The string of Poe adap­ta­tions that Vincent Price did with Roger Corman have endured for a num­ber of rea­sons. They have strong scripts, impres­sive visu­al design, great casts, killer per­for­mances from Price and skill­ful direc­tion from Corman.

However, there is an ele­ment that is often over­looked that played an impor­tant role in their suc­cess: Corman took the non-com­e­dy entries in the series very seri­ous­ly, treat­ing them as if they were art­house fare. In inter­views, he fre­quent­ly makes ref­er­ence to the European film­mak­ing influ­ences and Freudian sym­bol­ism he applied to the­se films. He took those ele­ments to a peak in Masque Of The Red Death, which is essen­tial­ly a moody art­house film dis­guised as a hor­ror flick.

The script, penned by R. Wright Campbell and Charles Beaumont, com­bi­nes the tit­u­lar Poe sto­ry with ele­ments of “Hop Frog.” As the Red Death kills poor vil­lagers in the coun­tryside, the cru­el, Satan-wor­ship­ping Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) gath­ers a num­ber of noble­men for a cos­tume ball in his castle. He has cap­tured vil­lage girl Esmeralda (Jane Asher) because her faith in God intrigues him and he hopes to bring her to his way of think­ing. As Esmeralda tries to escape and Prospero goes about his immoral busi­ness, their con­flict forms a debate that can only be set­tled by the inter­ven­tion of the Red Death itself — and the answer it holds defies both their con­cep­tions of life and their san­i­ty.

Corman had orig­i­nal­ly want­ed to make Masque Of The Red Death as the fol­low-up to House Of Usher but held off for a few years because he feared it would be judged as being too close to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which was pop­u­lar in U.S. cin­e­mas around that time. Thankfully, Corman returned to the mate­ri­al and the result is an impres­sive mix­ture of both macabre and thought­ful sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Fans of the oth­er Poe/Corman chillers need not wor­ry that Masque Of The Red Death favors the intel­lec­tu­al over the hor­ri­fic: indeed, Corman is as con­scious of pac­ing and shocks as he ever was in this film. He laces the film with plen­ty of choice shocks and creepy set­pieces: high­lights include the first reveal of a Red Death vic­tim, a cru­el game that Prospero makes pris­on­ers play involv­ing a poi­soned dag­ger, a fal­con attack­ing one unlucky guest and the clos­ing meet­ing between Prospero and the Red Death. There’s at least one macabre event in every reel, usu­al­ly more, as the film’s debate between good and evil ris­es in inten­si­ty.

Masque Of The Red Death also ben­e­fits from stun­ning pro­duc­tion val­ues. The film was shot in the U.K. to stretch pro­duc­tion funds and they tru­ly got their money’s worth, result­ing in a pro­duc­tion that takes the usu­al­ly rich look of Corman’s Poe films to a new lev­el. The pro­duc­tion design team had access to pre­ex­ist­ing sets from Becket and wove them into a tru­ly impres­sive design for the castle, includ­ing a series of inter­lock­ing col­or-cod­ed cham­bers that would make Peter Greenaway envi­ous. Better yet, Corman had a young Nicolas Roeg as his cin­e­matog­ra­pher here and he gives the film a gor­geous look filled with vivid pri­ma­ry col­ors and sleek cam­era move­ment.

Producing in the U.K. also allowed for the use of some excel­lent English actors. Asher is impres­sive as the film’ belea­guered hero­ine, bring­ing the right emo­tion­al inten­si­ty to a des­per­ate char­ac­ter and hold­ing the screen with Price in their fre­quent dual sce­nes. There’s also a delight­ful­ly nasty turn from Patrick Magee as a con­tem­po­rary of Prospero’s who might even be more debauched than the Prince him­self. Skip Martin also impress­es in a sly per­for­mance as the film’s “Hop Frog” char­ac­ter and Hazel Court makes one of the sex­i­est dev­il wor­ship­pers you’ll ever see as Prospero’s main lady of the castle.

However, the ele­ment that dif­fer­en­ti­ates Masque Of The Red Death from the Corman Poe films that pre­ced­ed it is how it deals with reli­gion and the mean­ing of life. Beneath the scares and thrills, the film is essen­tial­ly an extend­ed debate between Prospero and Esmeralda over whether Satan or God rules this life. Prospero argues that a world full of cru­el­ty and suffering could only belong to Satan while Esmeralda argues that just as much good exists. The film offers its answer to this debate with the Red Death’s cli­mac­tic arrival — and with­out get­ting into spoil­ers, the point of view it express­es is tru­ly Bergman-esque in its exis­ten­tial­ism.

As a result, the film is heavy stuff for the hor­ror crowd, the­mat­i­cal­ly speak­ing, but it works well because of Corman’s atten­tion to craft and his abil­i­ty to bal­ance his art­sy aims with com­mer­cial hor­ror con­tent. One of the most impor­tant weapons in his arse­nal is Price, who gives one of his finest per­for­mances here. Prospero is as glee­ful­ly nasty as you would hope a Poe film vil­lain to be but he has a psy­chol­o­gy that informs his actions. Price charts all the tex­tures of the role beau­ti­ful­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly the con­flict­ed and com­plex feel­ings he has towards Esmeralda. In the process, he explores the gamut of human emo­tions: lust, love, cru­el­ty, kind­ness and fear are just a few of the col­ors in his emo­tion­al palet­te. He makes it all look easy — and it’s thrilling to watch him at work.

Simply put, Masque Of The Red Death is a tow­er­ing achieve­ment for both Corman and Price amongst their Poe col­lab­o­ra­tions: they deliv­ered a pow­er­ful hor­ror film and cre­at­ed an art­ful trea­tise on moral­i­ty and mor­tal­i­ty at the same time. Needless to say, it’s a must for any stu­dent of clas­sic hor­ror cin­e­ma.