These days, the name “Roger Corman” tends to conjure up images of the schlockiest extremes of cinema: the worst kind of zero-budget z-grade made-for-TV dreck like Carnosaur or the never released but much bootlegged Fantastic Four movie of the early ’90s. And yet, his work was idolized by filmmakers of the French New Wave and the French film journal Cahiers du cinema, and has been honored with career retrospectives at the Cinematheque Francaise, the British Film Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as an Honorary Academy Award in 2009. Additionally, Corman’s work has inspired and/or kickstarted the careers of many future stars, including Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Fonda.
Why this discrepancy? For one thing, the worst of the films typically associated with Corman’s name are rarely ones he directed, only produced or helped fund. Other than briefly ending his directorial hiatus in 1990 with Frankenstein Unbound, Corman’s last directorial effort was 1971’s Von Richtofen and Brown. The rest of his work as a director fell between 1955 and 1971, and in those sixteen years, he directed fifty-five films (in his continued career as a producer, he has produced nearly 400 films).
Corman was noted for his ability to turn a film around quickly and under budget. Many of his early movies were filmed in ten days or less, though later in his career he would typically take up to three or four weeks to complete a film. Despite restraints of time and budget, nevertheless Corman put out a number of well regarded genre movies, many of which are cult classics today, including the beatnik black comedy A Bucket of Blood, social drama The Intruder (featuring an early turn by William Shatner), sci-fi thriller/cosmic horror X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, and cult favorite comedy Little Shop of Horrors (perhaps one of his best known films thanks to adaptations it inspired, but this is extra remarkable because this movie was filmed in two days with leftover sets).
His best regarded films, however, are almost certainly the series of films that are known as his Poe cycle. Between 1959 and 1964, Corman filmed for American International Pictures a series of eight films based on or inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe (kind of: 1963’s The Haunted Palace is named after one of Poe’s poems in order to fit the series but is in fact based on HP Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). Several of these films were written by Richard Matheson (writer of the novel I Am Legend, but also screenwriter of many beloved pieces of genre film and television), and all but Premature Burial starred Vincent Price (this might make Burial seem the odd man out of the series, but star Ray Milland is no slouch, being the star of both the seminal haunted house film The Uninvited and the aforementioned X; at any rate, Burial is a perfectly fine film with a number of affecting scenes).
The finest of this cycle of films is almost certainly The Masque of the Red Death, based on the Poe story of the same name, with a subplot added from another Poe story, Hop-Frog. Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, Masque was intended to be the second of Corman’s Poe films, but Corman put off its production for fear of comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which had been released a few years before. When Masque finally launched in 1964 as the seventh of the eight-film cycle, Corman realized he was worried over nothing.
But this point of comparison is a very interesting one: in many ways, Masque of the Red Death and The Seventh Seal are two sides of the same coin, though this coin has one somber black-and-white side while its other is in bright, lurid Technicolor. Both films are meditations on death and the inevitability thereof, but Max von Sydow’s contemplative knight could hardly be more different from Vincent Price’s cackling Satanist. With both films containing motifs of the Danse Macabre and the plague, the two would make a fascinating double feature.
Masque is a visually stunning movie in which color plays an important role not only in terms of how it brings the images on the screen to life, but also in terms of theme, plot, and symbolism. It doesn’t hurt that the cinematographer on the film was Nicholas Roeg, who would later go on himself to direct such notable films as Don’t Look Now. The striking visuals also benefit from the fact that the sets were left over from the production of Becket, allowing for a more opulent look than Corman’s budgets could usually handle, and the fact that he had a full five weeks (!) to film this movie, though Corman claims British crews work more slowly, so it was really only like four weeks of work.
Further, the script is clever, tense and surprising, even though it is based on a century-old story whose plot is well known. There is a disorienting sense of psychedelia in some scenes, something which Corman often experimented with in his Poe films, and which saw Masque labeled as “too artsy-fartsy” by its studio. But the strongest element is perhaps the performances, especially that of Vincent Price, who always owns whatever frame he is in. His portrayal of a sadistic but doomed prince is truly the engine that drives this picture.
Although Corman’s Poe cycle has in latter days perhaps been overshadowed by contemporary productions by such rival studios as Hammer, every one of his films from this series is well worth watching, and many of them are legitimate masterpieces of Gothic horror. The quality of these films belies the modern day reputation Corman holds today, but as the Red Death itself says in the film, “sic transit gloria mundi.”