It’s a tricky task to find a B-side film from Roger Corman, because they’re all kind of B-sides, aren’t they? And I don’t mean that as a dig. The guy’s body of work is a tribute to the phrase “quantity over quality,” with over 50 director credits and more than 400 producer credits (!) to his name. With this kind of output, Corman has become more known for his body of work as a whole than for any one movie. With that in mind, I felt like I had the pick of the litter this go-around, so I went with Corman’s penultimate film from his series of Edgar Alan Poe adaptations, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death.
I consider this a little Christmas present to myself, as Masque is my favorite of Poe’s short stories, and Corman’s film adaptation has a vibrant color scheme reminiscent of a beautifully wrapped package. But is the present inside worthwhile? After all, Corman is attempting to adapt one of the shorter and simpler of Poe’s tales (which is particularly noteworthy considering Poe’s propensity for being a tad long-winded). In the short story, Prince Prospero hosts a decadent dance in his palace as a means to protect him and his court from a vile disease called the Red Death. While it’s short, it’s incredibly potent, as Poe distills the tale with a sense of isolation and impending doom.
But how does one take that premise and turn it into a feature-length movie? As it turns out, screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell had similar concerns. They pulled out all the stops to supplement the source material and turn it into a feature, incorporating elements of other stories to build subplots (including another Poe short story called “Hop-Frog”). But to really put some meat on the film’s bones, they incorporated the Lord of Flies himself, none other than Satan.
While Satan doesn’t make a personal appearance, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is in fact a card-carrying Satanist, keeping the villagers on his land and the (admittedly awful) followers in his court under his thumb lest he let them die of the impending Red Death. Caught up in the whole affair is Francesca (Jane Asher), a pious peasant girl taken from her village by Prospero after she intervenes to save the lives of her father, Ludovico (Nigel Green) and beau, Gino (David Weston). As she spends time in Prospero’s castle, we’re left to wonder if Prospero’s claims of tough love and harsh lessons are enough to sway her to his line of malevolent thinking. The answer, of course, is no, but the journey is still a lot of fun!
Masque feels more like a big-budget play than a low-budget movie. Everything about it is loud and melodramatic, as if to ensure the people in the cheap seats don’t miss anything. The set design is particularly gorgeous, as the crew shot most of the film in England to leverage some tax write-offs and the leftover structures from the set of Becket. As production designer, Daniel Haller does a bang-up job, particularly in the design for the color-themed rooms that play a key role in Poe’s story. The bulk of Poe’s tale is spent describing each of the six rooms, and while budget restrictions for the film appear to have lead to a reduction from six rooms to three, Haller puts them to terrific use. Every single item in each room is colored identically, producing a beautiful yet unsettling effect. Then, of course, there is the final room, which both in the story and in the film is pitch black, save for one crimson, backlit window that that seems tailor-made for the satanic elements of the film.
Corman pairs these vibrant set designs with some equally dynamic performances. Of course, Vincent Price is at his Vincent Price-iest, letting every bit of dialogue ooze through a sneer that is equal parts malice and charm. Jane Asher holds her own as his foil, a woman who wants to keep her faith, but who may be just a bit intrigued by Prospero’s philosophy even as she’s appalled by his cruelty. And David Weston is fun to watch as Gino, who seems more of a good guy caricature compared to Price’s smarmy antihero.
But what purpose, if any, do these melodramatic sets and performances serve? Well, in one sense, and not surprisingly given this is a Corman picture, they really don’t amount to much beyond a low-budget knockoff of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. But I dare say, Corman does at least tiptoe around some interesting discussions about Satanism’s relationship to Christianity. Price’s Prospero, for example, is Evil™ as he smiles gleefully at the death and chaos he creates. But there’s also an element of weariness in his performance as he bemoans a God that would allow for the death and misery that run rampant.
Sure, he knows he’s a bad guy, but he genuinely believes he’s made the right choice given the circumstances. And while it’s not particularly surprising to find him abandoned by the Dark Lord at the end of the film, it should be noted that God is nowhere to be found, either. Only the Red Death makes his presence known, explaining to Prospero that heaven and hell are whatever we make of them before taking him and his entire court.
Could The Masque of the Red Death be an exploration of religious skepticism, mirroring the fears of a culture only two short years before TIME magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” Is it questioning blind acceptance of the Christian God and rejection of Satan? Have I been reading too many articles on the role of Satanic Panic? All of these are quite possible, but whatever statement Corman is trying to make (or not), he does so in a gleefully over-the-top manner.