In plague-ravaged medieval Italy, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) invites his disgusting aristocratic friends to a lavish ball at his impregnable palace. The first of Roger Corman’s Vincent Price-Edgar Allan Poe Gothic horror films to be made in Britain, Masque breaks with the comedy of the previous entry (The Raven) to deliver a remarkable entertainment which is as much homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal as adaptation of Poe’s baroque fable. There’s a 1964 youth-appeal sub-plot about an innocent abducted girl (Jane Asher, looking very maidenly) and her revolutionary love interest (kids who grew up on these films would march against their governments), but the film is more interested in the corrupt luxury of a doomed ancient regime who throw a party while peasants suffer and die outside the walls.
Price twitches his moustache with elegant, weary cynicism as the diabolist whose misdeeds are always designed to teach a lesson and savours dialogue so ripe it’s on the point of rotting. He also arches an eyebrow at lesser villains who miss the philosophical point of wickedness and display naked self-interest that earns them brutal deaths: Patrick Magee is dressed as an ape and burned alive by a dwarf jester (an import from Poe’s story ‘Hop-Frog’) while Hazel Court brands her swanny cleavage in tribute to Satan before being clawed by a falcon.
Finally, Death himself (John Westbrook) invades the palace and spreads a deadly contagion in a beautifully choreographed dance of horrors. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg is encouraged to add his own flourishes, including long tracks through a succession of differently coloured rooms (an image which Roeg restaged in The Man Who Fell to Earth), while the even shock effects have a daring sensuality. Toss aside that blurry pan ’n’ scan cassette, and fill a widescreen monitor with these ravishing visuals.