The first time I saw Alec Guinness in something, I went through a disconnect; he’d been so cemented in my head as “Obi-Wan Kenobi” that seeing him in something else threw me a little. Seeing Vincent Price in this film had a similar effect, albeit for a campier reason: as soon as I heard his voice, I expected him to intone, “Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand….” To be fair, it was Price’s work in films like this that lead to his to cameo in the song “Thriller” in the first place.
This film is indeed based on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story about a medieval Italian nobleman (“Prince Prospero”, the role played by Price) attempting to hide from a plague by shutting himself and several friends up in his castle, distracting them with a wild party. Director Roger Corman, apparently a huge Poe fan, had already adapted The Fall of The House Of Usher a couple years previously, and had already resolved to follow it up with this, his other favorite Poe story. But he was especially intrigued by a script from Charles Beaumont, a frequent Twilight Zone screenwriter. Beaumont made Prospero a Satanist in his draft, which suited Corman’s quick-and-dirty Grand Guignol camp style perfectly, as well as giving Corman an excuse to work in the plot from another lesser-known Poe story called “Hop-Frog”.
It also provided an excuse for some cheesecake – mainly in the form of Jane Asher as “Francesca”, a poor peasant lass who catches the eye of the evil Prospero and inspires him to corrupt her innocent Christian soul. Asher is…okay as Francesca, but unfortunately doesn’t really have much to do aside from look pretty in a gown and occasional react to how eeeeeeevil Price is. Prospero’s former mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) has a bit more to do – she was Prospero’s previous student, but has taken to Satanism with much enthusiasm and gets two scenes with “rituals” meant to cement her allegiance to Lucifer. Juliana’s role is a bit meatier – and, simultaneously, a bit cheesier, as these Satanic rituals usually involve her being in low-cut dresses for some reason.
I realize that last comment makes this sound corny as all hell. And it is. But – it is corny as all hell in a way that I like. Corman, Price, Asher and Court all know that they’re not making a film that is in any way realistic – and they don’t care, they’re having too much fun with the hammy dialogue and the eerie music and the eye-popping visuals (some lifted direct from Poe). The film is corny, but it embraces that corniness and has a blast with it.