From John–“Is this Roger Corman’s best film? Possibly. I gave this one to Jacob Hall because it’s still fresh on my mind after seeing it a few months ago on Netflix. MASQUE is genuinely perverse, sinister, and colorful, and stands out as the richest of Corman’s cheapies, a little closer in tone to Hammer Films than American International Pictures was typically known for. Time has sort of unfairly lumped it in with all of Corman’s Poe films; I think it stands out as a great horror film. My hope is that Jacob will think so too.”
Did you know that Roger Corman could actually direct? I’m not talking about a some unintentionally funny B-movie piece of junk, I’m talking about an intentionally interesting, creepy B-movie slice of awesome. The Corman name may be synonymous with schlock — and let’s face it, the man deserves it, mainly because he produced a whole bunch of worthless junk because it made him a whole bunch of money — but when he actually got behind the camera and had a decent script in his hand, he was capable of producing some damn fine schlock, schlock so good that it stops being schlock and starts being, I dunno, good schlock. His The Wasp Woman is one of the more character-driven “human becomes a monster” B-movies of the 1950s and his X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes is a legitimately fascinating science fiction film. Better than both of those is his adaptation of a classic Edgar Allan Poe story, The Masque of the Red Death, which manages to effectively Hollywood-ize the original story (Poe’s work is so internal that you’ve got to take some liberties) while capturing what makes the story work in the first place.
The script, co-written by Twilight Zone veteran Charles Beaumont (whose specialty was the particularly gruesome episodes), keeps the basics intact: Prospero (Vincent Price) is a powerful and cruel nobleman, who rules over his lands with a harvest-stealing, Satan-worshiping, soul-crushing, debauchery-loving, peasant-fucking fist. When he discovers that the nearby town is ground zero for an outbreak of the “red death,” he closes his gates in voluntary quarantine and, along with several dozen equally wealthy and debauched guests, proceeds to feast and drink and be merry and do all of the things sadistic medieval folk tend to do, like force prisoners to play parlor games that end in one participant’s death. It’s all very cruel and it’s all very nasty and there’s a romantic subplot involving a smokin’ hot redhead, but that thankfully takes the backseat to Price, one of those actors who manages to effortlessly live up to his reputation as one of the greatest genre actors of all time.
Price was a gift to directors like Roger Corman and William Castle, able to step into low-budget B-pictures and craft characters who carried genuine weight. Put Price in front of a cardboard wall, hand him a fishing pole that can control a skeleton and watch him not bat an eye: he knows exactly what kind of film he’s in and manages to find the perfect pitch, taking everything that happens completely seriously but elevating his performance to a level that can’t help but ooze a little self-awareness. They don’t make actors like this anymore, folks. There will never be another Vincent Price and his Prospero may be one of his greatest roles.
Is The Masque of the Red Death a B-movie? Technically, yes. This is not a prestige film by any means. It’s cheap and it’s gross and it’s definitely playing the cheap seats, the people who want blood and death and scares and cleavage. However, there is a craft on display here that you don’t see in most B-movies. This is a filmmaker looking at what he has (a great story, a great actor and not a lot of money) and making the most of it. If Corman was anything, he was smart — give him a penny and he’ll find a way to get five pennies worth of goods and/or services. He distracts us from the general phoniness of the sets by filling the frame with incredible colors and intricate costumes. The sheer beauty of this film cries for a Blu-ray release. The way Corman took the B-movie and elevated it, finding incredible stories that could be told within his meager budget so you never quite noticed the “B” in the movie, is worthy of study. Hell, Corman paved the way for the independent filmmaking boom of the 1980s. Did you hear that, Criterion? Get on the Corman train now. Thank you.
It would be incorrect to call Masque of the Red Death scary in a modern sense, nor is it particularly gory or even all that shocking (Prospero’s idea of debauchery involve people pretending to be animals, which pales after you’ve seen movies where people rape infants and eat shit), but it sure is creepy. It gets under your skin and lies there, forcing you to consider what you’re not seeing. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson this movie (and Corman) can teach us: if you can’t afford the monster, create the idea of a monster. A monster suit costs money and it’ll just disappoint audiences. But an idea? Well, good ideas are free…and they just keep on giving.