The Masque of the Red Death: Roger Corman Talks Pandemics and Restoration

Roger Corman found a new delivery system for political messages with The Masque of the Red Death.

The Masque of the Red Death
Photo: AIP

During the 2020 lockdowns and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, people at home sought isolated comfort. News reports continued to count the number of dead while people in charge downplayed its seriousness or offered dubious advice on dealing with the disease. It certainly didn’t interrupt many golf games. As workers were furloughed from jobs, they binged. One of the movies at the top of the playlist was The Masque of the Red Death, Roger Corman’s 1964 low budget masterpiece.

It told the tale of a wealthy medieval prince in a country decimated by an epidemic. The satanic overlord, played by the legendary actor and horror icon Vincent Price, locks his gates to his god-fearing dominions while he and his friends party like it’s 1999.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is about 2,300 words. Corman’s adaptation, which has been fully restored and can now be seen in its lush, psychedelic splendor, padded it with more Poe to reach 90 minutes. The screenplay by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright merged the tale with Poe’s “Hop Frog,” along with elements of the short story “Torture by Hope” by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam.

The devilish revelries came deep into a filmmaking cycle that began with American International Pictures executives Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson asking their in-house director Roger Corman to make two black-and-white horror films at $100,000 each. At the time, Corman had been producing tightly budgeted horror, science fiction, and juvenile delinquency quickies. With this opportunity, he pitched one film based upon Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” saying it would move AIP to up in the motion picture world, as the studio was regarded as the maker of exploitation pictures.

Ad – content continues below

It was the first of a cycle of eight films. Poe is read in every high school and is part of America’s literary canon; Corman’s Poe cycle made the writer an international gothic horror fan favorite.

The Masque of The Red Death was the seventh in Corman’s series. The adaptation also stars Jane Asher (Alfie, Death At A Funeral), Hazel Court (The Premature Burial, The Raven), David Weston (Becket, The Red Baron), and Nigel Green (Jason And The Argonauts, Zulu).

The 4K restoration of the extended cut of The Masque Of The Red Death was done by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Additional funding came from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. The Masque of the Red Death opened the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear nightmare Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The fallout from an atomic war would result in a Red Death among survivors. Corman’s take on Poe was seen as a comment on the collateral damage of the Cold War, but it is a film which bridges generations of apocalyptic omens.

We spoke with Corman about the timeliness of his classic adaptation, as well as about stars Price and Asher, cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, and why Corman continues to find different delivery systems for message pictures.

Den of Geek: The last time we spoke, it was right before the inauguration. You had put Malcolm McDowell in funny hair and made him the president of the United Corporations of America. At the time, you said you hadn’t expected Trump to win. Today is the day after his (second) impeachment. Now that 2020 turned out to be a death race, did you expect him to be President Prospero?

Roger Corman: No. I assumed that [Joe] Biden was going to win. The polls all indicated that he was ahead. The polls have not always been correct, but in this case, they were so much in his favor, I assumed he was going to win.

Ad – content continues below

Was there a conscious effort to put out The Masque of Red Death during the COVID-19 crisis with him as president?

Yes. Masque of the Red Death, in the United States, was on one of the platform streaming services, and the ratings on it went way up during COVID, because it was so appropriate. It’s actually more pertinent today than when it was made, because we do have the equivalent of the Red Death pandemic that is killing people all over the world.

In Masque of the Red Death, Prince Prospero brings together his friends, aristocrats and so forth, and they hold themselves up in the castle, to prevent the Red Death from killing them. And we have a somewhat similar situation today.

For instance, Trump is very careful. He claimed that the coronavirus was overrated. As a matter of fact, he said there was no such thing as coronavirus; it was “a hoax” perpetrated by the Democrats to make him look bad. But at the same time he was saying that, he was holed up in the lighthouse, going up primarily only to play golf or to hold big rallies. People were not protected within the rallies, but he himself made a real point of staying away from the crowd, to be on the stage and let the crowd get together and kill themselves, which they did.

The Mar-a-Lago of Red Death.

The Masque of the Mar-a-Lago.

Ad – content continues below

Is it hard to keep a social distance when you’re squirming around on a floor like a worm?

It’s a little difficult, I would believe.

Vincent Price’s voice is beautiful in this movie. This is one of his most seductive parts. How quickly did he capture the character, from rehearsal to shooting?

He had the character pretty much set in mind when he came into it. Vincent always did a great deal of preparation. So what we would do [is] we would discuss the characters, just Vincent and me, before the rehearsals. He and I were in agreement on the character, and then he would bring that character to the rehearsals. We did not do a great deal of rehearsing because of the Screen Actors Guild rules. They charge you as if you are shooting when you rehearse.

Do you remember any notes you had to give him?

This is so long ago. It’s a little bit difficult to remember. But as I remember, I said, “The real key to Prospero’s character is that he believes God is dead.” And everything stems from that belief. That with the absence of God, he was free to do anything he wanted.

Ad – content continues below

Did he always talk like that, like when he was ordering a bagel?

It was pretty much his normal voice. He added a certain drama to [lines], but basically that was Vincent. He was a highly educated man and very intelligent, so he spoke very well. And we simply heightened that somewhat in the films.

The film suffered some major censorship from the Legion of Decency, and the package booklet points out there was church involvement. Did you ever wonder whether you might be going to hell?

No, that never occurred to me. I’m sort of a lapsed Catholic, and I don’t believe there is a hell.

Is Red Death a disease or a sin?

The Red Death is a disease. That’s one of the reasons that’s a plague. You could consider it to be the Black Death of the Middle Ages. It would be the equivalent of coronavirus today.

Ad – content continues below

In the booklet which comes with the DVD, it says that Father Miraliotta said the occult parts of the screenplay were “strung together gibberish” and “mumbo-jumbo Latin.” But did any of the satanic rituals have any validity?

No. We made up pretty much what we wanted. Actually, there were two writers, Chuck Beaumont and Bob Campbell, and I think it started with my discussions with Chuck.

How was Jane Asher to work with?

Jane Asher was wonderful to work with. She was a very young girl. She had worked on the stage. I think she was in the Young Shakespeare Group. And I don’t know if it was her first picture or not, but she was very good. She was an excellent actress and very good and easy to work with.

She was dating Paul McCartney when this was made, and her brother was a musician and a producer. Did you get to experience any Swinging London in-crowd during shooting?

A little bit. As a matter of fact, I can tell you a true story. Jane and I used to have lunch together in the studio commissary. And on a Thursday, she said a friend of hers was traveling through, on his way to London the next day. Would it be all right if he came and watched a shooting during the morning, and we could all have lunch together? And I said, “Sure, fine.”

Ad – content continues below

So, I got a director’s chair, sitting next to mine, during the shooting. And it was a nice, young guy, and we talked during the shooting. And I explained to him a little bit between shots how it all worked. And then we all, Jane and he, and I, had lunch together. And it all went very well. I said at the end of it, “Jane tells me you’re going to London. What are you going to be doing in London?”

He said, “Well, I’m with a singing group from Liverpool, and we’re going to be making our debut tomorrow night in London.” He was very cool. He knew that as an American, I didn’t know who The Beatles were or what he was. And as he left, I said, “Well, good luck, Paul, on your debut in London tomorrow night.”

And I remember he was very cool. He understood and he didn’t want to say, “Listen, buddy, we’re the number one group.” He just said, “Well, we’re a singing group.”

And then I saw the paper Sunday morning headlines, “Beatles conquer London.”

Did he ever come back to the set again?

No. But it was very funny. We were at an Academy Award party, which was I think the Vanity Fair party, which was a big thing, of people who were invited and so forth. We were at the Vanity Fair party, and I saw across the room Paul McCartney. And I said, “Oh, there’s Paul over there.”

Ad – content continues below

And my wife, Julie, said, “Let’s go over and talk to him.” And I said, “No. I had lunch with him 60 years or so ago. He isn’t going to remember some guy he had lunch with 60 years ago, and I don’t want to intrude.” because he was in a conversation.

And Julie said, “Well, I want to meet Paul McCartney.” So, she went over and talked to him, and he came over to see me. As he approached, he said, “Masque of the Red Death.” He knew exactly where we’d met.

I interviewed William Shatner a few months ago and I asked about The Intruder, a piece he’s still very proud of. What draws you to consistently infuse your works, in any genre, with at least social questioning?

I’ve always been on the left, liberal side of politics. The Intruder was a time when the desegregation of schools in the South started. The schools in the South had maintained separate schools for Blacks. They were separate, but equal. And the Supreme Court ruled they were separate, but they were not equal, which was correct. They were inferior, and schools had to be integrated rather than keeping them separate. And it caused tremendous rebellion in the South. Chuck Beaumont, who worked with me on a number of pictures, had written the book The Intruder about an agitator, a little bit like somewhere between Joe McCarthy and Trump, who comes in, talking about patriotism and being against integration.

And I bought that book, The Intruder, and made it with Bill Shatner. It was his first picture. He was a Broadway actor, and he just came to Hollywood, and he was wonderful to work with, and the picture got incredible reviews. I’m trying to think of one of them, which was really good. Oh, it said, “The Intruder is a major credit to the entire American film industry.” And it won a couple of awards at minor festivals nobody ever heard of, but it was the first picture I ever made that lost money.

You consistently do social commentary in your work. What brings you back to it?

Ad – content continues below

I stayed with it, but I tried to analyze why The Intruder got such wonderful reviews and such a great reaction, but the audience didn’t come to see it. And I thought, “I think I was too serious in this.” It was almost like delivering a message. And I remember years ago, some Hollywood producer said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” And I thought, “I broke that rule.” And I thought, “I forgot that motion pictures are really basically an entertainment.”

So, from there on in, I used motion pictures as an entertainment, but as a subtext, with whatever theme or thought I was interested in. But first and foremost, the audience came to see and got the entertainment they paid to see. And as a bonus, as it were, there was the subtext, which sometimes was so slender that people didn’t get it. But [some] people got it. That was fine with me.

The restoration is really beautiful. I’d like to ask about the look. Your translation of Poe’s colors. Nicolas Roeg was the cinematographer. What was that collaboration like?

It went very well. It was the first I had done in England, except for a Formula One racing picture, which was in England and a number of other places. And they showed me a work of a number of English cameramen, and I thought Nic was the best of the group. And the collaboration went very well. I thought he did really, a brilliant job of camera work.

Afterwards he became a director. I never knew, did I inspire him to be a director, or did he feel if Roger can do it, anybody can do it?

So, he didn’t actually go through the Corman school of directors. I know you never produced any of his films.

Ad – content continues below

I did not. He did it on his own.

You shot Masque on the set of Becket. What was different about having that as a cinematic playground, as opposed to shooting Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre?

It wasn’t really the set of Becket. What it is, Danny Heller, my art director, and I, always went to what was called a scene dock in studios where we’re going to work. The scene dock contained flats from previous pictures, just individual flats. Each of the pictures we shot in the United States, we were shooting at small rental studios, and the flats were not particularly impressive, but Danny would use them in the designs of sets.

When we did Masque of the Red Death, we found these magnificent flats from Becket. So they were not the sets, but we used those flats, and used them as an integral part of the sets.

Masque of Red Death was one of the first films that you had a longer shooting schedule. What was the first aspect of filmmaking that you noticed was affected by the extra time?

Well, two things. The English crews were very good. They were fully equal to the Hollywood crews, but they worked a little bit slower than the Hollywood crews. So I had a five-week schedule, whereas I had a three-week schedule in Hollywood. And I always thought I really had a four-week schedule, because we were working a little slowly.

Ad – content continues below

Also, when we’d show up to work at 11:00, we would stop for elevenses. And then we would stop for lunch. And then in the middle of the afternoon, we would stop for tea. And I remember mentioning, I’ve forgotten who the assistant director was, but I said, “We’re spending half the day eating here. We should be shooting.”

But he said, “Well, this is the way we do it.”

In 2009, you made the Joe Dante series, Splatter, and each episode was shot in a week based on audience votes. Was that reminiscent of your early days of shooting on the 10-day schedules?

No. By that time, when I first started, although I did shoot a number of films in five or six days, in one picture, The Little Shop of Horrors, in two days. But my general schedule was two weeks when we started. As we moved along, starting with The Fall of the House of Usher, the first of the Poe pictures, I had three-week schedules. And our standard schedule for everything at that time was three weeks, so it was shot on a three-week schedule.

Did you really edit Little Shop of Horrors during a lunch break?

No. I shot Little Shop of Horrors in two days with a little bit of night shooting. So I’d say maybe two-and-a-half days. What happened, I had an office at a small rental studio in Hollywood and I was having lunch with the head of the studio. And he mentioned they had just finished a fairly big, slightly bigger budget picture. It was still low budget, and they had this really good, big set of an office. And I said, “Can you leave that up for a little while?” And he said, “Sure. We’ll leave it up until somebody comes in and rents the stage. And we’ll tear it down and put up the new set.”

Ad – content continues below

So, after lunch, I went over and looked at it. And it was really a very good set, and I said [that] I was sort of experimenting with the concept of comedy and horror combined. And I thought, “It might be fun.”

I didn’t have a great deal of money at that time and nobody was going to back me with what I wanted to do. I thought, “I could shoot a picture here. And since almost everything is within this set, what I could do, I could shoot it in a couple of days, based upon this.”

Screen Actors Guild salary structure was such that if you hired a person for a day, he got more money than one-fifth of what the weekly structure was. So I thought what I’ll do is hire everybody for a week. We’ll rehearse Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, because everything is in this set. And with everything set up, we can come and shoot on two days, on Thursday and Friday, which is what we did. And the whole thing was done sort of as an experimental lark.

It was quite successful. They made a Broadway play out of it and one thing and another, and a musical. And one of the reasons I think it was so successful was that none of us were taking it seriously. We were taking it and just sort of fooling around and having fun. And I think that attitude helped the picture, because the crew had the same attitude, and the whole thing permeated the shooting.

I remember we started shooting Thursday morning at 8:00. And at 8:30, the assistant director announced we were hopelessly behind schedule.

What are your favorite genres to shoot, and are they the same ones as the ones you watch?

Ad – content continues below

Not particularly. I should watch more genre films to keep up with it. Actually, I watch a certain number, specifically to keep up and see what’s going on now. But I’m more inclined towards somewhat more serious films, and particularly foreign films, although I see fewer foreign films now than I did before. I don’t know why.

We were a production/distribution company, New World, which I founded in 1970, and we distributed for Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Volker Schlöndorff, François Truffaut, a number of others. And I was a great fan of those films and went out of my way to distribute them. I was very much interested in that type of film.

In your early films, were you watching Mario Bava to see what he was doing? And were you expanding on that?

Actually, I saw only one film by Mario Bava, who incidentally I think was a brilliant filmmaker. It was because Jim Nicholson, who was the head of American International, had seen the film and liked Barbara Steele in it. He suggested I see the film and possibly use Barbara Steele.

I saw that one film. I don’t remember the name of it, but I thought it was really excellent. And indeed, I did bring Barbara Steele over. I think it was The Pit and the Pendulum. She played the leading lady.

What did Poe bring to your storytelling that, say, Lovecraft’s adaptations didn’t provide?

Ad – content continues below

Well Poe, and this was part of my interpretation of Poe, I think Poe was working with the unconscious mind, from a writer’s standpoint, the same way that Freud, a little later in the same century, was working from a medical standpoint. I think the concept of the unconscious mind was starting to influence thinking in the 19th century, so I always thought that Poe represented the unconscious mind, and I shot according to that. It was one of my themes.

For instance, I felt the unconscious mind doesn’t really see the world. The conscious mind sees the world with eyes, ears, and so forth, and simply transmits information. So I made a point on all of the Poe films of never going outside unless I absolutely had to do it. I wanted to have full control, to shoot within the studio. Whether it came through to the audience, I don’t know. But at least in my own mind, I was able to deal with special effects with a number of things, with the concept of the unconscious mind.

When I did go outside, I tried to make it something that was not normal. For instance, on the very first picture, The Fall of the House of Usher, the only exterior sequence is when a man, played by Mark Damon, rides through a forest on his way to the House of Usher. And before we were shooting, there was a forest fire in the Hollywood Hills. I saw a picture of it in the Los Angeles Times, and all of the trees were burned. Everything was covered with ash, and I immediately put together, I think, a three or four-man crew. And we were up there in the Hollywood, burnt out hills, showing Mark on his horse, riding through that exterior.

I also used the ocean, a number of times. I feel that essentially, we came out of the ocean, and I felt somehow there is something fascinating about the ocean, even today.

Hazel Court’s invocation sequence is exquisite. When you were putting it together, were you having fun experimenting, trying to capture the unconscious mind?

Yes, it was all of the above. It dealt with the unconscious. We were experimenting, and I was having a lot of fun. I give a lot of credit to Danny Heller, the art director on that, because he would construct certain backgrounds. I would then work with different colored lenses on the camera, and then we would go in to a special effects shop, and they would take what I’d shot and overlay certain images. It was just a lot of fun putting them together, but I think I used that concept in almost every one of the Poe films.

And then of course, many, many years later, when I did The Trip, which was about an LSD experience, I really went crazy with those sequences.

On the other hand, I have to say this, at the time they came out, I got a lot of critical praise for that. But if you look at them today, they look primitive because the special effects today are so brilliant and so far advanced, that not only my pictures, but everybody was pictures at that time, when we used special effects, there was no way we could get the effects you can get today.

What do you think we’ve lost from the Mitchell cameras and having to lug things around and meticulously put together special effects? What do you think is lost in technology making filmmaking easier?

What’s gained is the fact that the special effects are just beyond anything anybody ever dreamed of before. They’re just astonishing. What is lost is the fact that there’s a tendency for the special effects to take over the picture, and the story and the characters are secondary to the special effects. And we’ve lost that to a certain extent. I wouldn’t say all the way, but we’ve lost to a certain extent the examination of characterization and the simple narrative, and the writing of dialogue.

How do you work with your composers on your films?

I work with composers probably a little less than most directors do. I don’t pretend to have great knowledge of music. What I do [is] I talk with the composer and discuss the themes, the mood within each individual scene, the basic feeling I want from the music, and then I leave it to him.

For instance, directors are generally on the soundstage when they’re recording the music. I’m never there. I’m not a conductor. I leave that to the composer.

The last movie you directed was Frankenstein Unbound in 1990. What would it actually take to put you back in the director’s seat?

Well, what happened was because when I started in 1970, I started my own production/distribution company. And I had planned simply to take a year off from directing, because I was just tired. I’d directed about 60 films in about maybe 15, 16 years. And I thought I would take a sabbatical, one year off from directing, and just be a producer and a head of the company. But then the company became instantaneously successful.

It was really amazing. Our very first picture was a giant success, and so were all of the following ones. And I got so involved in all of that [that] I just stepped away from directing. But then Universal did some kind of research, and they came up with the idea that “Roger Corman’s Frankenstein” would be a success for a film, and they asked me if I would like to make it, to produce and direct it. And I said, “No. You may have that research, but in my opinion, it’s just going to be another Frankenstein film. There have been so many Frankenstein films. It isn’t worth going back.”

But they kept coming back to me, and they offered me so much money. Finally, I thought, “Geez, I’d be an idiot not to turn this opportunity down for what they’re now offering me.” And I said, “All right, I can’t say yes right now. But if I can find a new version, something that is a different interpretation of Frankenstein, I will do it.”

And I read a novel, Frankenstein Unbound, by Brian Aldiss, a very good English science fiction and fantasy writer. And it was a story of somebody from the future, who, through a time warp, is thrown back into the 19th century and meets Dr. Frankenstein.

In the novel, he was some sort of a diplomat. But in the movie, I changed him from being a diplomat to a scientist, so that the picture essentially brought a 21st century scientist back to meet a 19th century scientist. And I thought that was an original and new interpretation. So I said, “If you can buy that novel, I’ll make the picture.” Which we did.

With all the streaming alternatives now for new projects, do you think it’s easier for an independent director to break in, or is it still just the same corporate-owned studio stuff?

I think you would divide that into two sections. It’s a little bit more difficult today, particularly with the studios, because they’re making now primarily these giant special effects pictures, and they’re not going to give a new director a chance to play with a $200 million budget.

But new directors are breaking in pretty much the way they were when I started, which is on independent films and particularly on low budget films.

You’re both the producer and the director on Masque. Were there things that you wanted to do as a director that you wouldn’t let yourself do as a producer?

I was a producer and director on almost all of my films, so I never really had any problems with the producer. If there was a problem with the producer, it was a problem with myself.

The Masque of the Red Death is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital now.