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.