I came across Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death completely by accident several years ago when I was browsing through Netflix for something interesting to watch. While I generally don’t like horror, I do like Vincent Price very much, so I figured a film with Price in it couldn’t be THAT bad, so I gave it a try. The film is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name and tells the story of Prince Prospero (Price), a Satanist who invites several dozen nobles and their wives to stay in his castle while the Red Death ravages the countryside. He promises that as long as they stay inside the castle they are safe, but in reality Prospero knows that everyone is doomed…except for him of course. As he explains to a terrified Francesca (played by Jane Asher, she is a peasant girl that Prospero kidnapped at the start of the film), he (Prospero) has made a deal with Satan himself: in return for delivering all of these souls to Hell via the Red Death, not only will Prospero be spared from the plague, but a high seat in Hell is reserved for him (Prospero has previously denied the existence of God and Heaven and therefore believes that ruling in Hell is the best thing to hope for).
From left to right: Prospero, Red Death and Francesca
For the film’s final ball scene, Prospero had commanded that nobody was to wear red (as it would be in bad taste). But, unknown to everyone, the living symbol of the Red Death has slipped into the castle and his presence lures Prospero into his Black Room. The Prince mistakenly believes that he is meeting with an ambassador of Satan who has come to “reward” him for his services (a claim the Red Death does not deny until Francesca is safely out of the castle where her lover Gino is waiting for her). As Prospero and the Red Death come back to the dancers, Death announces “It’s time for a new dance to begin…the Dance of Death!”
Upon these words, the scene of mirthful dancing and partying is changed into a danse macabre. One by one, each pair of dancers becomes coated in red “blood” (the symbol of infection with Red Death) and begin a halting, staggering ballet. It’s never been quite clear to me if they’re already dead or not, but it is an unforgettable scene. I draw this moment to your attention because of the haunting melody that begins with the first transformation. As the camera slides up and down the figure of the first pair, a sad woodwind melody begins. It continues at a leisurely pace as Prospero and Death walk among them (Prospero is amused by all of it). But once Francesca is sent away, Death finally reveals that the Prince is very mistaken in his beliefs as he informs Prospero that “Death has no master.” When Prospero protests that “there is no God (because Satan “killed” him)” Death replies “He (Satan) does not rule alone. And your pact with him will not save you.” Prospero finally reaches out to see the face underneath the mask only to find…his own. As Death had earlier told him “There is no face of Death, until the moment of your own death.” Seeing his own face reveals that it is Prospero’s time to die, a fate that the Prince tries to flee. And once he starts to run, the leisurely melody turns into an almost frantic march as the dancers swarm Prospero, looks of rage on their bloody faces. And at every opening…there is Death waiting with open arms. Finally, in a lumbering climax, all of the dancers fall dead on the floor, all but Prospero….and Death. Terrified, Prospero flees to the Black Room and locks the door, but Death is already inside. With the Prince cornered, Death delivers one of the most haunting lines I have ever heard: “Why should you be afraid to die? Your soul has been dead for a long time.” And with one touch…Prospero is dead.
This scene remains my favorite of the film, and if you haven’t seen it before, I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below.
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