Apparently, American International Pictures’ The Masque of the Red Death has been available on the Criterion Channel for quite some time, and I am only now finding out because it’s scheduled to leave the streaming service on January 31. I simply couldn’t waste the opportunity to finally experience this cult classic.
Director Roger Corman has earned a well-deserved reputation for approaching budgets in the same way that children treat mozzarella sticks—stretching them as far as humanly possible, often across multiple projects simultaneously. Naturally, the quality of his films tends to suffer for his frugality; Attack of the Crab Monsters, for example, is perfectly enjoyable when graded on a curve, but few critics would argue that it is “objectively good” (whatever the hell that means). When he’s properly invested in his material, however, the “Prince of Pop Cinema” is capable of producing work of genuine artistic merit. Such is the case with this eerie, atmospheric Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. Corman spares absolutely no expense, proudly displaying every carefully pinched penny on screen: creeping dry ice fog, moody backlighting, gorgeously stylized matte paintings, elaborate period costumes, and lavish sets that don’t look as though they’d collapse if the actors accidentally leaned against them.
Of course, this beautiful scenery isn’t nearly durable enough to withstand the voracious appetite of the infamously hammy Vincent Price, who plays the gleefully nihilistic Prince Prospero to the hilt—leaving teeth marks on every couch, chandelier, and candelabra. It’s a testament to his immense talent that he manages to lend legitimate emotional weight to what might otherwise be a shallow, sleazy, exploitative spectacle. As in Poe’s original story, Prospero is an unrepentant fiend, hosting decadent feasts, balls, and parties while the peasants inhabiting the surrounding countryside freeze, starve, and succumb to plague; fortunately, Price flavors his performance with just enough pathos, humor, and humanity to make the character fascinating, rather than excessively repellent.
And yes, as the above plot synopsis implies, watching this movie in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic does indeed “hit different” (as the kids these days are fond of saying).