The decision by AIP to relocate their series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations to the UK seemed to re-energise director Roger Corman who had already started to show signs of tiring of the series, resorting to lampoon in The Raven (1963) and trying, not altogether successfully, to swap Poe for Lovecraft in The Haunted Palace (1963). The infusion of much needed new blood from the then flourishing UK industry, as well as financial input from new production partners Anglo Amalgamated, seemed to spur Corman on, resulting in The Masque of the Red Death, the undoubted jewel in the AIP/Corman/Poe series.
In the twelfth century, the decadent and sadistic Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) is sheltering in his castle from the mysterious Red Death, a plague that is ravaging the countryside around him. Seemingly oblivious to the suffering the plague is causing, Prospero arranges for a lavish masked ball for his fellow nobles only to find that he has an uninvited guest – a mysterious figure in red who may well be Death itself.
Daniel Haller, given the free run of Elstree Studio’s extensive scene dock, excelled himself in the creation of Prospero’s lavish castle, giving the film a huge, almost epic feel that even the best of the rest of the cycle couldn’t match. The grandiose settings were filmed beautifully by a young Nicolas Roeg whose glorious, floating camerawork is quite simply breathtaking and the combined talents of Corman, Price, Haller and Roeg combine to particularly stunning effect in the film’s standout sequence, the eerie, hallucinogenic pursuit of the Red Death by Prospero through a series of colour-coded rooms.
Underpinning it all is a script by Charles Beaumont, re-worked in part by R. Wright Campbell, which not only adapts the title story but also quotes from Poe’s Hop-Frog and William Wilson. It’s an impressively dense and multi-layered script, nudging Price into one of his finest, most textured performances. It’s a brilliant turn, alternating between outright sadism and moments of touching vulnerability, expressing doubts about the morality of what he’s doing. The supporting cast rise to the occasion too, British and Irish voices like Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Nigel Green and Patrick Magee making a nice change from the not-always-convincing Transatlantic or even flat-out Californian twangs of the earlier films.
It’s not often that one feels compelled to single out Corman’s direction – there’s certainly something to the argument that he was more an expert marshaller of other people’s talents than he was a master of his own, but on this occasion there’s so much to praise that it would be seriously remiss not to note its effectiveness. The aforementioned chase scene, culminating in Prospero’s Phantom of the Opera-style unmasking of the Red Death (with a pay-off that would be echoed a few years later in Number Six’s reveal of Number One in the final episode of The Prisoner (1967-1968)) is remarkable but it’s just one of many such moments. The 360 degree stroll around a proselytizing Prospero is an unexpected pleasure, as is the staging of the climactic masque which overcomes the limitations of its restricted number of extras and the fact that time was running out for the production, forcing Corman to risk the wrath of the unions by secretly filming a rehearsal, to emerge as one of Corman’s most memorable moments.
The Masque of the Red Death had been a long time coming for Corman – he’d wanted to film it as far back as 1961 in the wake of The House of Usher, but AIP had constantly prevaricated, giving him other stories to work on instead. The wait was certainly worth it though, resulting in one of his finest movies and easily his best in the genre, The cloying atmosphere of sickly decay is unsettling in ways that few films of its time could be and the powerful, literate script gave Corman more meat to work with in much of his recent work.