MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
The Apex of Roger Corman's Poe Films
Article by Steve Biodrowski
This film features Vincent Price (the Merchant of Menace) in one of his finest roles—as Prince Prospero. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, producer-director Roger Corman’s film mostly eschews shock tactics and formulaic suspense, instead emphasizing the moral aspect of horror, as the Devil-worshipping Prince tries to win over an innocent Christian (Jane Asher) to his satanic beliefs. Prospero’s efforts are interrupted, however, by the intrusion of a titular plague, embodied in the form of a red-cloaked reaper who intones philosophic aphorisms like `Each man creates his own Gods from within himself—his own Heaven, and his own Hell. ` In one of his best villainous performances, Price displays admirable restraint, avoiding the over-the-top ham that typified his horror roles at this time, instead putting his tongue-in-cheek style in the service of his bemused character (instead of using it as a sarcastic comment on the character), and the script is sophisticated in a way that few horror films are. Corman does the best work of his career, aided by the wonderful cinematography of Nicolas Roeg.
MASQUE is not only the pinnacle of Corman’s Poe films; it is also one of the best horror films ever made. Certainly, it was the director’s most ambitious horror effort up to that time, in terms of both productions values and content (although he approached similar heights later with TOMB OF LIGIEA and FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND). More than the previous Poe adaptations, MASQUE takes itself seriously, raising issues of faith, good and evil, the meaning of life, and humanity’s attitude toward the inevitability of death. In fact, had the film been shot in a foreign language and subtitled, it would probably still be playing art and revival houses today, a la Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (which RED DEATH resembles in several ways).
The British censors objected to (and removed) a hallucinatory scene in which Hazel Court’s character imagines a series of demonic figures attacking her while she lies on a slab—part of a Satanic ceremony in which she pledges herself to the Devil. “From the standpoint of nudity, there was nothing,” Corman pointed out. “I think she was nude under a diaphanous gown. She played the consummation with the devil, but it was essentially on her face; it was a pure acting exercise. Hazel fully clothed, all by herself, purely by acting incurred the wrath of the censor. It was a different age; they probably felt that was showing too much. Today, you could show that on six o’clock television, and nobody would worry.”
During filming, producer-director Corman met actress Jane Asher's famous boyfriend. "Jane and I had lunch every day at the studio." Corman recalled. "One day she said, ‘A friend of mine is coming through; he’s on his way to London on Friday. Is it all right if I bring him to the set and we have lunch together?’ I said, ‘Sure, who is he?’ She said, ‘He’s with a music group from Liverpool, and they’re going to be making their debut in London on Friday night.’ He came to the set, and she introduced me to Paul McCartney. I said, ‘Good to see you, Paul.’ We all had lunch together, and I wished him well, after lunch, on his debut in London that night!"
Hazel Court once recalled how her young co-star occupied herself in between takes: “I remember that Jane Asher was in love with Paul McCartney. She was sixteen. She was knitting [caps] because the Beatles were wearing them when they went out in public.”
The assassination of John F. Kennedy took place in Dallas, Texas, while the film was shooting in the London studio. "We had a couple minutes of silence for the funeral of Kennedy," Corman recalled.