Peasantry tortured by princes is a class struggle adapted often to film. Whether it is for humour in Monty Python and the Holy Grail or for lighter stylings in the drama category in The Adventures of Robin Hood and the darker, serious adaptations that would follow, it is utilised as a narrative crutch or an important talking point. For The Masque of the Red Death, it is there and enveloped in horror. Plagues and healthcare. They’re both the same, probably. For the work director Roger Corman puts in here, it is the benefit of working with Vincent Price that steers him clear of any real disaster. They are never far off. No horror film is too far from the edge, but that is where the best ideas ignite, as they do for The Masque of the Red Death.
Most of The Masque of the Red Death depends on that 1960s culture and the many great offerings of the horror genre at this time. A pandemic ridden plain and the field of screams that surround it are the putrid workings of this Alta Vista production. Mistaken audiences may be in inferring this is a Hammer offering, The Masque of the Red Death may feel similar in style to those Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-led classics, but there are a few variable differences. The set design feels a tad larger, with an almost theatrical display to the opening especially. Red-masked parables of death and the smog-ridden backdrop mark the more artistically and horrifying elements as something larger than life and ready to infect characters with those notes of tortured horror.
Corman can present that visually and narratively well. He is strong in those moments, but stronger still when his characters take centre stage. Price is a natural draw for the horror genre, and his A-Game is extraordinary here. The supporting cast does well to provide those slower, brooding punches for the horror genre. David Lee’s composition of this feature is a stark and demanding opportunity to give the visual scares that extra punch. Corman utilises that well and is up to the challenge of presenting the plague as an underlying issue for these characters, rather than an activity they take part in. They are all fighting against it and one another, and rightly so. Corman’s finest hour comes from his characters and their innate desire to grasp power and they couldn’t care less for the outcome of those around them.
That is the inherently great part of The Masque of the Red Death. Its ability to conjure up so many mean-spirited, sinister characters and play them off of one another is magnificent. Corman was insistent on adapting the work of Edgar Allen Poe, and at the very least, The Masque of the Red Death is an entertaining and fearful dive into the poet’s work. He and his cast do not squander this golden opportunity to strike fear in all the right places, with the dark heart of it all utilising the prose and peculiar nature of Poe’s work with exceptional results.