By Stephanie Star Smith
October 29, 2002
Roger Corman, the King of the Bs, was - and still is - well-known in Hollywood for his ability to make interesting and watchable films on a shoestring budget that made tons of money. The majority of the films that Corman has produced and/or directed in his long career were second-feature and drive-in fare; they were made quickly and lasted only slightly longer in theaters than they took to make. Corman didn't make art films, but neither did he claim to, or even seem to want to; he made B pictures. A cut above the usual second-bill drivel, to be sure, but B pictures nonetheless.
In 1960, American International Pictures decided to give Corman more lavish budgets to produce a series of films based on the works of horror master Edgar Allen Poe. These films, starring Vincent Price, were stylish, opulent productions that were short on gore and long in suspense and psychological terror. The last film in the series, The Masque of the Red Death, was also its apex. Script, cast and production values all blended together to create the perfect blend of visual splendor and chills, evoking the spirit of Poe in the process.
Unlike some of the films in the Poe series, Masque hews fairly closely to the storyline of the original tale. Outside of the seemingly obligatory addition of a young-love subplot, the basic tale of corruption and hubris punished in a most grisly remains intact. Of course, Corman's scripters add some dashes of Satanism and class struggle to Poe's original recipe, and even mix in the plot of another Poe short story, Hoptoad, but rather than detract from the morality play at the crux of the tale, these embellishments add to Masque of the Red Death, making it a bit more complex film than might otherwise have resulted if the plot encompassed only the original tale.
But why should this almost-40-year-old film be of interest to modern audiences?
Well, one reason is to see how a big budget doesn't have to translate into waste. The title of Roger Corman's autobiography is How I Made 100 Films in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, and the veteran producer demonstrates in the Poe series, and especially in Masque, that having more money didn't deter him from creating tight, well-made pieces of entertainment. The production values are higher, to be sure, as is the star level of many of the cast, but there's no bloat to the picture; everything that happens on-screen either propels the plot or defines the characters, and sometimes both. Michael Bay and James Cameron could take a few lessons here.
There's also the opportunity to see a great actor and horror legend at the height of his powers. Although Vincent Price made films and television appearances until very nearly his death, one could argue that he was at his zenith in the '60s and '70s; certainly many of his most memorable performances came during this time, and his Prince Prospero is a sterling example. Part charmer, part sadist, with a cavalier air towards the evil done by him and in his name, the audience is both repelled and fascinated by this thoroughly unpleasant man, and fells a twinge of sadness for the doomed prince even as it cheers him receiving his just desserts.
But perhaps the best reason to watch Masque of the Red Death is that it is an entertaining film. Not so scary that it would give any but the most timid nightmares, yet not so bland that the veteran horror fan will be bored, Masque of the Red Death is as beautiful to look at as it is subtle in its depiction of the shadows that can envelope the human soul, the redemptive quality of unselfish love, and the final peace that awaits us all.
"And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."
--Final line of Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death