The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa is of course tragic, and I’m glad the world is finally starting to take action. Ironically, I recently found myself giving a talk on Roger Corman’s plague movie, The Masque of the Red Death. To anyone experiencing the horrors of Ebola firsthand, Corman’s highly stylized adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story would doubtless seem insultingly trivial. For the rest of us, though, this 1964 film still packs a wallop.
This was vividly borne out when I spoke at the Weird Weekend, staged by the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert along with the Ridge Writers, East Sierra Branch of the California Writers Club. (Thanks again, guys!) True, the innuendos abounding in the movie’s trailer inspired guffaws and giggles. How else could one respond to the larger-than-life of image of a mustachioed Vincent Price, clad in medieval robes, in hot pursuit of an angelic young maiden? The deep-voiced narrator made sure we got the point: “Lavishly he plants his corrupting seeds of sin, spreading living terror that not even the unsullied can escape.”
But if the audience laughed during the trailer, they quickly quieted down once the movie itself got underway. To many critics then and now, this is Roger’s best-directed film, a serious and rather stunning depiction of good and evil, and of the power of death to level mankind. Upon Masque’s first release, the New York Times critic wrote an uncharacteristically admiring review: “The film is vulgar, naïve, and highly amusing, and it is played with gusto by Mr. Price, Hazel Court, and Jane Asher. As for Mr. Corman, he has let his imagination run riot . . . The result may be loud, but it looks like a real movie. On its level, it is astonishingly good.”
One reason this particular entry in Corman’s Poe cycle seems so handsome is that, thanks to a lucrative deal made by Roger’s AIP bosses, it was shot at England’s historic Elstree Studio. The fact that Elstree’s scene dock was full of splendid sets from classic films like Becket helped stretch AIP’s $200,000 investment. Roger also had the services of a brilliant young British cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to direct such major art films as Don’t Look Now. Roeg’s dramatically lit color images of Prince Prospero’s castle chambers, where carousing nobles are walled off from the spreading contagion outside, luridly transmit the spirit of Poe’s original story. Roger and his screenwriters, Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, also chose to pay homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with its eerie representation of a hooded Death figure moving quietly among the populace.
In 1989, Corman decided to re-make The Masque of the Red Death for his Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, with an up-and-coming young writer-director named Larry Brand at the helm. As Roger’s story editor, I was surprised that he’d choose to redo perhaps his most famous directorial effort. But Roger Corman is far too pragmatic to be sentimental about his own past achievements. Larry himself later put it to me this way: “Remakes were free, he didn’t have to pay anybody for the rights . . . he had a castle lying around.”
This time Cormanites didn’t need to travel to England, because there was a castle set in place at Roger’s tumbledown Venice, California studio. The new film also differed from the old one in that on-screen female nudity was now expected. Of course it couldn’t be totally gratuitous. In Brand’s script, the court noblemen demand that peasant girls strip for their amusement. It’s a grotesque scene, though a thematically sound one. But more about that some other time.