Director: Roger Corman
There’s an even more limited number of films that appear on all three of my current viewing lists, and this is one of them… and on any of those lists it makes a pretty remarkable entry. Corman’s Poe series was a fairly self-conscious attempt at “quality” filmmaking, to come up with something a bit more than just the usual drive-in fare he was churning out at American International, and this was probably the most “quality” of the lot. It’s not that the Poe films were actually high-budget as such (they still only clocked in around $200,000 each), but they were sufficiently more expensive than his b/w B-films that they looked a lot higher-grade… especially when united with Corman’s gift for getting the most out of already existing stock scenery and sets. Masque saw him really hitting gold in that respect, making sterling use of the sets from Becket, a much bigger production than this, but which helped immensely in making Corman’s own film look big. It is nothing if not one of the most handsomely produced horror films ever made, and star Vincent Price rises to the somewhat overripe occasion with a performance to suit the satanic decadence of it all. Indeed, this rewatch served to remind me just how overt the Satanic aspect of the story actually is; I remembered Prince Prospero being evil but I don’t think I recalled just how devil-driven he was. He’s so aggressively Satanic, in fact, that it threatens to just become heavy-handed (especially given the overt contrasting godliness of Jane Asher’s character), but somehow Price just about reins in the devilish cheese enough to stop it being silly. Even then, it still seems kind of right for this story; Corman was avowedly influenced by European art cinema of the period, particularly Ingmar Bergman, and he hits that note pretty well with this film, shot in England with mostly English cast and crew (most notably cinematographer Nicolas Roeg), about as good an example of how to do this sort of gothic thing in colour as you’ll get. And there’s something uniquely cheerless about the nominally happy ending, too, with that gathering of the various coloured Deaths; however tired they are of having to do what they do, and whatever little mercies they can show, you know they’ll keep on at their appointed tasks and those escapes will only be temporary.