Roger Corman is undoubtedly the king of B movies, renowned for films featuring cheap dialogue, titillating female characters and huge monsters. The cycle of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that he directed from 1960 to 1965 in tandem with star Vincent Price were the closest that Corman ever came to physical acclaim.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is the penultimate film in that series and the only film of Corman’s that features on the 1001. It is not surprising that he was able to create a film of such atmosphere and quality, because even when bringing to the screen his silliest visions, there was no doubting the quality of his craft. He also had an incredible eye for talent, helping to launch the careers of a whole range of film icons, Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson to name just two. Indeed Nicholas Roeg, who would go on to direct films such as Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), was the cinematographer on this film. The Masque of the Red Death is an adaptation of the Poe story of the same name. One of the most notable achievements of the film is that it is able to stay true to the spirit of what is a very short story, whilst making the necessary expansions to get it up to feature length. The film sees a plague sweeping across the land which forces Price’s prince to hole up in his castle with a bawdy bunch of friends for some partyin and Satan worship… as you do. Once there of course, many moody and atmospherically creepy happenings begin to take place.
Vincent Price is a really great actor. Yeah his range might have been a touch limited compared to some, but Price did his thing very well. And as the tyrannical Prince Prospero, Price is chewing the scenery left right and centre with aplomb here. It is lovely scenery too, because the design is perhaps the best thing about the film bucking the usually rather cheap standard of Corman films. Apparently the very cool castle set was inherited from another production which may help to explain some of this though. The castles and set dressings are fantastic as are the costumes that adorn the Red Death and his associates. Especially for the time, there are some pretty interesting moral things going on in the film. From Prospero’s continual assertions that “God is dead” to various deals with the devil and an intense sequence where a man in an ape suit is calculatingly burnt alive.
As a fan of Poe’s work, it is a treat to see it interpreted in a manner that is both so original and yet so adept at bringing to life the spirit that is in his writing. The Masque of the Red Death is also a perfect chance for Corman and Price to show their real quality as director and actor respectively. If you are a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, or of classic horror filmmaking, then you should definitely take a look at this one.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny