Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations have long been popular, but people outside the film world might be surprised to learn that they have also been the subject of serious critical attention because of the imagination Corman and his collaborators brought to low-budget material. The Masque of the Red Death, one of the more elaborate and self-consciously literary of Corman’s productions, demonstrates many of the virtues—and weaknesses—of the director’s approach.
Combining Poe’s story with another, “Hop Frog,” Masque dramatizes the decadent goings-on at the court of Prince Prospero (Vincent Price). Insulated in a castle against a plague raging in the surrounding countryside, Prospero and his cronies presumably indulge in one degenerate activity after another. Presumably, because while Corman lays on Prospero’s indifference to the suffering of others with a trowel, just what is otherwise so evil about him is remarkably nebulous. (His Satanism, for example, barely figures in the action.) Some of that discretion no doubt results from censorship concerns and being explicit is not necessarily preferable, but one of the consequences is that the “decadence” amounts to little more than childishly sadistic gamesmanship punctuated by occasional violence.
Price certainly telegraphs Prospero’s cynicism and heartlessness, but that too is problematic. Central as he may have been to horror films, Price was not a very frightening actor nor even particularly convincing at being frightened. There is always an element of make-believe in his horror performances. He simply does not convince he is anyone other than Price, much less capable of real depravity. He is at his best in self-consciously comic variations on his persona in films like The Raven or Robert Fuest’s “Dr. Phibes” efforts, while Masque is determinedly serious.
The film comes closest to the deliriously horrific in an extended dream sequence when Prospero’s mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) mates with the Devil in a series of extravagantly violent couplings. You do not see all that much, and what little you do see does not make much sense, but outlandish costuming, David Lee’s pounding score, Nicholas Roeg’s camerawork and Court’s orgasmic contortions give the scene an intensity and frenzy that suggest where the rest of the film could have gone.
Ultimately, for all the invention in Corman’s Poe films you never forget you are watching a movie. The horror feels almost pasted on to the action rather than central to it. Blaming the failing on limited budgets is too easy since Hammer and other low-budget horror filmmakers have made the most outlandish scenarios compelling. The problem with Corman’s Poe films, enjoyable as they are, is the barely hidden American callowness that makes it feel we are watching jocks and cheerleaders playing at being naughty. (Masque was shot in England, but it is still ripe with adolescent prurience.) As a result, when Prospero intones about Evil and Horror, we are as likely to ask for the popcorn as to shiver in fear.