The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Premise: An adaptation of the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. A European nobleman holds a masquerade while the threat of disease creeps toward the celebration.
What Works: Throughout the 1960s Roger Corman produced and directed a number of films based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe including The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tomb of Ligeia, and The Fall of the House of Usher. These films often took the premise of Poe’s work and then expanded it to create a feature length motion picture. This was done to mixed effect, usually deepening the themes, stories, and characters but other times simply padding the running time. These films were distinguished by production values that were impressive for the low budgets under which they were produced and for the contributions of actor Vincent Price who delivered some of his most memorable performances. These pictures remain the definitive film interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work and The Masque of the Red Death, although not distinctly different from Roger Corman’s other adaptations, represents the best of these pictures. To start, the film demonstrates a lot of cinematic craft. Some of Corman’s other Poe adaptations were very stagy productions with competent but mundane filmmaking techniques. The Masque of the Red Death shows a lot more flourishes in its style. The picture is shot very well, using interesting camera placement and it is very cinematic, at times achieving a look similar to Hollywood pictures of the time such as The Lion in Winter or Anne of the Thousand Days. The Masque of the Red Death is also a very well designed production. The locations look less like a movie set and much more natural and lived in, especially the outdoor scenes which have terrific gothic atmosphere, and the interiors have vivid color choices in settings, lighting, and costumes. This film also has a smart script that expands Edgar Allan Poe’s source material in ways that make it a more compelling story and elaborates on the themes of human arrogance and mortality found in Poe’s original material. At the center of the film is Vincent Price as Propsoro, a demented aristocrat whose diabolical ambitions and have allowed him to subvert the moral fortitude of everyone who enters his sphere of influence. Price is usually better as a tortured soul but in Masque of the Red Death the actor does some great work and the character is devious and cold and because of that his comeuppance is very satisfying. The smart script, effective filmmaking, and haunting performances make The Masque of the Red Death genuinely horrific and much of it still holds up. Unlike some contemporary horror filmmakers, this picture creates an atmosphere of dread and its insinuations of sexual deviancy are done with appropriate licentiousness but the film is able to be frightening and even disturbing with very little blood actually spilled on screen.
What Doesn’t: The Masque of the Red Death is one of the better examples in the trend of 1960s Victorian horror, but it is nevertheless a film of its time. The picture relies on horrific ideas and cinematic styles that are now very old-fashioned. The Masque of the Red Death holds up on its own merits but audience accustomed to the terrors of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw may not find it quite as frightening.
DVD extras: The MGM Midnite Movies edition is packaged with The Premature Burial and includes trailers and interviews with Roger Corman.
Bottom Line: The Masque of the Red Death is a terrific horror story and an effective adaptation of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most popular stories. Like a good haunted house, the film is compelling and horrific but it’s also a lot of fun.
Episode: #388 (May 13, 2012)