On Roger Corman’s groovy 1964 film of “Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death”
I’m directing a short play adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” for a short play festival at present. On Thursday night, my cast and I kicked off our rehearsal process by watching the 1964 Roger Corman-directed film version.
After which, I told them all to go read the original story.
Frankly, billing this as “Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death” is pretty misleading. In all fairness and honesty it should be called “Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death.” If you’re familiar with Corman, you know that he’s sometimes called the “King of the B-Movies.” The man specialized in low-budget films shot in a short period of time, and generally featuring a rarely-achieved level of campiness. Many of his works are worthy of a Mystery Science Theatre episode, and this one is no exception.
None of this means the film is not enjoyable. It absolutely is.
It’s just not Poe.
However, Mr. Corman appears to be a big Poe nerd. In his career, Corman directed a series of eight adaptations of Poe films – seven of which starred Mr. Vincent Price. So I’m sure he meant this movie with all the love and respect in the world. And it’s actually rather enjoyable if taken on it’s own merits.
As the original story doesn’t really contain enough to fill a 90 minute movie, changes had to be made.
The story revolves around Prince Prospero, a rich dude who decides to ward off the plague-like disease killing nearly everyone in the kingdom by locking himself in his castle with about a thousand other rich people and having a big party until the disease passes.
In Poe’s original story, Prince Prospero isn’t a nice guy. He’s flamboyant and an arrogant prick. Here, however, he’s all that – plus a Satanist! People were mad for Satan in their horror movies in the 60s, it appears.
As there really aren’t any other characters besides Prospero in the original story, making a film version obviously necessitated creating some. Prospero’s arm-candy is a woman named Juliana, who is ready to take the final step in giving herself fully over to Satanism in order to secure her place by Juliana’s side. Thank goodness for the character of Juliana, as well as for the actress given the role. I must take a second to commend Hazel Court for some of the finest scream-queen acting I have ever seen in any movie. She’s over the top, ridiculous, and a total scene-stealer. It’s a Patty Duke/”Valley of the Dolls”-worthy performance, particularly in her grand climactic scene. (Court also appears in the Corman/Price “The Raven,” which makes me want to watch that movie immediately.)
(The marvelous Ms. Court. Faye Dunaway-esque, dont you think?)
In order to provide a counterpoint to Prospero and the whole Satan thing, Corman created the character of poor peasant girl Francesa. Prospero snags her from a poor village and brings her to his castle to take part in the festivities. Whether he loves her or is just amused by her Christian piety is never really delved into, and isn’t really that important. She’s there to be the innocent in the middle of the crazy Satan carnage, and the good guy – so movie-goers don’t have to sympathize with the Satanist. Francesca is played by Jane Asher, who – though beautiful – is a rather one-dimensional actress. This is totally fine, for she’s required mainly to stand in gorgeous dresses and look puzzled. (Ms. Asher, per wikipedia, was also once engaged to Paul McCartney. Nice work if you can get it.)
(Check out the Medieval hairstyle on the lovely Ms. Asher, circa 1964.)
As for Mr. Vincent Price himself, he clearly relishes his role as the diabolical Prospero. He’s a wonderful onscreen presence, and fits so nicely into horror films it’s easy to understand why he’s such a legend. In a room full of people, your eyes automatically look for him, and he commands a screen like nobody’s business. That, my friends, is a movie star.
The 60s are present in nearly every frame of the movie, in the colors of the costumes as well as the hairstyles – particularly the women. I’m 99% sure that women in medieval times didn’t have the aid of Aqua-net to acheieve maximum height when ratting their hair.
Of course, I’m also pretty sure they didn’t have rooms decked out in day-glo-y yellow paint, too.
I’d like to think all the actors involved realized what movie they were making – an unintentionally campy and stylistically dated B-movie version of a Poe story.
Clever Corman also worked in a killer raven. It’s awesome.
Obviously, I enjoyed the movie. I’d tell you more, but I think the trailer can say everything else.
(Oh, and the film – along with a few other Corman/Price collaborations – streams free on Netflix. FYI.)