Lockdown with a Satanist: cult film director Roger Corman on making The Masque of the Red Death
For fans of Sixties horror films, the combination of Vincent Price, Edgar Allan Poe and director Roger Corman has an enduring ghoulish charm. The man nicknamed the King of B-movies adapted eight of the 19th-century writer’s more macabre works, and the inimitable Price starred in seven of them. Many a person has crept to bed chilled by The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), or Corman’s 1964 masterpiece, The Masque of the Red Death.
Few, however, have seen the latter as its creator intended it, an injustice that the release of a newly restored version on Blu-Ray, DVD and streaming is about to reverse. “There were a few things that were cut for censorship reasons, which I never understood,” the Detroit-born cult film-maker, now 94, tells me via video-call from his home in California.
Corman is smartly dressed and genial, but it’s no surprise the man who famously shot The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in two days and one night is also concise and to the point. In a 70-year career as director and producer, he has made more than 400 movies, from groundbreaking acid-fantasy The Trip (1967) to the Ramones-starring teen drama Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979) to the self-explanatory Dinocroc vs Supergator (2010); but The Masque of the Red Death, with its beautiful colour cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, holds a special place in his affections.
The film, based on Poe’s 1850 story of a plague stalking the towns and villages of medieval Italy, was shot in Britain, with Corman casting 18-year-old Jane Asher alongside the villainous Price as the story’s pure-hearted heroine. The actress was dating Paul McCartney at the time, and he recalls her asking if a “friend” could visit the set on his way to London.
“I said, ‘Sure.’ He was an amiable young guy, and we talked a little bit. I was telling him between shots what we were doing, and then we all had lunch together. And at the end, I said, ‘What are you going to be doing in London?’ Being an American, I didn’t know The Beatles. And he was very cool – he said, ‘Well, I’m with a singing group from Liverpool, and we’re going to make our debut in London.’ And I remember as he left, I said, ‘Well, good luck on your debut, Paul.’
On Sunday morning, I read the British papers, and the headlines were ‘Beatles conquer London’.” The Masque of the Red Death was not initially all-conquering. It wasn’t as financially successful as some of his earlier Poe adaptations, although more than half a century later, it still casts a dark spell, especially in the middle of a pandemic – “The Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous,” Poe’s tale begins. But Corman added ghastly details of his own, which upset censors on both sides of the Atlantic.
He made Price’s Prince Prospero, who imposes a six-month lockdown on himself and a host of invited guests inside his castle, a Satanist. That led to British censors swiftly asking that almost all of the film’s Satanic references be cut. Meanwhile, America’s influential Catholic League of Decency objected to the Satanism too, as well as the “erotic costuming”. A few frames of Asher being thrown naked into a bath ended up on the cutting-room floor, as well as lines that the League considered blasphemous. “They disliked very much, obviously, Prospero’s statement that God is dead,” Corman tells me with a grin.
A dream sequence, in which Prospero’s mistress Juliana (played by Hazel Court), lying on a raised black platform in a see-through nightie, is stabbed by demonic figures from various cultures, was inevitably excised too. When I suggest that none of those scenes would have been cut today, Corman notes that “films and society in general have become more violent. And the amount of violence masquerading as horror has increased. Masque was not that much of a horror film. As a matter of fact, it was a thoughtful film, from my standpoint, with a little bit of horror in it.”
It was the differing cuts made by British and American censors, however, that allowed a complete version of the film to be restored. One cut made by the Brits was a scene involving a dwarf dancer and her dwarf protector, which Corman inserted from another Poe story. The dancer is played by a young girl, overdubbed with an adult woman’s voice, and the dialogue suggests the two are physically intimate. I wonder if it could be made today. “I was hoping to get a dwarf for the dancer,” Corman says. “And we couldn’t find one, so we really just decided to go with a very young girl and try to make her up so that she looked a bit older. That was unfortunate, but you do what you can.”
Corman would continue to challenge accepted notions of taste and decency throughout his career, in films such as Death Race 2000 (1975), which he executive-produced and distributed through his company New World Pictures. It depicts a dystopian near-future in which the United States is ruled by a totalitarian regime that promotes an annual road race as a violent televised spectacle. Bonus points are awarded for the deaths of innocent pedestrians.
Its lurid scenes were condemned by some at the time, but the film’s cultural impact is undeniable. It’s a direct influence on the multibillion-dollar videogame franchise Grand Theft Auto, while Mad Max director George Miller acknowledged his debt to Corman in person. “I have to admit Mad Max is a better picture,” Corman says. He also sees markedly strong links between it and The Hunger Games franchise. “There is so much that was alike,” he says. “I’ve got the final draft of a new picture called Death Games, which incorporates all of the elements from those films – but is a new picture.”
He’s been working on this during the pandemic, during which he hasn’t been out of the house he shares with his wife, film producer Julie Corman, except to go to medical appointments. “My house has a fair amount of grounds. And I’ve set up an office in what used to be our family room [the couple have two daughters and two sons – the latter two settled a legal action against Corman last year over the sale of much of his back catalogue]. It overlooks the swimming pool and the Santa Monica mountains. Actually, it’s much nicer than my office.” Corman famously helped kick-start the careers of many future greats, including Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, and Francis Ford Coppola.
Their work may have eclipsed his own, but I want to ask him about a startling film he shot in 1962 – The Intruder. It stars an actor who would go on to fame in Star Trek, William Shatner, as a stranger who arrives in a small southern town and begins inciting people against the integration of local schools, appealing to their American values. It leads to murderous violence against the black community, which is then disavowed by its instigator. Does he see parallels with what happened recently at the US Capitol?
“Yes, definitely. When Bill Shatner was telling the crowd he was against integration, he phrased his words ‘as a patriotic American’. I think Trump has done the same. The surprising thing to me is that Trump got away with it as long as he did.” Corman helped fund the Black Panthers in the Sixties; I wonder what he makes of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’m in favour of it. Because the racial hatred has faded a little bit, but it is still a major, major problem.”
He looks back on The Intruder alongside The Masque of the Red Death as his best work, but there’s time for a few more, he insists. He has no plans to retire – “I would like to die this way: as I’m dying, I’m saying, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a new film…’”
The Masque of the Red Death will be available to own on Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital on Monday. Cert: 15 (UK)