The Masque of the Red Death is loosely adapted from two Edgar Allan Poe stories. In Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," prince Prospero sequesters himself in his abbey, and invites the nobles of the area to a masquerade ball, while they wait out the Red Death, a plague that is exterminating the local peasants. An uninvited stranger in a red shroud shows up, and when Prospero confronts him, he turns out to be the Red Death itself, and everybody dies. The second story, "Hop-Frog" is about a dwarf jester who takes revenge on the king and his cabinet by convincing them to dress as hairy apes for a masquerade ball, during which he sets them on fire and lets them burn.
Both stories are pretty bald indictments of the upper class, and this is represented strongly in the screenplay by Beaumont, but there's a lot of other stuff, too, because neither story is long enough to sustain a feature film.
In the movie, Prospero visits the village to harass his subjects, and upon discovering that the Red Death has claimed a victim, flees back to his castle with a beautiful and innocent peasant girl, Francesca. Prospero vows to corrupt her in the name of his lord, Satan, but she resists him. The jester Hop-Toad is introduced, along with his child bride, and during their dance for the court, she manages accidentally to offend the nobleman Alfredo. Then there's a lot of stuff about Prospero's wife pledging her allegiance to Satan, and Prospero torturing Francesca's father and lover (no, they're not the same person, it's just a badly-constructed sentence). Prospero holds a masquerade during which Hop-Toad burns Alfredo to death, and then the hooded stranger shows up.
It's a weird adaptation with a lot of unnecessary artistic flourishes that make it slightly too strange for a mainstream audience. There's a bit too much interpretive dance for my taste (you'd have to see it to understand), and the satanism subplot is completely superfluous (though I suppose they had to establish Prospero as evil, and simply making him rich and callous wasn't enough). Vincent Price is fiendishly well cast as Prospero, however, and you'll recognize Patrick Magee, who played Alfredo as That One Guy From A Clockwork Orange. Oh, and the guy who played Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts plays Francesca's father, but you probably don't know who he is. Point being, there's only one big name in the cast.
It's a better production than you'd expect from Corman, whose biggest talent was turning cheap movies into moneymakers. He made a few Poe adaptations through the sixties, and they're all good looking period pieces. I think A.I.P. was trying to cash in on the success of similar films being made in Britain by Hammer. The Corman Poe pictures tend to deviate heavily from the source material, though, because as I mentioned, there's simply not enough plot in most of it to make a decent movie (consider Corman's version of The Raven, in which ordinary people are stuck in the middle of a feud between sorcerers). Anyway, Corman has done a nice job on a small budget here, making this film look like a bigger deal than it is.
The writer, Charles Beaumont, collaborated at least once more with Corman, on The Haunted Palace, which is named after a poem by Poe, but is actually a fairly faithful retelling of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, and is worth checking out. Beaumont is more famous, however, for writing several episodes of The Twilight Zone, along with a number of movies, including a parody called Queen of Outer Space, which in turn was parodied in the titular segments of Amazon Women on the Moon. Beaumont tends to get a lot of well-deserved respect from people like Richard Matheson (who wrote I Am Legend, among other things), Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Those are impressive endorsements.
The music by David Lee is pretty great, too, in case you were wondering.
All in all, I recommend The Masque of the Red Death, but not as highly as I'd like to. I've seen it before, and it's not as good as I remembered it. It's just a couple of minutes shy of an hour and a half and I think you could get a better movie by cutting out several minutes of material. The visuals are occasionally very interesting, though, and that's worth at least a few points.
Here's the inappropriately whimsical trailer.