Masque of the Red Death (1964) – A Retrospective
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.
Behind The Scenes
Starting with HOUSE OF USHER in 1960, Corman had directed a series of Poe-inspired films, starring Price, for American International Pictures in the United States. When the film became a hit, a follow-up was soon requested: “I never intended to make a series of Edgar Allan Poe Pictures,” Corman explained. “I simply wanted to make a film of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. When it did well, they asked me to do another. After HOUSE OF USHER, I had two choices: ‘Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘Masque of the Red Death,’ but I had seen Ingmar Bergman’s film THE SEVENTH SEAL, and the SEVENTH SEAL has some similarities to ‘Masque of the Red Death.’ I thought, ‘If I do MASQUE, they’ll say I copied it from Ingmar Bergman, although ‘Masque’ was written a hundred years earlier. So I chose ‘Pit and the Pendulum. ‘ I did that and a number of other pictures. After each one did well, they asked me to do another. I’d give them two choices, and each time, one would be ‘Masque of the Red Death,’ but we kept staying away from it until late in the cycle. Finally, I had run out of what I thought were the best Edgar Allan Poe stories, so I said, ‘I don’t care if they think I’m copying Ingmar Bergman; I’m going back to “Masque of the Red Death,” because I think that and “Usher” are really his two greatest stories.’
In 1963, Samuel Z Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, the heads of AIP, decided to move relocate production to England, where they had a deal with Anglo-Amalgamated, which had been distributing their films in Britain. The decision proved fortuitous for Corman: his previous Poe films (which also included THE PREMATURE BURIAL and TALES OF TERROR) had stretched their modest budgets in order to look relatively elaborate on screen; filming in England allowed him to stretch his budgets even further, thanks to the lower costs overseas.
The result was Corman’s most lavish production to date. “It really was a little bit bigger than what we had been doing and required more money and more time; therefore, it became a logical film to do as the first one in England, where we were going to be getting five weeks” to shoot the film, instead of the usual three.
Besides the longer schedule, filming in London also gave Corman access to existing sets and costumes. “We had been shooting these films on a fifteen-day schedule at a small studio on Melrose,” Corman explained. “We would generally take flats, the flat sections of the sets, and create sets for our pictures. The pictures gradually became bigger and bigger as we re-used flats from previous pictures. When we went to London to do MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, we walked into the scene dock, and we thought we were in heaven. We saw these great flats from BECKETT. Then I went over to the wardrobe department, to get this wonderful wardrobe. So you see a picture that didn’t really cost [much] more than TALES OF TERROR, but it looks much, much richer because of the great sets we were able to create.”
With its lavish-looking production values, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is one of the most beautiful horror films ever made. Production designer Daniel Haller did his most splendid job on the sets, retooling the existing flats to conform to Poe’s story (Haller had to share credit with an English designer to keep the local unions happy). English cinematographer Nicolas Roeg used lush color to contrast the form and look of the images with the horrifying content of what the images conveyed.
Comparing Roeg to Floyd Crosby, who had filmed the American Poe adaptaitons, Corman said, “Floyd Crosby did brilliant work, very quickly. It’s very easy for a cameraman to light a set quickly, and generally you will see the result—it’s not too good. It’s also comparatively easy—not as easy but almost—for a cameraman to do brilliant lighting if he has all day. On a fifteen-day schedule, Floyd was fast enough to give me all of the angles I needed but at the same time give me the quality I needed. Nicolas Roeg was a young cameraman in London, who later became a very good director. Nic I think was as talented as Floyd, but he was a little bit slower. The whole English crews worked a little slower. I’d say their twenty-five days [of shooting] was equivalent to eighteen-nineteen-twenty days of an American crew. To a certain extent, it was very pleasant. We’d start working, and suddenly we’d stop working at eleven in the morning for ‘elevenses’—tea and crumpets and so forth. Then we’d start working again and break for lunch, and then for tea in the afternoon. So it was a very leisurely pace. I’ve always thought of Nic Roeg and Floyd Crosby, along with Nestor Alemendros, as the three best [cinematographers].”
The script by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell effectively expands the four-page story to feature length, seamlessly interpolating another Poe story “Hop-Frog” as a sub-plot. (Prospero’s love of a jest also seems taken from this story.) Corman films the story with polished expertise, alternating his signature extended tracking shots and long takes (e.g., the camera performs a 360-degree pan while Prospero lectures his followers on the nature of terror) with carefully calibrated montage (when Prospero forces two protagonists into a life-or-death game, which only one will survive, the reactions shots of the guests enjoying the entertainment intercut with Prospero’s increasing dismay as neither victim betrays any sign of fear).
Among the visual highlights is the suite of rooms described in Poe’s story, each one a different color (blue, white, etc), the last one black with deep red light. In one typical Corman scene, the sound of chanting lures Francesca through the suite to the last room, where she finds Prospero prostrate on an altar (apparently in a drug induced stupor, as part of some black magic ritual). When Prospero suddenly awakens, the frightened girl runs out the way she came, through several rooms and corridors, until her path is blocked by a frightening masked figure. Similar scenes occur in several of Corman’s Poe films—part of the formula he applied to the horror genre, based on his understanding of Freudian symbolism.
The girl “must run down that corridor!” Corman explained with a laugh. ‘That is very symbolic and extremely important. To me, the corridor is, simply, a vagina. You must set up two things in the movement down the corridor; I think it is a child’s approach to sex, in which he knows there is something great and wonderful out there but that child has also been told by the parents, ‘That’s bad—don’t do that!’ So to recreate that feeling—because I think the sense of horror does have elements of sexuality within it—you go down the corridor, and the audience must be saying to the person—identifying with the person—‘Don’t take another step. Get out of there right now! Don’t open that door! At the same time, the audience must be saying, ‘Open the door. We must see what is behind that door!’ If you set that sequence up correctly, it never fails to generate an emotional response.”
Another advantage of filming in England was that the character actors filling the supporting roles were stronger than the aspiring stars who appeared in many of the previous Poe films. Hazel Court (previously seen in THE RAVEN) gives a fine portrait of evil jealousy as the woman vying for Prospero’s affections. Patrick Magee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) is a suitably sleazy member of Prospero’s throng. Asher manages to be quite appealing in the relatively thankless part of Francesca, and Nigel Green provides some gravity and strength as her father.
I was pretty much satisfied” with the cast, Corman said. “Vincent of course was the star, carried the picture. Hazel was excellent – a very good actress. And Patrick Magee was wonderful. I was particularly pleased with Jane Asher, who was only seventeen or eighteen years old at the time. It was her first or second film. She went on to a substantial career in England; I liked Jane very much.”
Of course, the real star remains Price. His Prince Prospero is an ambiguous and interesting character. A devil-worshipper capable of great cruelty, apparently an incarnation of supreme evil, he nevertheless exhibits shades of gray, being not only witty and sophisticated but also capable of a genuine depth of feeling for Asher’s young ingénue. This characterization has less to do with Poe than with the Gothic tradition in literature, wherein the villains by virtue of being far more full-blooded than the bland heroes, enlist most of the reader’s attention and sympathy. It is not so much that Prosper has a good side as that what motivates him toward evil is portrayed as a parallel with what motivates his innocent victim (Asher) toward good. In a key scene, he asks the hooded figure of Red Death to spared her life because Francesca “is the only person I’ve ever met whose faith rivaled my own.” (Price also makes a brief appearance as the face of Red Death, although another actors plays the role behind the mask and provides the voice.)
Price appreciated this ambiguous element of his horror roles: “One of the lectures I do tries to explain the role of the villain in the history of drama,” Price told Cinefantastique magazine. “He is the fellow who creates the suspense and conflict. You can’t have drama without suspense. You can’t have good without evil because there’s no conflict.”
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, as Corman predicted, 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.” Indeed, one suspects that the British censors were less disturbed by the barely discernable outlines of Court’s breasts than by her orgasmic expressions as demon after demon mimes “penetrating” her with a series of sharp, rather obviously phallic weapons.
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.
MGM has issued MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH on one of their “Midnight Movies” double-bill DVDs, packaged with Corman’s earlier THE PREMATURE BURIAL. MASQUE appears on Side One of the two-sided disc. The film is presented in a very nice widescreen transfer, with bright colors and sharp image (well, as sharp as can be expected, considering Corman’s penchant for gauzy filters, especially in Hazel Court’s hallucinatory sacrifice scene.) The soundtrack is available in English and French (mono), with options for English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The language tracks and subtitles are accessible through the DVD’s menu; after you have begun viewing, the Subtitle and Audio buttons on your remote control will not work.
Bonus features are limited to a theatrical trailer and an interview with Roger Corman. The trailer is not as sharp as the feature, but it is more well preserved than most trailers (which often look noticably dingy compared to the restored prints often scene on DVDs). Although widescreen, the aspect ratio is not quite right, cutting off the edges of some letters at the left and right of the screen.
The interview features Corman recounting a series of amusing anecdotes about his approach to the Poe films in general and the making of MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH in particular. The material will be familiar to fans (Corman recounts the censored sacrifice scene, Paul McCartney’s visit for lunch, the moment of silence for the death of President Kennedy), but the featurette is edited together very nicely, with lots of clips and still photos to illustrate the stories.
NOTE: This article copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski. Some of the material herein is derived and adapted from the cover story on Vincent Price that Steve Biodrowski co-authored with David Del Valle and Lawrence French for the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay be Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, based on “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Hop-Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Skip Martin.