The Masque of the Red Death - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Shows Review

The Masque of the Red Death - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

Right, folks, time is short and I’ve got lots of fantastic score releases that I want to cover. So, to get the word out to those who need to know as quickly as possible, I’m going to give some of the more limited titles much shorter coverage than usual. The basics are already in place – if I’m covering it at all, then you know I’m recommending it. But let’s just have a look and a listen and see just why some of these scores are worth adding to your collection.

Spinning today …

We have David Lee’s baroque score for Roger Corman’s classic 1964 Poe adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death, which arrives as part of a severely limited 1000 copy run from Quartet Records.

Corman’s celebrated procession of garish, flamboyant Poe horrors all had marvellously brooding atmosphere, retina-seducing colour schemes and cinematography, an acute sense of paranoid evil and tremendously dark and moody scores. They helped give rise to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jane Asher and Hazel Court, and gave Vincent Price a tremendously successful and iconic roster of satanic, destiny-enslaved characters to play with. For AIP, Corman created the perfect answer to Hammer Films. Luxuriously photographed sets and lurid imagery, all shot through with a redolent and gothic sensibility, the like of which has never been equalled.      

Based upon Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, originally titled Mask of the Red Death, this was the gothic horror yarn that exploitation-king Corman had always wanted to make into a feature film, but had been forced to wait for studio confidence and the proper funding. There had been stage and television versions and even a very early cinematic adaptation in 1921, then again in 1923, but nothing had come close to the power, style and wit of this outrageous production that swelled with the dark and demented cultural psychosis of the cult crazes that swept in behind the Summer of Love. Corman had surrealism, Satanism and the machinations of Fate rolled into one burgeoning tale of the ruthless Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) who invites his followers, acolytes and chosen minions behind the supposed sanctity of his castle walls in order to evade the hellish plague that is ravaging the kingdom. Having turned his back upon God and Christianity, and become swathed in the Black Arts, he indulges himself and his smitten, disgraced flock in acts of depravity, and orgies of humiliation and blasphemy whilst pestilence rages outside his domain. Falling for Jane Asher’s purity as Francesca, he takes her prisoner, hoping to indoctrinate her in the sensual shadows of the dark side, but his former paramour, Juliana, in the form of the delectable and voluptuous Hazel Court, has other ideas. Jealousy, lust and false pride conspire to usurp this last living bastion as, during a fabulous masked ball – the Masque of the title – the Red Death, a fearsome figure cloaked in red gown and hood, stalks the castle rooms and halls and lays prophetic waste to all it encounters, bringing poetic ruination to Prospero and his debauched dreams of cheating mortality.

This was the glorious Pathecolor cousin to Ingmar Bergman’s classic fable, The Seventh Seal, and the two films make fabulous bedfellows.

Without a doubt, this was the zeitgeist of Corman’s gothic productions. The script from Charles Beaumont was deliberately arch and profoundly literate, both taboo-baiting and richly psychological. The photography from the great Nicholas Roeg (who would go on to direct The Man Who Fell To Earth and Don’t Look Now) was possibly the best that fantastic cinema of the 60’s had to offer, and the sumptuous sets that Daniel Haller allowed him to play with only added to the hallucinogenic and devilish ambience. The score from David Lee, in a departure from the usual composer Les Baxter, who had provided the moody music for The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven, Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror and the Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror, was deep, ominous and threatening, yet beautifully imbued with period resonance and the sort of ribald harlequin malevolence that eerily unhinges as much as it intoxicates. The film was decried in some quarters for not being as horrific as Corman’s earlier explorations into Poe-ville, yet was positively vilified in others – England, especially - for being dangerously satanic. Personally, I believe it is a genuine masterpiece of the macabre and a true one-off, despite being a visual influence upon the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Its score, like those for Corman’s other gothic celebrations, is rampant, aggressive and memorably potent.

Masque was David Lee’s most ambitious project by the time that Corman came to England to shoot the film, but the West End musician and songwriter rose to the challenge with considerable élan. With only three weeks to complete the score, he was privileged to be able to visit the set and to see scenes as they were being shot, and to meet the cast. This enabled him to get a distinct “feel” for the tone of the film and the infernal qualities that he would have to musically support.       

Four savage notes tend to announce the several themes that run through the film, startling in their clamorous immediacy at times, and greedy enough to trample across the orchestra with heartless determination. Yet, this strangely versatile motif, which works for both Prospero and the Red Death, can also be romantic, sentimental and magical, depending upon the context. But this is a powerful and threatening composition, make no mistake. The score is throaty with brass stingers, martial with drums and Holstian swagger as Prospero’s harsh dominion over the land is revealed with sadistic relish. Sensual strings tease and provoke as hidden rooms in the castle are explored, hinting at the thrill of seductive secrets being exposed. The baronial court is awarded japes of mischievously baroque orchestration. Lee was a jazz specialist, but he had a love for the impressionistic movements of Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky. This heavy and antagonistic sort of style is referenced frequently during Prospero’s final days of holding Death at bay outside his castle walls, with the ceremonial and the pastoral always surrounded by clouds of danger, deceit and pestilence.      

David Lee recalls that he didn’t actually utilise the musical styles and instrumentation of the times in which the tale is set, but rather brought into play the sound that audiences associated with that era via earlier movies and stage-plays. Thus, we hear mock-medieval melodies from fiddle, flute and harpsichord, plucked strings, English horn and woodwinds to help set the tone for this funky, psychedelic Dark Age of moral landslides and aristocratic evil. Tambourines shiver and shake. The xylophone creates a death-rattle. Pageantry is created and then torn asunder with clashing cymbals, thunderous percussion and howling brass. Lee takes great delight in perfecting lilting melodies and then ram-raiding them with orchestral squalls that shred the nerves. Asher’s alluring Francesca investigates the dark corners of the castle and Lee’s woodwinds tread nervously beside her. Dizzying strings spiral out of control as her lover, Gino (David Weston) and her father, Ludovico (the great Nigel Green), seek to escape Prospero’s dungeons and do battle with the castle guards. Bygone harmonies yearn to survive amidst the swollen tempest that Lee often unleashes. And, all the while, the four notes of a crimson Fate move ceaselessly throughout the score, beauty and horror striding, hiding and dancing side by side.

This is the fullest and most complete version of the score that we are ever likely to get. One reel of the original tapes is missing, presumed destroyed, but this slight omission of around eight minutes of music does not detract from the full-blooded and frequently overpowering momentum of Lee’s robust and demonstrative symphony. The sound quality is hardly stellar, but this still sounds reliably brash and bold, and is brimming with fearsome detail.

So let’s look at a couple of the pivotal elements that Lee provides for the film, and the demented scenes that they complement and empower.

Juliana’s notorious dream/hallucination-sequence demise is a black magic cavalcade of diabolical temptation, visceral intimidation and steamy, erotic intimidation. And how’s that for an evening’s entertainment, folks? As she swoons under a devilish spell of reverie, having drunk a ritual potion, various entities and fates are visited upon her. In the tour de force that is Witchcraft Lee is freed to unleash a chaotic suit of imposing dance rhythms culled from Corman’s blazing imagery. As she lies prone upon a sacrificial alter, Court’s demonic disciple is menaced with shrieking abandon by, first of all, a dagger-wielding Aztec warrior, then the austere imperialism of a Russian executioner, the primal dexterity of an Egyptian swordsman and, finally, to the accompaniment of a bravura tribal drum pounding feverishly a whirling, twirling African huntsman. Glimmering metal percussion, ethnic shakers and rattles, searing strings, trilling woodwinds, churning bass and rolling timpani -  all are fused into one roaring cacophony of hell-spawn rage by furiously shrieking brass lunges that catapult us into each new depravity. When it is over, you are forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief.

The sequence in which Patrick Magee’s lecherous, sadistic and potentially rebellious Alfredo is duped into donning an ape costume and “performing” for Prospero and his entourage by the vengeful dwarf, Hop Toad (called Hopfrog by Poe, and played by Vampire Circus’  Skip Martin) for having affronted the little dancing girl, Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw), is cheekily cartoonic – a lampooning of the soon-to-die nobleman that is all grinning circus-like farce for pizzicato and percussion. Underneath, though, you can sense the macabre jollity of this rope-led humiliation.

Wind-tossed clarinet and flute collide with surging strings against a clash of cymbals in The Falcon Training, brilliantly evoking the startling music of Bernard Herrmann. A frantic to-and-fro between keening violins and insistent woods recalls similar material in North By Northwest, but Lee is able to transform this into the dark percussive jeopardy of Prospero’s perpetual scheming. The dynamics of this triple-cue track are mesmerising and help it to tell a marvellous story of its own.   

And, of course, the story hinges upon the momentous, destiny-stabbing set-piece of the Masque, itself. Lee courts medieval standards once again, listing the colourful proceedings – we actually see the dress rehearsal, sans a raft of the intended extras, in the finished film because Corman ran out of time and money to shoot it in the large-scale fashion that he desired – with semi-refinement and a dark etiquette that cloaks the madness and fatalism at large. Prospero has pushed his luck too far and is tempting Fate, quite literally, with this celebration of truncated survival … and Death is in the house. As Prospero and his doomed revellers dance the night away, Lee constructs a ballad of the damned, marching his litany of decay and corruption through a remorseless carnival-cum-waltz, his robed protagonist spies another “guest” in similar garb, yet this one is wearing red – the colour of the plague, and the very hue that he, himself, has forbidden to be worn at the ball. Cunningly, Corman has already bedecked these halls with the red-heads of both Jane Asher and Hazel Court, implying all along that the seeds of Prospero’s destruction have long been sown, and his fate is unavoidable.

In The Masque Ball, Lee has us waltzing to a carefree, though joyously shallow melody that is positively Viennese in style and construction. Whirling and spinning with a brightness that seems somehow soulless, especially as the unwitting Alfredo, in his ape costume, is set ablaze, Lee’s music follows the Prince as he moves through the dancers in pursuit of the mystery guest in livid scarlet. He switches tone completely in the next track, Prospero and the Red Death, with deep bass drum and tambourine commencing a dirge that is struck up by oboe, flute and then strings. This vastly ominous march of the dead gains vigour with added instruments, but never deviates from its merciless pace, as Prospero, having confronted this unwanted stranger, now recoils in horror from each guest as they are consumed by the bloody plague. As their scarlet hands clutch at him, Francesca, the innocent and pure Christian girl, kisses him to show her pity for his corrupted soul, sealing his fate forever. Lee delivers a crescendo of timber-loosening power, and then mournful woods, high slicing strings and the sound of a bell toll out Death’s final statement.

This carnival of ripe chaos is followed with an Epilogue for chimes and a resounding clash of brass as the Red Death is joined by his comrades of differing colours. This cursed troupe then move off in their eternal soul-gathering quest to the accompaniment of an emphatic statement of the main theme, robustly signified by those hammering four notes. And theEnd Titles sequence provides a thrilling crescendo to these themes, echoing them with gusto and intensity.

This release comes with a lavish, illustrated 28-page booklet of notes on the film and the score from Daniel Schweiger and composer David Lee, himself.

This is heavy, anxious and spiritually exhausting stuff, through and through. Lee’s use of medieval ambience is unique, poised and naturally unnerving. He smothers the set-piece incidents that chart the downfall of the fiendish Prince and his followers with dark oppression and satanic lyricism. If you listen to his compositions you will hear some powerful motifs that strip away the innocence and the historical charm, and are benefitted from the sort of brazen orchestration that would have Beelzebub writhing about in raptures.

Full Track Listing

1. Prelude / The Old Woman and the Red Death (1:49)

2. Prince Prospero (2:30)

3. The Red Death / The Fire (2:26)

4. Francesca (1:09)

5. Prospero's Court (3:44)

6. Affront to Alfredo (0:43)

7. The Forbidden Room (0:49)

8. Night Castle (0:40)

9. The Falcon Training / Scarlatti / Francesca and Gino (2:33)

10. The Satan Mark / The Prison (5:44)

11. The Black Wood (0:46)

12. The Ape and the Dwarf (0:35)

13. Witchcraft (3:03)

14. Juliana's Death (0:53)

15. Gino and the Red Death (1:19)

16. The Masque Ball (2:33)

17. Prospero and the Red Death (6:45)

18. Epilogue and End Titles (3:07)      

It’s deep and dark. It’s rich and gothic. It’s anguished and overwrought ... it’s David Lee’s powerful score for Roger Corman’s 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s celebrated The Masque of the Red Death – and if you love the baroque and the macabre and the lustily decadent, then this excellent soundtrack has your name all over it … inscribed in sacrificial blood. Coming to us courtesy of Quartet’s limited edition CD release, this is a terrific and bravura example of the brash and atmospheric style that epitomised the lush and highly theatrical chillers of Corman’s critically lauded phase of illustrious period psycho-mania.

This is a vigorous presentation of the original mono masters, albeit with the slight and irrevocable omission of that lost reel, which doesn’t detract from the overall thematic flow of the score in any way.

A great release of a truly diabolical symphony, this new CD of the music for The Masque of the Red Death comes highly recommended. Better get your skates on, though, as copies are dropping quicker than plague victims.







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