returns to the village, just as the wicked Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is arriving. The people of the village live in poverty as Prospero reigns over them. Two of the village men, Gino (David Weston) and Ludovico (Nigel Green), stand up to Prospero, and he is on the point of having them executed when Francesca (Jane Asher) pleads for clemency. Just then they are interrupted by a scream, and Prospero and his guards find the old woman who brought the prophecy of deliverance has died of the plague known as the Red Death. Prospero leaves the village, orders his men to burn it down, and takes Ludovico, Gino and Francesca as his prisoners.
Again, I can’t stress this enough: so far, almost none of this has any relationship to Poe’s story. We have a guy named Prospero and a thing called the Red Death, but otherwise it might as well be a different story.
Could it be because Poe’s story is 14 paragraphs long and takes about ten minutes to read? Maybe it’s not ideally suited for a 90-minute film? Well, as we’ll see, the writers came up with, um, creative ways of dealing with this problem.
Come to think of it, Poe’s story didn’t mention any naked women in bathtubs either, but that’s what we get next: Francesca is taken to the chambers of Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court) and stripped not only of her peasant garb, but of the cross which she wears around her neck. Prospero orders her to remove this symbol of a “dead god.”
Prospero and Juliana are in the habit of holding orgiastic Court balls, at which Prospero orders the guests to abase themselves in various ways, such as imitating animals–he commands a man to crawl like a worm and woman to walk on her hands and knees in imitation of a donkey. He is a hedonistic, cruel, and in the very worst sense, decadent man.
He is also a Satanist, as we discover through his conversations with Francesca. And a weirdly pragmatic Satanist at that. The world is cruel, he reasons, and so there can be no God of Love, as described in the Christian tradition. But his conception of the deity is not as a God of Hate, but rather one of “reality.” The world is full of evil, and thus must be ruled by evil, according to Prospero’s thinking. As he explains:
“The world lives in pain and despair, but is at least kept alive by a few dedicated men. If we lost our power, chaos would engulf everything.”
This is the best Vincent Price performance I’ve ever seen, precisely because he’s so calm, so almost rational, in the way he explains his malignant philosophy. With Price, there was always a hint of a wink to the audience that he knew this whole thing was a bit silly anyway. That element is still here in his performance as Prospero, but instead of seeming like a trait of the actor, it seems like one of the character. It’s as if, as he lives out his nihilistic beliefs, he’s come to see it all as a meaningless joke. Which makes him all the more terrifying. And here we do at last see some overlap with Poe’s story, wherein he writes of “the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests.”
Speaking of jests, now’s as good a time as any to bring up the fact that there is a sub-plot running through this film that’s based on another Poe story, Hop-Frog. There’s a jester called Hop-Toad who seeks revenge against one of the other royals at Prospero’s court. It’s a weird story that doesn’t add a lot, although it’s not wholly out of step with the rest of the piece. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It’s just weird. But then, this is weird fiction, right?
Anyway, Juliana has grown jealous of the attention Prospero is giving Francesca and so she…
Actually, wait. First, let me give you more background on Juliana. She’s already asked to join Prospero’s cult. She’s been engaging in various Satanic rituals with him, including branding herself with an inverted cross. So, what do you think she does to Francesca?
That’s right! She gives her the key to the dungeon where Gino and Ludovico are being held and tells her the outer guard has been bribed so they can escape. They flee from the dungeons, Gino and Ludovico stabbing a few guards as they go. They reach the castle exterior, but are met there by Prospero.
Francesca’s first thought is “Juliana betrayed us,” which is what I assumed too, but then Prospero snarls that Juliana betrayed him. To me, this says that Juliana really was trying to help. And I have to ask… why? It seems rather out of character. Seems to me Juliana would have been more likely to arrange some unfortunate accident for Francesca.
This is the midpoint of the movie. The three good characters are recaptured, seemingly with no hope for escape. Prince Prospero is devising more cruel tortures for them, while preparing for his grand masquerade ball. So, naturally I’m going to pause to talk about dramatic tropes.
In many ways, this movie is just a classic Gothic melodrama, of the sort that had been a cliché for over a century: the evil nobleman kidnaps the innocent maiden and must be stopped by the brave hero. This is such a well-worn trope that it practically exists only as a parody of itself. W.S. Gilbert was making fun of how silly it was about 90 years before this film was made.
Poe’s story, on the other hand, is not at all a stock melodrama. It has no heroes. It has no virginal maidens. It barely even has a plot. It has instead a series of strange and expertly-rendered scenes, which vividly impress themselves upon the mind of the reader, creating an uncanny mood of despair. I very rarely go in for symbolist interpretations of fiction, but here? The colors of the different rooms in the Prince’s castle, the chiming of the great clock of ebony, the Red Death itself–all point to a story being told on a level beyond rationality and firmly in the realm of allegory.
It’s pretty normal for film adaptations to make a story much more formulaic than the book it’s based on. Often, there’s not as much time for all the details and nuances of a book in a film. In this case, it’s probably more to do with the fact that audiences expect a typical three-act structure with recognizable heroes and villains. A truly faithful adaptation of Poe’s story would be a weird art film that no one would understand. Studio execs would never give funding for that. They want a film with good guys and bad guys and blood and near-naked ladies and sword fights!
But here is where it gets interesting. A typical story would just be adapted into the formula and everything that made it different or interesting would stripped out. The result is a film that’s dull and predictable. Not quite with Masque of the Red Death though. This one is so weird that it actually resisted the formula and stayed weird anyway. In fact, it might be even weirder because of this strange mashup of Gothic tropes, the eerie imagery of Poe’s original story, and a dash of psychedelic 1960s Satanism thrown in.
For an example of the last, I give you the scene in which Juliana pledges herself to The Evil One. She takes a drink of something, and then has a hallucination where she is strapped to an altar while bizarre demonic figures dance around her and make thrusting and stabbing motions at her while she writhes in terror. Gosh, I wonder if this was meant to symbolize anything? (Rosemary’s Baby was made four years later, in case you were wondering. The 1960s was a good decade for the Prince of Darkness’s cinematic career.)
After this vision ends, she considers herself betrothed to the Devil. And then for some reason she gets pecked to death by a falcon of Prospero’s that hangs around the giant clock. The guests are horrified on discovering her body, but Prospero only smirks, “Celebrate for Juliana–she’s just married a friend of mine.”
Some readers may be aware that I don’t enjoy fiction that depicts violence against women, and it’s a testament to just how cheesy the special effects here are that I was able to watch this. The hallucination scene is creepy but vague enough I could handle it. The bird attack is simply ridiculous.
In the meantime, Prospero has devised a challenge of poisoned daggers for Gino and Ludovico, since they refuse to fight one another to the death. The challenge results in Ludovico’s death and Prospero bizarrely letting Gino flee into the countryside, on the assumption that he too will be killed by the Red Death raging outside the castle walls.
In the desolate forest, Gino meets the Red-robed figure from the opening scene, who gives him a Tarot card. He then goes on to find the few survivors of the plague-riddled village making their way to Prospero’s castle to seek sanctuary. Care to guess how that works out for them? Put it this way: at the end of it, all of them are executed by Prospero’s crossbowmen except for one child, who is left to wander outside the walls.
And now at last Prospero’s masquerade begins. The Prince himself appears to be dressed as Omar Sharif’s character from Lawrence of Arabia. Who wore it better?
There is only one rule at the Prince’s debauched orgy: no one is to wear red. Anything else goes, including Hop-Toad setting one of the guests on fire. Like the man said, “to whom life and death are equally jests…”
Gino has managed to scale the walls of the castle, where he again meets the figure in red, who tells him to wait outside, and he will send Francesca out to him. This has to be a moment of mixed emotions for Gino–here he was, all set to be the hero of the piece, and he gets told to stand and wait by some mysterious apparition. We don’t see him again for the rest of the film. This is what I mean about Poe’s weirdness beating the formula.
When Prospero sees the figure in red moving among the revelers, he pursues him through the colored rooms, until at last reaching the black room, where he bows before the figure, believing him to be Satan himself. The red figure declares it is time for a new dance to begin–a “dance of death.” At which point, all the guests die of the Red Death, but continue to dance.
The Red figure sends Francesca outside, and then tells Prospero that he is not Satan, nor a servant of his, for “Death has no master.” Further, “Each man creates his own God for himself – his own Heaven, his own Hell,” he tells Prospero, who then demands the figure unmask, revealing the face underneath the hood to be Prospero’s own, only covered with blood. In terror, the prince tries to flee, but is blocked by the bloody corpses of his guests and finally crumbles into death near his own black Satanist altar, at the hand of the Red figure.
The final scene is an epilogue of sorts, revealing the Red figure again in the desolate forest from the beginning of the film, playing with the young child abandoned outside the castle. More robed figures in different colors appear, each telling of how many they have claimed that night. The red figure pronounces that only six remain alive in his territory: the child, Francesca and Gino, Hop-Toad and his lover, and an old man. “Sic transit gloria Mundi,” the figure murmurs, and then they file off in a funereal procession, and the credits roll.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Poe’s story is an allegory for the inevitability of death. The Masque of the Red Death is frequently used in high schools to teach how allegory works because it’s such a slam-dunk; you can’t miss it.
But is that also the theme of the movie? I’m not sure. Moreover, I don’t think the people who made the movie were sure.
There are a lot of mixed messages in this movie. Francesca, Ludovico and Gino are pious and devoted Christians–except, as Prospero points out, Ludovico and Gino both kill guards in their attempt to escape, which by their own religion is a sin. Shouldn’t they have been willing to be martyred instead, like the early Christians executed in the Roman arena? And Francesca ultimately is willing to pledge herself to Prospero, if he will spare Gino’s life. Is this not a betrayal of her faith?
Maybe not. After all, Gino and Francesca are spared the Red Death, and Ludovico dies a noble death confronting Prospero. But why are they spared? Is it really due to their faith or the quality of their character? The hooded spirits at the end don’t seem to be passing moral judgments. They’re just killing some people and sparing others; and their reasons for doing so are ambiguous.
And then of course, there are all of Prospero’s carefully-crafted arguments for Satanism that go strangely unanswered. Like:
Prospero: If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.
Francesca: There is also love and life and hope.
Prospero: Very little hope I assure you. No. If a god of love and life ever did exist… he is long since dead. Someone… something, rules in his place.
I am the furthest thing from a religious scholar, to be clear. And yet, I think even I know the proper Christian response to this, which is that the Kingdom of God is separate from the material world, and the virtues of Christianity are rewarded in the next world, not in this one. But Francesca doesn’t say that. She just says she has no learning and thus can’t answer the prince’s arguments.
It’s a longstanding tradition in fiction that the villains always get the best lines, but Prospero gets to make the case for his literally hellish philosophy, and nobody ever rebuts it. You might think the avatar of the Red Death itself would, but it doesn’t. It seems to be, as another highly-questionable philosopher would say, “beyond good and evil.”
Thematically, the movie just can’t make up its mind as to whether it’s supposed to be a traditional morality play or a morally nihilistic grotesquerie. You think it’s going one way, and then it goes the other. It’s… weird.
This is a good adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death in spite of itself. Even for all the melodrama, the pointless Hop-Toad sub-plot, the hammy acting, and the special effects that aged quite poorly, it still leaves you with that feeling of uncanny, despairing fear that Poe’s story gives you. You feel like you’ve walked right to the edge of some sketchy borderland between stock melodrama and something else that is quite unusual, rather interesting, and very unsettling. Going back would be boring, going much further would be terrifying.