In our Swampchat discussion of March’s Movie of the Month, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, I pointed out how great of a one-two punch the movie was in combination with February’s Movie of the Month, Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death. As a double feature, the two movies feed off each other well thematically, especially in their contemplation of an uncaring, inevitable Death. Even Roger Corman himself saw the similarities in the films’ subject matter, which lead to him delaying the production of Masque for years. According to Wikipedia, he was quoted as saying, “I kept moving The Masque of the Red Death back, because of the similarities, but it was really an artificial reason in my mind.” The films do have a similar doom & gloom aesthetic in their personifications of Death in the time of a plague, but the differences that ultimately make their connection “artificial” are very much fundamental in nature. The Seventh Seal and The Masque of the Red Death are connected by a plague and by Death’s portrayal as a living character, but both Death’s personality and the social effect of a plague on its suffering population are strikingly different in the two films.
Both The Seventh Seal & The Masque of the Red Death rightfully portray Death as an inevitability, but the personality traits they assign him are almost directly oppositional. In The Seventh Seal, Death allows himself to be amused. The movie’s iconic chess match, while a stay of execution for Antonius Black, is nothing more than a diversion, a light entertainment for Death. Death later continues his playful bemusement with Antonius by posing as a priest and taking his confession. Death has a sly sense of humor in this exchange, albeit one with a morbid result. In Corman’s Masque, The Red Death wouldn’t be caught alive participating in such tomfoolery. The Red Death is very much a professional in his duties, carrying the impartial poise of a courtroom judge in his interactions with Prince Prospero. The only time he allows himself to react to Prospero’s schemes is when the prince begs mercy for the captive Francesca and even then his reaction is only mild surprise.
The plagues that accompany Death & The Red Death are more or less interchangeable, but there’s an essential difference in Corman & Bergman’s interpretations of the victims’ reactions to the hardship. In both films the plagues are met (at least by some) with a form of naïve celebration, a kind of a party while the ship goes down. In The Masque of the Red Death, this party is a disgusting display, a vilification of opulence. Wealthy party guests assume they are above The Red Death’s inevitability merely by the merit of their breed & fortune. Considering themselves invincible, they shut the poor out of the gates of Prospero’s mansion and party their final hours away in excess. Their thirst for a good time while others suffer is a vile impulse that Corman represents disapprovingly and Vincent Price skillfully amplifies with gusto. As James first said in our Swampchat on The Seventh Seal (and which I later explored in my comparison of the film to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), the central couple “Jof and Mia who, while maybe naïve, fully embrace life, family, and art despite the dread and despair that surrounds them. As Jof, Mia, and Mikael are the only characters to survive the film, I think Bergman is trying to say that the only way to conquer the fear of death is to truly embrace life, which makes the film, in my eyes, an ultimately uplifting one.” In Bergman’s viewpoint, celebration in the time of Death is a human ideal. While the celebration in Masque is a hateful sin, the one in The Seventh Seal is a life-saving virtue. Bergman even pushes the idea further by having Jof receive visions from beyond this mortal realm. In some ways his naïve celebration of life is downright divine.
The surprising thing about the differences between Death & The Red Death is that they’re somewhat counterintuitive. As a superficial assumption I would think that The Seventh Seal, a black & white art house drama from Ingmar Bergman, would have been the film that portrayed Death as a somber executioner and the party that surrounds him a crime against man. I would also expect that The Masque of the Red Death, a Vincent Price horror film helmed by camp legend Roger Corman, would be the film that portrayed Death as a playful prankster and the celebration of life that surrounds him a moral asset. Instead, the two films find their respective art house pensiveness & over-the-top camp in other characters & plot devices, the trivial elements that bind them as a pair used for entirely different ends. Although their connection is primarily artificial, our back-to-back discussions of The Seventh Seal & The Masque of the Red Death will forever link them in my mind anyway, both for the ways they are superficially the same and in the considerable ways they differ on a fundamental level.
For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, visit our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s exploration of its thematic similarities with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.