The Masque of the Red Death seems to have found new cultural currency in the current political moment. In Poe’s original, florid tale, Prince Prospero holes up in his castle with the rest of his Court and a few lucky entertainers to ride out a plague that is killing the hoi polloi. Nevertheless, their quarantine is insufficient. The Red Death, personified by a hideous diseased spirit, murders them all at the stroke of midnight.
The Corman film expands on this quite a bit, turning Prospero into a self-regarding, murderous noble as likely to do a lord in with a crossbow fired from the battlements as he is to torture a peasant to death in the dungeon. If you tilt your head and squint, you can kind of see parallels to Donald Trump and COVID, so the movie’s enjoying a bit of a reappraisal.
Masque is the seventh of eight Poe films directed by Corman, and one of the more lavishly produced. Vincent Price is called “Prospero” but is the same Price we see in all other movies --- half Snidely Whiplash, half Ernst Blofeld. Even so, the stock Price villain is an improvement; the original Poe story has less character development than an Aesop fable.
Snidely Whiplash requires both a Nell and a Dudley Do-Right. Nell is the peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher), and Dudley is her fiancé Gino (David Weston). Gino and Ludovico fail to show Prospero sufficient respect, so he orders them strangled to death. When Francesca intervenes, Prospero offers “mercy” by offering to spare the life of whichever one she chooses. The entertainment is cut short when a guard discovers a woman dying of the Red Death; Prospero rushes Francesca, Gino, and Ludovico off to the castle and orders the rest of the village burned to the ground.
See, here is one of the reasons I don’t get comparisons of Trump to Prospero. You might disagree with Prospero’s plan for containing the Red Death, but at least he has one. He’s also an advocate of self-quarantining…and masks.
There are other sub-plots. Prospero is clearly interested in corrupting Francesca and turning her into his protégé. This he does partly through psychological manipulation and partly through philosophical argumentation. In one of my favorite scenes, Prospero gives Francesca a tour of his dungeons.
She is appalled: “But to torture men! Is this what your master Satan demands as worship?”
“These cells are very old,” replies Prospero. “A hundred years ago, an ancestor of mine was a Christian monk. He was made an examiner of an early inquisition. He tortured over six hundred men, women, and children in order to save their souls for your ‘God of Love.‘“
“I cannot answer,” says Francesca. “I have no learning.”
A different movie would have turned this into a pious defense of Christianity; Corman’s Masque gives you a critique of both religion and class in half a page of the script.
Francesca’s presence unnerves Prospero’s current consort and apprentice, Juliana (Hazel Court), who finally submits to becoming a Bride of Satan in a bid to retract his attentions. It makes for a couple of thoroughly melodramatic and scene-chewing scenes but seems to leave Prospero cold. Meanwhile, a feather-light interpretation of the more obscure Poe story “Hop-Toad” plays out between a guest and the hired entertainment.
Screenplay writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, both accomplished television writers, have taken Poe’s barest hint of a story outline and fleshed it out into full movie length with characters sturdy enough to hang two hours of acting upon.
Finally, of course, there is the Masque. Prospero has told everyone to show up wearing whatever they please --- except red. Attentive viewers will note that many guests are wearing red: red sashes, red stripes, and so forth. Prospero does not seem to notice until a figure dressed entirely in red walks across the dance floor. “That costume!” he says. “Someone is wearing red, and I forbade them to wear red!” There’s then a shot from the balcony, where you can see no fewer than six people wearing red. Another crowd shot; Prospero walks past at least four guests with red highlights on their costumes. “There he is again!” he says, looking past them to the robed figure in the distance. This is not a continuity failure --- this is Corman letting you know that the Red Death has already spread among the revelers, but Prospero is too wrapped up in his own nonsense to notice.
In that, perhaps, Prospero and Trump do have a similarity.