Shock, M, 88 Mins
Indefatigable producer/director Roger Corman’s seventh of eight early ‘60s productions drawn from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, this is the best of the bunch, although that isn’t saying much as each and every one of them looks faded and creaky almost 50 years later (but don’t we all?). And even Corman’s regular star Vincent Price is subtle here and mostly resists the urge to go over the top and start hamming, camping and prancing.
Incorporating the main plot set-up of Masque as well as aspects of Poe’s Hop-Frog, Torture By Hope (by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam) and bits of business invented by screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, we watch as wannabe-evil and cruel Prince Prospero (Price) hides in his castle with lots of snarky aristocrats as the ‘Red Death’ plague ravages the lands outside.
Prospero wants to please Satan, which leads to a lot of Devil-praising talk that sounds fairly silly now but must have been quite startling in 1964, and while taunting the faith of kidnapped peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher, who at the time was famously dating Paul McCartney), he also arranges a series of events culminating in the masque of the title, where a mysterious party-pooping gatecrasher turns up. Guess who?
Shot on English sets left over from Becket and more elaborate and expensive than other Corman/Poe epics (like the very cheap-looking House Of Usher), there’s much here that shocked the censors at the time, including a rather lame bit where Prospero’s mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) hallucinates some very low-fi demons with gasping abandon (and was it the dopey blasphemy that upset them – or Court’s legendary heaving bosom?). And then there’s Price who, surprisingly, takes it all too seriously, resulting in one of his straightest, dullest performances as a tediously sadistic show-off just desperate to be damned.