While the British Hammer studio mined European gothic staples in its horror cinema revolution, their American counterpart, albeit one less blood-soaked, could be found in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman. The Masque of the Red Death is one such example, presenting Poe’s piece of the same name, while also incorporating other short stories as subplots. The content of those shorts doesn’t allow for the most elaborate story structure, but the narrative framework of the film, still perfectly decent and concise, matters little as this is a film chiefly about atmosphere and macabre visuals, the latter coming from future director Nicolas Roeg’s marvelous cinematography.
The film is set in this traditional gothic castle, acting as a fortress from the “red death” plague, but Corman employs brightly coloured sets and tinted lights of a beautiful kind of artificiality, almost feeling like a precursor to the production design of Dario Argento’s Suspiria from the following decade. In a similar fashion, the design work is also prone to overwhelming its key players in scenes, such as Jane Asher’s devout heroine, effectively kidnapped by Vincent Price’s Satanist prince whose wickedness is fuelled by philosophical interests, or Hazel Court’s jealous consort, left to an unceremonious fate in the castle’s ballroom.
One suspects Argento may not have been the only one taken with Masque’s interiors. Some of the striking wall shades and room arrangements of Seijun Suzuki’s eccentric 1966 gangster picture Tokyo Drifter, as well as the accompanying camera movements, feel like they could have been directly inspired by Corman’s film. ‘Inspiring’ is the key word with The Masque of the Red Death; it is not a frightening horror film but it is a hugely entertaining slice of depravity, with ideas and artistic choices that seep into the brain and linger.
Especially powerful is the film’s final act, in which an avatar for Death invades the castle and spreads the titular virus amongst the rich who have sheltered themselves while the poor suffer beyond the walls. The contagion is spread in a striking, beautifully choreographed dance, both haunting and strangely sensual. This mythical avatar is also present in the very final scene, in which it congregates with similarly brightly-coloured comrades, and marches with them into an apparent apocalypse that they have wrought through disease. It feels like the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal re-imagined as an American B-movie. It’s also brilliant.