Roger Corman has always gleefully presented himself as a hack who could make films on a low budget in a few days and generate lots of profit. Whereas I wouldn’t argue that he was an auteur in artistic terms, he’s certainly better than his reputation would suggest and, for what it’s worth, ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’ is his masterpiece.
Made in England in 1964, it was produced as another entry in Corman’s cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that had started in 1960. The chief characteristics of these films is garish colour, gothic horror, shock tactics and Vincent Price. ‘Masque’ has all of these elements but is also extremely sombre and arty, clearly bearing the influence of Ingmar Bergman, whose films Corman distributed in the US (although he says, of course, he picked up the rights for money, not for art).
The end result is a film that is like an extended dream sequence, set in a surreal, dark world stalked by disease and death. The films climactic moments, in which Prince Prospero (Price) is pursued by an unseen assailant through a series of colour coded rooms, is one of the most memorable moments in horror. The film’s anti-climactic moments, where the physical embodiment of The Red Death meets up with The White Death, Yellow Death, Blue Death, etc. would be haunting in a Bergman film: in a Corman film it’s extraordinary.