The king of the exploitation B-movie, Roger Corman is known for films such as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The Trip (1967) and even boasts of shooting one film in just two days and one night, Little Shop of Horrors (1960). A prolific filmmaker, he made over fifty films in sixteen years, often focusing on the latest fads and youth cults, from bikers to beatniks to hippies, mostly for the poverty row studio American International Pictures. Always fast to find an expanding market or newly popular genres, he even suggested to Martin Scorsese (whose career he helped launch, along with Francis Ford Coppola and an endless list of others) that Mean Streets (1973) should be a blaxploitation film, a gangster version of Shaft.
Following Hammer studios’ cheap but successful horror series, which started in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher), Corman produced and directed his own horror films, similarly shot in colour. Replacing Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker with Edgar Allen Poe he made seven films based on Poe stories between 1960 and 1964. The Masque of the Red Death is actually based on two, very loosely adapted, Poe stories. It was probably chosen for its gruesome title rather than for the story itself – a short three-page outline requiring much filling out. Prince Prospero and his courtiers are hiding out in his castle while the dreaded Red Death (Poe’s invention) ravages the countryside (and the peasants) before it visits the masquerade party in person. The film shows what the courtiers get up to while they are waiting and possibly, unlike Poe, why they deserve what’s coming to them. The second story, ‘Hop-Frog’, concerning a dwarf’s revenge, is more closely followed.
Like the Hammer films The Masque of the Red Death was filmed in the UK with a largely British cast (including Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend Jane Asher) and, of course, Vincent Price as Prince Prospero. It was shot over a leisurely (for Corman) five weeks and with one of his larger budgets. As always Corman stretched his resources as far as they would go. The only things that look cheap are the special effects and the plague make-up but that’s probably more due to it being made in 1964. It is a great-looking film shot in garish Pathécolor by Nicolas Roeg. The richly coloured costumes and huge elaborate castle sets (mostly borrowed from Becket (Peter Glenville, 1964) are shown off with the film’s many long-tracking shots. And the animated hand dealing tarots for the end titles is perhaps my favourite part. The heavy stylisation is perfectly matched by Vincent Price’s wonderfully hammy performance – spouting lines like, ‘the knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few’ as only he can. There are some great details such as the pendulum shaped like an executioner’s axe. However, despite a few jumps – Prince Prospero waking suddenly or a prisoner leering through the bars as strings suddenly screech – there is very little that’s frightening in the film. It is occasionally creepy: Esmeralda, the little dancer, is played by a child dubbed by an adult, which always seems disturbing to me.
As with all Corman films there are moments of shoddiness (the ‘invisible’ cuts as the Red Death waves his cloak over the camera) and high camp (the ridiculous dance of death) and even a great ‘trip’ sequence. But the main problem with the film is the story’s lack of focus – the padding overwhelming what little story there is. Much of the film is given to the antics of Prospero and his courtiers, whose idea of being decadent is dressing up and pretending to be animals, or to Prospero preaching Satanism to his peasant girl captive (Jane Asher). The Masque of the Red Death was remade as a two minute animation short in 2000 and this seems a more suitable length.
Roger Corman has made some great films on some tiny budgets (and some bad ones too) but despite having more time and money The Masque of the Red Death is not one of his very best. It lacks the black humour of A Bucket of Blood (and that film’s great parody of beatniks) and the cult appeal of The Wild Angels (1966) with its rock’n’roll proclamations (‘We want to be free, to do what we want to do’ etc).. Neither does it have the historical interest of The Trip (1967) or even the blatant ridiculousness of The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). With its embodiment of death roaming through a plague-ravaged land The Masque of the Red Death is often compared to The Seventh Seal, but even more so than Bergman’s film it is too silly to be taken seriously (and not silly enough to be fun).