Friday, September 26, 2014

Ebola, Medieval-Style: Roger Corman's Masque of the Red Death

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.  



  1. I still haven't seen this movie - though I'm sure it's in my video vault. I think I'll make an effort to finally see it in its entirety during my all horror October viewing. (I did see bits and pieces of a television airing as a kid).

    Nicolas Roeg shot a movie here in the 80's - the little seen Track 29 with Gary Oldman. My makeup artist friend worked on it - the end result was not widely acclaimed, but Jeff was thrilled to work with Mr. Roeg, who he quite liked. I was not yet here in Wilmington NC then, so I did not work on that movie. I did work with two of Nicolas Roeg's sons - Waldo, and Sholto - on the George Lucas production Radioland Murders. Waldo was the first AD, and Sholto was a PA like me. I worked with Sholto again a few years later on a British TV series called CI5: The Professionals that was shooting American location episodes here. I liked both of them.

    I also have to shout out the late great Charles Beaumont - a truly fine writer who contributed many classic episode scripts to The Twilight Zone as well as many other projects.

    Having not yet seen the original - I certainly avoided that remake on the video store shelves - but I picked it up a time or two - whatever merits it might have had, it was certainly lacking a star with the onscreen presence of Vincent Price.

  2. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Craig. I must say that I actually once knew someone named Waldo, but Sholto is a new one for me.

  3. My wife and I were absolutely enthralled with "Masque" and want to thank you for choosing that for your presentation. Also, thanks for making the trek to Ridgecrest -- that's a weird weekend in itself, I'm sure -- with winds the speed of freight trains that knock semi-trucks over on the highways and temperatures that boil scorpions alive. I remember seeing "Masque" when I was much too young to appreciate it artistically -- along with all the great Hammer films, AIP, New World Pictures and the other low-budget programmers. My brothers and I especially liked the biker films, as adolescents and burgeoning rebels. I still know how to play the theme song from “The Wild Angels” on guitar! As I grew interested in cinema and knowledgeable about the technical aspects, I came to respect the way Corman and his peers could make low-budgets look so good on the screen. And in historical perspective, the casts and crews were astounding discoveries. Looking at movie budgets today, I am amazed at what was accomplished with so little. Thanks for the memories. -- Wade B Ward and Estelle Toby Goldstein, Ridgecrest, CA

  4. I really appreciate your enthusiasm, Wade, and special kudos to the talented Estelle! Thank goodness I didn't see any scorpions boiled alive in Ridgecrest, though this would have been a fitting edition to "Masque of the Red Death."