Roger Corman is one of the most over and under rated directors in the history of hollywood. He spent much of his career under the radar only to emerge later as a cult figure. It hasn't helped matters that he has spent his golden years doing the convention panel victory lap much like Stan Lee. So, what do I think of Roger Corman? Well, honestly, generally he's not that good of a director. Granted he was given about a buck forty in budget for most of his films, but that can't be an excuse for the long stretches of tedium in his films. The folks as MST3K wisely labeled them, "Another Roger Corman Walking Scene."
Still, he has some incredible strengths. First, he was able to work in some outrageous ideas that, after you forget about the tedium, tend to stick with the viewer. He was certainly competent enough to work with those buck forty budgets without undue embarassment. His greatest strength I think was that he knew talent and he was able to create a creative stable around him that worked with him. I think that's why as time went on his films did improve greatly. By the time of AIP he knew some really great writers, had a good relationship with actors like Vincent Price, and had a crew who could work quick and yet professional. It was something of a perfect storm. The eye of that storm is certainly "Masque of the Red Death."
Anything good you can say about this film begins with the script. They took a story that was less a story and more of a shattering dream image and crafted it into a compelling drama. One thing they did is took other Poe stories (notably "Hop Toad") and incorporated it into the main story. The themes of these stories, the visuals, overlap and strengthen each other. The most important thing though was that they gave Vincent Price a compelling philosophy which added real fire to the age old "Good vs. Evil" theme. Here, Prince Prospero rules over a world where the red death rules. He reasons (and does so most reasonably) that God cannot be ruling the world and that just leaves the devil. He turns to evil not because he's morally defective, but that it seems the most pragmatic thing to do. Everything he does then becomes something of a lesson. He wants to prove his point, force others to see that he's right. That's why he takes so much interest in the young Christian maiden. He knows if he can win her to his side he will have proven his point utterly.
In an odd way, this is sort of a dark backward version of seven. The villain rather than teaching morality through murder is teaching the opposite. He is cruel but his cruelity always has a point and he's charming enough that he becomes endlessly fascinating. There are points where you see the girl's faith waiver in front of the iron will of Prince Prospero. One wonders what would have happpened if she had fallen. But, in the end time runs out for lessons. The Red Death rules, and Prospero learns his mistake. Does God rule the world? The Devil? These questions still remain at the end, but there is something that Prospero denied. A little hope.
Corman certainly made the film a colorful affair. It has the second best use of color in a horror film outside of "Suspiria." It moves along much better than any other Corman film. The actors are nearly universally spot on. Really the only criticism I have is that the dance of death at the end is to me very hokey. If only Corman could have kept making films like this. But if the Red Death does not rule then certainly Getting Old does and we all never what we were.