This is one of the films I remember seeing as a kid and it was this films that got me interested in reading Edgar Allen Poe. Roger Corman seems to have a bit of passion when it came to adapting the work of Poe. It has a fantastic over the top performance from Vincent Price as the Satan worshipping Prospero and great script inspired by at least two of Poe’s short stories.
An old woman is out gathering wood at night and she comes across a figure in a red hooded outfit. He calls to her and takes a white rose from his garment and with a pass of his hand it turns blood-red. He passes the rose to her and tells her to take it to her village and tell them that their deliverance is at hand. Prince Propsero (Vincent Price) and his men arrive a village with so little care for the locals that they almost run down a small child playing with dirt but it gets rescued by a villager Gino (David Weston). His visit is part of a traditional annual gloat about how he lives rich thanks to their hard work while they can barely feed themselves. Gino is openly and vocally contemptuous of Prospero and it turns out his rebellious attitude is inspired by what the old woman told them about their deliverance being at hand. He is joined by and older man Ludovico (Nigel Green). He orders their deaths but a young woman Francesca (Jane Asher) begs Prospero to spare them. Prospero says that he will spare one of them but she must choose who lives and who dies. Ludovico is her father and Gino is her fiancé so this is tearing her apart. Prospero’s slimy companion Alfredo (Patrick Magee) is very amused by this entertainment. They are interrupted by screams from one of the houses and Prospero finds the old woman from earlier lying in bed screaming and sweating blood. It is the red death and after checking that none of them touched the old woman he has Gino and Ludovico taken prisoner while he hustles Francesca in to his coach and he orders his men to burn the village to the ground. A figure runs out of a burning building on fire and clutching a baby. The figure falls down presumably dead but another villager rescues the baby.
At his castle Prospero orders one of his men to contact all the local nobles and invite them to his castle but to avoid the village. Francesca is placed in hands of servants who strip her and put her in a bath. Prospero enters laughing with his consort Juliana, amused at Francesca’s attempts to hide her body from him. He demands that she remove her cross as he finds it offensive but only because she believes. Prospero worships Satan. The room was Juliana’s but Prospero says she will get given another room and not only that she is to give Francesca some of her clothes and teach her the ways of his court. He leaves and Juliana makes it clear to Francesca that she will not aid her in any way. Francesca says she will do what she must to save Gino and Ludovico but if they die she will die too and so will Prospero, so she’s not the timid innocent flower Prospero believes her to be.
In the banqueting hall Alfredo is trying to impress some woman with his little knife and talk of terror but Prospero interrupts him to hold forth on the subject himself with a quick mention of the ticking of the dreadful clock which really is toned down here compared to Poe’s story. The clock strikes the hour and Prospero introduces some entertainment, two dwarf dancers called Hop Toad (Skip Martin) and Esmerelda (Verina Greenlaw). The man has the common type of dwarfism where his head is normal sized but his body is shortened, while Esmerelda looks like normally proportioned small child and that’s because she is being played by a young child and isn’t a dwarf at all and another actor’s voice is dubbed over hers. She dances around the floor for them, inspiring filthy thoughts in Alfredo that fortunately go unspoken. At one point She accidentally kicks a goblet and it spills over Alfredo’s feet and he strikes her in anger. Hop Toad is about to pull his knife and chib him but Prospero calms things down and Hop Toad helps Esmerelda to her feet. Prospero tells his guests that the following nigh at midnight he will hold a masquerade. He tells them not to dress in red as that is in very poor taste with the red death plague at their door. Then he throws a goblet of wine over Alfredo who blusters impotently about his power and influence and Prospero reminds him that those are powerless in the face of the red death, a lesson he’s yet to learn himself.
Juliana brings Francesca into the hall dressed in a white gown and Prospero introduces her to his guests. He takes her around the room and orders theguests to act as in their nature, instructing noble to act like animals such as a pig, a worm and a jackass. Everyone is highly amused and they all join in. Prospero takes Francesca atour of his coloured rooms. He tells her about a cruel experiment his father performed on a “friend” where he imprisoned him in the yellow room for three years and when released the man couldn’t bear the sight of a daffodil. The story appals Francesca who believes there is no need for cruel elaborate tortures to find God but Prospero asks where is the love of God in a world full of war, disease and hunger. Prospero believes the God of love and light is dead if he ever existed. Francesca goes to open the door to the final room, the black room Prospero stops her entering. He sends her to bed promising she’ll see Gino and Ludovico next day.
Juliana comes to Prospero and she declares her devotion to him then tells him that she is now willing to to go through with final ceremony. Prospero is cynical about her motives and he wonder if Francesca would be as willing for the sake of love. Francesca is in her room and is not asleep but is unsettled by her strange surroundings. She finds a smear of blood on the table where Prospero put her cross. Then she hears Prospero reciting some incantation in Latin.She goes out into the corridor and follows the sound of his voice into the coloured rooms and right through into the black room where Juilana is sitting in a silly hat with some black bird and Prospero is lying in a coffin in ceremonial robes with his eyes closed. For some reason Francesca touches his face and runs away screaming when he opens his eyes. She collides with a guy in a scary mask who turns out to be Alfredo.
Next morning Prospero shows Francesca some falconry. They hear a coach approach and Prospero hails them asking them who they are. It is a nobleman Scarlatti and his wife. Prospero refuses them entry because they may bring the red death with them. Scarlatti offers Prospero his wife for sanctuary but Prospero’s been there done that. He comments to Francesca on how willing this “good, pure” man is to debase himself out the fear of death. Scarlatti begs Prospero to save him from the red death so Prospero take crossbow from a guard and kills him. Then he throws a sword down for the wife so she can take her own life.
Gino is in the dungeon and one of Prospero’s soldiers is trying to teach him to fight. Gino refuses to pick a sword against his friend and says he would rather die than live as a coward in the service of Prospero but the man can’t kill him or Prospero would have him killed for disobeying him. The man demonstrates that he can just cut him a bit, forcing Gino to pick up a sword and fight to defend himself. When Prospero and Francesca enter the room Gino is doing pretty good and he manages to beat the man. Gino and Ludovico tell Prospero they will not fight each other. Gino also says that Prospero would get no satisfaction from torture either. Prospero sees this as a puzzle that he will solve: to find a way to have them challenge death together.
Prospero leads Francesca out of the dungeon but she still hears the sounds of tortured people screaming and questions him about whether torture is required by Satan. Prospero uses a diversion of raising the church’s use of torture in its inquisitions but Francesca cannot answer for things she knows nothing about. Prospero justifies the torture as a means of preserving order. He tells her wants to save her soul for hell and she says it will never happen.
Juliana is in the black room alone and going through a ritual where she dedicates her soul to Satan and brands herself with his mark
Toad Hop approaches Alfredo and chats about wanting to leave Prospero’s service. He tell Alfredo he has an idea for a costume that will impress the other guests and especially Prince Prospero. Toad Hop suggests he dress as a great ape and not only dress but act like an ape and Toad Hop will pretend to be his keeper. Toad Hop sells the idea to Alfredo by telling him how he will be able terrify and ravage any the women at the masquerade.
Juliana goes to Francesa’s room and tell s her what she’s done and Francesca is shocked but Juliana did it to be with Prospero, possibly even for love. To be certain she wants Francesca gone and Francesca wants to be gone so Juliana gives her the key to the cell where Gino and her father are being kept and tells her she’s bribed a guard to help them. Francesca goes to the dungeon and we get the old row of cells trope here, two horrible and disturbing, a third with a guy hiding at the door ready to give her a jump scare then the fourth has Gino and Ludovico. Francesca releases them and they try to sneak out but one of the guards spots them and they have to fight and kill the guards. They make it to battlements to meet with the bribed guard but instead Prospero is waiting and they are recaptured.
At the banquet before the masquerade Prospero reveals the method he has come up with to punish either Gino or Ludovico. He puts five daggers into the table in front of him. One has had the blade coated in poison that acts within five seconds. They will take turn picking a dagger and cutting themselves with it and whoever lives will go free. Four daggers later and it Ludovico’s turn with the last dagger that must be the poisoned one. Ludovico takes the dagger and suddenly tries to stab Prospero but he has his sword ready and kills him. In his anger Prospero wants Gino killed too, but Francesca offers to give herself to him in exchange for Gino’s life.
Gino is dumped out of the castle and runs into the countryside and he meets the guy in the red hood and he tells him about his fears for Francesca. The strange man gives him tarot card and tells him it’s a sign representing man. Gino makes his way back to castle.
Juliana is undergoing the last ceremony to completely dedicate herself to Satan and she takes a drink from a goblet. She goes on a very bizarre trip when she finds herself on an altar and various priests come and stab her as a sacrifice, an Aztec then a druid, an Egyptian and finally an African. When the trip is over she fully believes she is married to Satan and wanders through the coloured rooms talking to the disembodied voice of Prospero who tell hers she’s not finished yet. She reaches the banqueting hall and is attacked and killed by the black bird? The other guests are arriving for the masquerade and one screams but Prospero tell them not to mourn because she just married a friend of his.
A handful of surviving villagers turn up at the gates of the castle pleading for sanctuary from the winter and the red death. Gino tries to convince them there’s no mercy here but they are desperate. Gino tries to take a small child away to safety but her father stops him. Gino leaves and then Prospero arrives and after patronising them for while he has them all shot except the child. Prospero rejoins the party showering them with precious stones and loathing them as they desperately scramble on the floor.
Gino and the red-hooded guy are in the castle on the battlements where he tells Gino to wait. The guards are dead of the red death. Gino turns away for a moment and the Red hooded guy is gone.
Hop Toad goes to Esmerelda and tells her she need not go to masquerade but to get to ready to leave the castle. Down in hall Hop Toad enters with Alfredo in costume and on a lead with Hop Toad whipping him like an out-of-control beast. He ties Alfredo up and ties him to a candelabrum and hoists him into the air. He soaks him brandy and sets him on fire in payback for Alfredo’s mistreatment of Esmerelda. Prospero is very amused and tells a servant to give Hop Toad two gold pieces as reward.
Then Prospero sees the hooded guy at the masquerade and chases after him to find out who disobeyed him and wore red. In the back room he catches up with him and talks to him and Prospero thinks he’s come from Satan. Prospero wants to see his face but the clock strikes one and the unmasking time has arrived. The figure leads the way out into the hall and declares it’s time for a new dance and everywhere he passes the guests are stricken with the red death and they all dance their last macabre dance.
Prospero boasts about how pleased Satan will be for this offering. He asks the figure to spare Francesca and the figure tells her to go to battlements. Once Francesca is gone the figure tells Prospero death has no master and Satan does not rule alone. People create their own heaven and hell but death answers to none of them. Prospero pulls off the figure’s mask and it has his own face.
Prospero tries to get away but the dancers all grab at him and everywhere he turn the red-hooded figure is there. The revellers all start dropping dead so Prospero hides in the black room but the figure’s waiting there. The figure asks Prospero why he’s afraid to when to die when his soul has been dead for a long time.
The film ends with red hooded guy playing tarot card with little girl from earlier. Then a bunch of hoodies wearing different colours turn up and they discuss their kills. Red trumps them because instead of saying how many he killed he just tells them that there were only six survivors.
This must be the horror film I’ve seen most often and I’ve grown up with it. Some of it is cheesy and dated like the bit where Juliana is tripping, but then Vincent Price starts talking again and it doesn’t matter.