I was a bit of a lazy student in high school. When I came into 9th grade, rather than taking the honors courses I was scheduled for, I opted to take the remedial regular courses to avoid having to read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or whatever over the summer. Summer is a time to sleep, not read a bunch of sentences and words. So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that rather than try to teach a bunch of slovenly 14 year-old degenerates the elegance of the written word, my 9th and 10th grade English teacher typically just showed us the movie versions of everything, no doubt hoping to God that it would shut us the hell up for ten minutes. Usually she stuck to the kind of dry, faithful adaptations you’d expect in a public school setting, like Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (which, oddly enough, features underage nudity), but then she would go and screen Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies--strange considering they’re only vaguely similar to the source material, and are, generally speaking, bat-shit crazy.
Of Corman’s eight Poe films, The Masque of the Red Death is widely considered his best, mostly for its rich color palate, but also because of Vincent Price’s glorious turn as Prospero, the black hearted dandy of a prince who worships Satan and shoots peasants in the neck with a crossbow for sport. Considering that the short story upon which this film is based has a severe lack of both crossbows and Satan, it’s safe to say that Corman and screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell took a couple dozen liberties with the thin source material, sexing it up with some Satan worshipping and a couple of bathtub scenes.
Even with the myriad changes, Corman manages to hit similar notes of gothic horror that Poe weaved through his flowery story, but sophisticated it ain’t. Should stuffy literati shy away from Corman’s adaptation? Probably. Should The Masque of the Red Death be screened in English classes across the country? Absolutely. If a woman branding an upside down cross onto her chest doesn’t grab the attention of a group of dead-eyed teenagers then nothing can.
Tomorrow: Pre-famous Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter in The Burning