Price's Prospero is just great, and it's in many ways the definitive role for him. (Though actually, I could readily say that of many of his other roles coming to think of it.) He starts out as a cartoonish villain, proclaiming things like "Burn the village to the ground!" and is at his cattiest best when he tells a nobleman offering his wife as 'payment' to let them come into the castle that "I've already had that doubtful pleasure". But as the film goes on he gradually reveals, mainly to Francesca, something more of his inner jadedness and torment, and indeed an almost philosophical world-view. Juliana, his Lady Macbeth-ish wife, has much simpler motivations, throwing herself eagerly into the worship of Satan because she thinks it will bring her immortality and triumph over her competitors. But Prospero - for all that he is certainly petty and cruel at the same time - does it more because he is disillusioned with the world and the limitations of the Christian faith. It's a complexity which Price unveils and sustains in his unique fashion, as he did repeatedly throughout Corman's Poe adaptations. And, again as so often, we see it comprehensively deconstructed at the end of the film, when the Red Death appears and proclaims that he is simply death - not Satan or Satan's servant come to reward Prospero for his devotion.
But this is not just a great Price film. It's a great film with Price in it. His villainy would fall flat without the courtiers cruelly laughing along as his humiliates their fellows, Hop-Toad gets his fiery revenge on Alfredo (in the gorilla suit) for humiliating his wife, and Francesca's lover Gino and father Ludovico are forced to play poison dagger roulette in front of her. Visually, it's beautiful, from the howling wind and monochrome winter landscape outside the castle to the luxury within. I have a better appreciation now that I've read up a bit on Hammer's studio sets for how expensive and impressive the interior castle sets must have been at the time, with the way you can see across one huge room and through arch-ways into another, expanding away into the distance. And of course we all remember the striking coloured rooms with their details of Moorish window shapes, suitably coloured flowers and tableware. In the final, darkest room, as she approaches the altar for the ritual which she believes will make her Satan's bride, the lighting on Hazel Court is absolutely perfect, making her face and a plume of smoke from the incense stick she is carrying stand out just enough from the darkness. The hallucinogenic sacrifice scene which follows also makes good use of sound, creating an uncanny, out-of-body feel as we see but don't hear her screams, while a similar device is used to convey the impact of the Red Death in the final scenes as the bustle and music of the ball cedes to silence and slow, hypnotic motions as he passes by.
Talking Pictures quite deliberately broadcast this film now because the coronavirus pandemic gives it a new relevance, and I applaud the decision. Watching it with COVID eyes, we engaged in some discussion as the film went on about how the red death eventually gets into the castle, which neither us of could remember clearly. Was Francesca an asymptomatic carrier, so that Prospero was effectively punished for the lust that made him bring her inside? What about Gino and Ludovico, her lover and father, whom Prospero holds and visits in his dungeons? Who was touching or breathing on whom? But this isn't how the logic of the film works at all. Though on the surface the figure of the Red Death declares that he claims peasant and prince, worthy and dishonoured alike, in fact it is very much a morality tale, in which he enters into the castle to punish Prospero and his guests for their selfish cruelty, while allowing the innocent and good-hearted Francesca to escape. This is all too tempting a line to pursue in a drama, where it delivers the reassuring message that if we behave well enough, we too will be safe. But COVID has made us all perhaps more aware than ever that this sort of moral take on disease is no morality at all, since its logical conclusion is that the sick are to blame for their own suffering. That is a very harmful belief to transfer to real life.