The Masque of the Red Death - Roger Corman does Edgar Allen Poe
More legendary filmmakers have graduated from the Roger Corman film school than possibly any esteemed university on the planet. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Corman saw immense success in his rapid-fire production approach - prioritizing low budgets, B-movie narratives and shooting schedules which often spanned only a few days- he is unquestionably the forefather of independent producers (with 418 producing credits to date). At a time where the studios were clinging to the rigidity of Old Hollywood, employing older and outdated filmmakers while keeping the door closed to young outsiders, Corman gave these aspiring kids their start in his production boot camp. Coppola, Scorsese, Nicholson and Bogdanovich, to name a few, made early features for “The Pope of Pop.” While the quality of the expedited films certainly varies, gems have emerged over time that have amassed a cult following. A great example of both the charm and inventive creativity of the Corman school can be seen in 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, directed by Corman himself.
Based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe,Masque sets its story over the haunting backdrop of a medieval Italian village decimated by a plague and terrorized by the sadistic Prince Prospero, played delightfully by Vincent Price in a comically-black performance only he could pull off. A good low-budget film incorporates its style into its cinematic reality rather overreaching and looking cheap as a result. In Masque, the exaggerated production design and expressionistic colors (shot by the legendary cinematography and director, Nicolas Roeg) create a heightened nightmare-world that feels more in line with dreams than it does a believable reality. In this, the film finds its success as it leans into its low-budget, larger than life qualities (Price’s performance certainly helps in this regard). From the old castle to the costumes to the illustriously sinister parties, Masquesimultaneously feels like a classic horror movie updated with modern sensibilities. It’s a riot.
Corman had previously directed an adaptation of Poe’s in House of Usher (1960) to great success and decided to follow it up with Masqueas he felt it was among the writer’s strongest works. Apparently, Corman legitimately struggled with going forward as he honestly thought people would think he was stealing from Ingmar Bergman’sThe Seventh Seal— needless to say, the two weren’t necessarily working in the same field. The script development was lengthy and Corman struggled with its development, even bringing in future Chinatownscreenwriter Robert Towne to work on it to no avail.
Finally, the film commenced shooting in England and photography lasted five weeks which, according to Corman, equated to four weeks in the US because British crews worked slower. One day, actress Jane Asher asked if a musician friend could visit the set for lunch and Corman agreed. The next day, he picked up a newspaper and saw the same man’s photo in it with an article discussing his concert’s success. His name was Paul McCartney. The crew also lucked out as the elaborate castle sets were actually leftovers from the film Becket, which happened to win the Academy Award for Production Design. Not a bad deal.
Upon release, the New York Times openly declared Masqueto be “vulgar, naive and highly amusing… On its level, it is astonishingly good.” Variety called Price “the perfect interpreter of the Poe character… succeeding creating an aura of terror.” Over the years, it has amassed a cult following with both Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright citing it as one of their favorite horror movies. It was not as successful as some of Corman’s other Poe adaptations which the director attributes to himself leaning too far into the realm of “artsy-fartsy.” If that’s the case, one wishes he would’ve done so more often as the film has a quality to it that truly feels cinematic— its world is distinct and alive in ways few horror films, or any film for that matter, achieve. It’s a party well worth attending.