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With few exceptions, the macabre stories of Edgar Allan Poe were rarely adapted for the screen until producer/director Roger Corman came along in 1960 with his trend-setting House of Usher. While Corman was primarily known as an exploitation filmmaker, churning out drive-in fare (It Conquered the Word, 1956, Teenage Doll, 1957, The Wasp Woman, 1960), House of Usher had a touch of class despite a low budget. The rich Gothic ambience, imaginative set design and Vincent Price's sinister presence earned the film surprisingly positive reviews. Best of all, it was a hit with younger audiences eager for a different type of horror film.
Corman would continue to mine Poe's stories for the screen with increasingly mixed results over the years but one of his most faithful adaptations of the author's work was The Masque of the Red Death (1964) which was actually a combination of the original short story as it appeared in Graham's Magazine in May 1842 and Poe's short story "Hop-frog, or the Eight Chained Orang-outangs." It takes place during the 12th century when a plague known as "The Red Death" was spreading across Europe, decimating the population. In the midst of this, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) has cloistered himself with a select group of aristocrats in his castle fortress where he worships Satan. To pass the time, they play decadent parlor games which usually involve the victimization and torture of some unfortunate peasants. Prospero's most recent act of cruelty involves forcing a local villager Francesca (Jane Asher) to choose between sparing the life of her father or her fiance. Meanwhile, a mysterious cloaked figure journeys toward Prospero's castle for a fateful meeting.
In The Films of Roger Corman by Ed Naha, the director admitted that The Masque of the Red Death "was the biggest and best-looking of the Poe films, the first film we ever did in England. We had a shooting schedule of five weeks which was, as you may realize, two weeks longer than our usual shooting schedule. I thought, 'Gosh, I'm really going to be able to spread myself out on this thing!" At that time, I didn't realize that English crews work much slower than American ones...Still, even a small amount of extra time allowed me to do a lot more stylistically with this production."
Shot at Elstree Studios on a sound stage adjacent to where Roger Moore was working on the TV series The Saint, The Masque of the Red Death also utilized some leftover sets from the historical drama Becket (1964) and the comedy Crooks in Cloisters (both released in 1964). Vincent Price, in his seventh film for Corman, proved why he was one of the director's most reliable stars. "Where Roger and I have worked well together has been in the fact that I am a terrible stickler for explanations," Price explained (in the biography Vincent Price Unmasked by James Robert Parish and Steven Whitney). "Why does a man do something? What should the audience know, see, feel or hear, to know what makes the character do something preposterous? In almost every case, the character I play is not a villain, not a monster; he is someone who is put upon by fate."
In the supporting role of Francesca, Jane Asher makes a very appealing heroine and would go on to distinguish herself as an actress in such films as Alfie (1966), Deep End (1971) and Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972). At the time, Asher was dating Paul McCartney of the Beatles and the pop group's huge hit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," was actually written by McCartney and John Lennon in the basement of Asher's family home. Other notable cast members include Hazel Court as Prospero's ill-fated mistress Juliana and Patrick Magee as the duke Alfredo who meets a grisly end at the hands of a dwarf he humiliated. Ms. Court was one of the great "scream queens" of British horror, making memorable appearances in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) and Dr. Blood's Coffin (1961). Magee was no stranger to the horror genre either and was appropriately sinister in Dementia 13 (1963), The Skull (1965) and The Fiend (1971). Most audiences though know him best as the unfortunate victim of ultraviolent hoodlums in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).
The Masque of the Red Death might be the most visually striking of all the Poe Corman adaptations due to Daniel Haller's evocative set design and the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg who would go on to become an acclaimed director (Walkabout, 1971, The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976). "We attempted to get a really stylized look on the film," Corman said in The Films of Roger Corman. "I had wanted to film this immediately after the House of Usher, but I avoided it because of the haunting figure of death. Death, in our film, is a mysterious cowled figure which, essentially, is the same representation made famous by Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal . I didn't want to be backed into the position of basing one of my movies on a 19th-century classic of literature and then be accused of copying a 1950s film from Scandinavia." Corman added, "We tried a variety of different techniques to give this movie a different texture from the rest of the Poe films. Aside from the elaborate sets, we choreographed the plague scene during the finale, where Death makes an unscheduled appearance at a masked ball. It gave the entire affair a surreal touch."
None of this was lost on the critics who almost unanimously praised the The Masque of the Red Death. The New York Times commented that Corman "has let his imagination run riot upon a mobile decor singular for its primary color scheme...astonishingly good" and Newsweek called it "a stylish excursion into demonology." Tom Milne in The Encyclopedia of Horror wrote that "Its most striking feature is that there is no sign of the hazily filtered colour effects which tactfully conceal decorative limitations in the American Poe films...More importantly, the film is graced by an uncommonly intelligent script which probes the concept of diabolism with considerable subtlety, even though the black-magic scenes (six minutes worth) were censored out before release."
Producer: Roger Corman, George Willoughby
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell, Edgar Allan Poe (story)
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Film Editing: Ann Chegwidden
Art Direction: Robert Jones
Music: David Lee
Cast: Vincent Price (Prospero), Hazel Court (Juliana), Jane Asher (Francesca), David Weston (Gino), Nigel Green (Ludovico), Patrick Magee (Alfredo).
by Jeff Stafford