Tuesday, July 9, 2024

American Gothic Week: To take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them


Directed by Douglas Hickox
Written by Stanley Mann, John Kohn, and Anthony Greville-Bell

Spoilers: moderate

Having dealt with the last of American International Pictures' long-running series of Edgar Allan Poe movies, we could've hung this retrospective up; but as we've quite frequently ventured afield of AIP and Poe (and Gothic horror generally) on behalf of AIP's Gothic horror films' most important star, Vincent Price, it feels all but compulsory to deal with the final headlining roles of his horror career.  Besides, ending on Gordon Hessler's limp 1971 "adaptation" of Murders In the Rue Morgue would have left us on a sour note, whereas ending on The Abominable Dr. Phibes's disfavored sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, even if I like it, just seems unsatisfactory somehow.  It would be a damnable pity in any case, considering that those two final roles arrive in a pair of perfectly good horror flicks, each serving as their own valediction for this most definitive phase of Price's career.

The first of those films, in fact, is both a valediction for Price's horror stardom and something of a rumination on the path not taken, or rather the paths that closed on him, leaving horror the only way forward.  This was 1973's Theatre of Blood, an all-British production that wasn't even distributed by AIP, but United Artists.  It came about as Price was souring on AIP and they on him, for the usual reasons that actors and studios fight, and even if I were concerned about the propriety of roping in a movie not made by AIP, Theatre of Blood would still make itself germane, for it's even more of a straight-up knock-off of The Abominable Dr. Phibes than the description "Vincent Price proto-slasher" would already imply.  Pretty much all of the Phibesian boxes get checked, from the vengeance-obsessed madman played by Price, who died before the movie began, but not really, to the indulgence in colorful dress-up, down to the enthusiastic female assistant killer, except Vulnavia talks now, too.  But the single biggest difference is probably just that Price is floridly monologuing during the kill sequences, rather than around them.

But it does have a different flavor, and that is William Shakespeare, with all of the film's numerous Guignol-esque kills inspired by Shakespearean murder, and punched up with as much ultraviolence as 1973 allowed, which was beginning to be a fair amount, both in terms of cinematic mores and special effects makeup technology.  Shakespeare is both central to the film and, in a sense, window-dressing: there was undoubtedly a smirk on the faces of the two writers credited with the film's "idea" when they came up with it (screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell was accordingly responsible for turning that idea into an actual script), and the film runs with the woozy irony of material as classy, not to say outright stuffy, as Shakespeare repurposed for shock fodder, while at least raising the question of whether Shakespeare, like ugly buildings and old whores, just managed to hang around long enough to become respectable.  In one of his plays he makes a lady eat her kids, after all, and that's really only an outlier in specific method.  The Shakespeare theme is, to be sure, what appealed to Price, for he had always wanted to do Shakespeare and had never really found the time or opportunity, and those opportunities weren't much there anymore for the 62 year old.  I think this is a swell thing for him to have explored through his usual horror movie stuff, though something about it distresses me: if Price had stayed a stage actor, and been "respectable" in his day (which he still was, even amidst his disreputable surroundings), hardly anybody would know who he is.  We wouldn't be consciously aware of it, of course, but I suspect we'd feel there was something missing from the cinema of the 1960s and early 70s, because we'd have been deprived of a man who was, I know, quite capable of "respectable" acting, but who, all the evidence suggests, must've understood and embraced that the legacy he'd laid down instead was so much more precious and unique.  I mean, whom do you believe is more beloved today, Laurence Olivier or Vincent Price?

But it probably didn't even have to be Shakespeare; and while that did have specific appeal to Price and everyone else involved, I imagine the general appeal would've remained if his new madman were a modern stage actor, or even a movie actor, or, not to put too fine a point on it, a horror movie actor (well, let's save that for Madhouse), because what we have in Theatre of Blood is one of the more enjoyable fantasies actors, directors, screenwriters, etc., could get to live out, carving a bloody path through every one of those deplorable, envious parasites called "critics" who ever said mean things about them.  As far as satisfaction goes, it's probably second only to killing your most annoying fans.

So: the rampage begins when a newspaper columnist (Michael Hordern), who also seems to be some kind of slumlord, is tricked into visiting a squat in an abandoned building, and a mob butchers him with cutlerly, not unlike what happened to Julius Caesar, and he lives just long enough to recognize who the leader of this army of the homeless is: Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart (Price), once a star of the London stage, who did Shakespeare and only Shakespeare, and who believed himself to be the greatest living actor, but two years ago was deprived of a prestigious critics circle award after many years of reviews excoriating him for his hamminess, his hideboundedness, and his general pretentiousness.  Humiliated, wounded, and enraged, Lionheart leapt off a balcony into the Thames, before the very eyes of his flabbergasted critics and his own traumatized daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg).  Obviously, his suicide didn't take.  Now he's back, and, by way of Shakespeare, he's killing them off one-by-one, his targets a big crowd of British actors each given a sketched-out character of greater or lesser entertainment value, namely Harry Andrews, Robert Coote, Robert Morley, Arthur Lowe, Coral Browne, and Jack Hawkins.  However, the preeminence of the group, one Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), Lionheart is saving for last.

This is pretty great, and while there's usually not much that comes off more unattractive than artists whining about how their art was received, for whatever reason it mostly works here, possibly because it's not some bitchy aside, but a full-throated cri de coeur and the entire organizing principle of a whole film; perhaps it helps that it stumbles across a great deal to be annoyed by specifically with criticism, starting generally enough with the idea that critics often develop irrational grudges that they pursue as much for the sake of self-amused sadism as expressing their learned opinion, before eventually getting down to some very granular complaints, like how Lionheart was passed over for one of those new naturalistically-mumbling young actors whose recitations were barely even coherent.  You will find yourself asking, a lot, "Wait, are we talking about Edward Lionheart, or we talking about Vincent Price?"  But there are, even at the outset, some mild conceptual objections: one of the most confusing features of the movie is that it kind of doesn't make sense that Lionheart would be both an inescapable force of stage acting who was in the running for a major award, but also such a long-time whipping boy for every major critic in London that he has an enormous scrapbook, probably over a hundred pages long, that compiles all their dozens of negative reviews of his work.  (This is the part where it feels the most like it's "actually about movies," wherecorrect me if I'm wrongcritical notices aren't nearly as important as they are on the London stage; though it could be as much a reaction to the burgeoning power that film critics were beginning to wield as of the early 1970s.)

Well, more important initially is just what a wild and visually inventive Vincent Price proto-slasher we've got here, with not a little giallo influence to accompany the Phibesiness that's its primary reason for existing.  Director Douglas Hickox, alongside cinematographer Wolfgang Shuschitzky, production designer Michael Seymour, and set decorator Ann Mollo quickly establish the strategies they're going to be working with throughout, above all that every single piece of footage in the film, to my knowledge, is location shooting, including the interiors (some of the apartments here, which very clearly a columnist's salary ain't paying for, are even famous), and the film's crown jewel of production design and location management is the Putney Hippodrome, derelict by 1973 (and torn down in 1975), serving Lionheart as his base and described as "the Burbage Theatre," which they get to do whatever with, up to and including lighting the mother on fire, because nobody cared and it was already a wrecked hulk of a building, but it was still recognizable as the rotten corpse of the place where once art was made.  There's a bit of class war to the filmLionheart's army effects something of a groundlings vs. snobs argument, and certainly the class distinctions are obviousthough the prime visual dissonance is between the extraordinarily tactile sense of place and the utter weirdness of the cartoonish story and the theatrical falseness of Price's never-ending costume and make-up changes as he dances like a whirlwind through adapted scenelets from nearly a dozen plays.

The kills are pretty much never conceptually plausible, and only become less so as the movie goes on; the gore, on the other hand (though not every kill relies on gore qua gore), is remarkably realistic and gross, at the same time it's always over-the-top, with a great deal of creativity in how to present the textures of each murder, starting with Hordern's critic getting pressed against a giant plastic sheet dividing a room as he's chopped to pieces (and this sequence concludes with a terrifically-built composition of Lionheart's sinister dominance).  Hickox is doing a variation on that all over the movie, the way he boxes his victims in by all manner of means, artfully shooting through obstructions, demanding you notice the tangibility of the locations and how he's metaphorically tended to seal Lionheart's victims' fates.  But he's not even dogmatic about that: the two coolest scenes in the movie are completely different, one of them being Lionheart's first, inconclusive confrontation with Devlin in a giant, empty gymnasium where the latter practices fencing, which winds up with some pretty insane stunt-based moments, thanks to a pair of trampolines (it is let down, somewhat, by its proto-superhero movie insistence on Price and Hendry removing their fencing masks at nearly every fucking possible opportunity to "act," which is even more irritating because you can, you know, make out their faces through the mesh, which is a neat visual all on its own).  So, yes, that one has fencing on trampolines and takes great advantage of the wide-open desolation of a giant empty roomand whenever we get any expansive shot, Hickox's instinct is to make it grotesque and distorted with a wide-angle lens, which usually works, toobut the flashback to Lionheart's suicide might be the coolest, as a long tracking shot from inside follows Price on the balcony outside while he recites Hamlet, inaudible to the laughing assholes within, and the isolating sound design favors Price, so we hear Lionheart as he makes his decision to leap.  It's not as psychedelic as the Phibeses, and my heart belongs to the classical atmospherics of Corman's Poes, but if you said that Theatre of Blood is the best-made of Price's horror movies, I don't know if I could put much force into my disagreement.

There is something intoxicating about it, with Price, in fine form, soliloquizing all over the place and his voice slithering around the Shakespearean language while he murders people; but as much as he might've yearned to do the Bard, he never forgets he's making a mad slasher movie here, deploying Lionheart's various Shakespearean guises not as he would were he playing those characters, but as this character would as an expression of his bottomless hate.  Whether that leaves the question open as to whether Price would've been "good" at Shakespeare or not is not really a significant concern*, since it's correct for these circumstances, and it probably should be left open whether Lionheart's a good actor.  Now, we know that Price found this gratifying anyway, and Theatre of Blood was one of his favorites in his filmography, but we can take that with some big grains of salt, given that it gave him the opportunity to ingratiate himself further in the English "real actor" scene and create or confirm a number of friendships, not to mention he met his third and last wife, Browne, while making it, so of course it's his favorite, he had a great time.

We certainly don't have to concur with that, and there are problems that start hampering the film's effectiveness, especially as it wears on: 104 minutes is not, I'd say, "too long" for this story, but it might've been too long for Greville-Bell, whose screenplay starts circling around in the final third; there's a whole lot of business with Lionheart feigning a willingness to give himself up as a ruse to snare Devlin, and it's just completely unnecessary, probably a last-minute effort to fix the more thoroughgoing "problem" with this plot, which is that by murder three or four (it actually takes about six), these people are just going to lock themselves up in their damn houses and stop wandering into, e.g., "wine tastings" put on by street people in costumes.  Accidentally stumbling into Phibes victim passivity was clearly on Hickox's radar, too, which is why his actors scream their heads off in agony, even when they increasingly had to have been braindead to get themselves into these situations.  So, obviously, it doesn't actually fix that problem, which was never a big problem anyhowbut it does wedge five or so minutes of pointlessness into a bad place for the movie to handle it.

There's also the matter of Rigg: she's clearly having just as much fun as Price is, and that fun is infectious, but Edwina isn't a character, just a function (and a function of "Vincent Price movies" as much as a function of "this movie"), entirely a sidekick and, even more importantly, a prop to hang costumes off.  (Though I do want to emphasize that these are fun.  I truly don't know what it says about me that I recognized her underneath her mustache, sunglasses, and Art Garfunkel wig well before the reveal, but was somehow baffled the entire scene who the hell the leggy woman in go-go boots was, because of the blonde hair and lipstick.)  Still, there's just not anything there to really grab ahold of, and there's not much emotion in this experience (and nearly all of it is in the suicide scene), not even in the way, say, Dr. Phibes Rises Again still wants to instill some feelings into you.  In much the same manner, Hendry's central antagonist, to the extent the movie has a central antagonist (the useless police inspector (Milo O'Shea) certainly isn't), he's almost as underbaked; we at last arrive upon the counter-argument to Lionheart's anti-critical ragemaybe you do fucking suck, and he was just being honestand I appreciate that the movie makes room for the critical perspective.  But for whatever reason the heroism of that moment is underplayed hard, and it bounces off Price and Lionheart like he barely notices it, when the fragility of his own dubious self-regard is sort of the thematic lynchpin of the movie.

These are not problems that I would let bother me too much, but there are the kills themselves, not all of them made equally.  The modal one is, let's be clear, great: the last might even be the best, involving a superb twist on Titus Andronicus that you only begin to see has been set up all along about two giddy minutes before it happens.  But it's telling that when Theatre of Blood, surely not inevitably, got its own adaptation for the stage, they saw a need to cut murders.  Nominally, that was because of the pared-down location (the stage version never leaves the Hippodrome).  But it's noticeable that the two they cut are also the ones that fuck up the movie.  The sins of the first, taking its cues from Cymbeline, are pretty de minimis, mainly in that an objective B-side like Cymbeline probably shouldn't come with the most befuddlingly anachronistic reinterpretation; but it still stays within the movie's rules of engagement.  The Othello one, however, is awful: completely implausible and stupid even in this universe, and, worse, it does break those rules.  It's utterly bizarre that Greville-Bill failed to map Desdemona, probably Shakespeare's most famous female murder victim, to Browne's lone female critic, but the exploitation of a victim outside of Lionheart's scheme is just wrong, and it comes late enough to weigh heavily upon the film.  That's enough to hurt and hobble it, but not nearly enough to kill it, though, and generations have agreed; it's one of Price's most critically-acclaimed movies, which is probably not entirely down to the implicit threat.  Theatre of Blood is still as strong an exemplar of the Price "genre" as you'll find, fundamentally just doing the same shit over and overnot unlike an aging Shakespearean actor, at thatbut still finding new ways to do it.

Score: 7/10

*Price probably more amply "proves" that he'd have been good in a proper Richard III in Roger Corman's Tower of London than he does with Lionheart's Richard III here.


  1. I’d sum this one up as “Cool motive, still Murder”: THE MOVIE (Also, for my money it makes more sense that ‘Lionheart’ be a genuinely substandard performer whom the critics quite rightly identified as all Ham - the fact that, in some level, Lionheart KNOWS this and resents being reminded of it would certainly help explain the sheer, bombastic cruelty of it all).

    1. That's kind of what I wanted in the finale, or at least some discussion thereof; maybe Devlin keeps him engaged in critical back-and-forth until somebody shoots him or Diana Rigg gets sick of it and offs him ("but I'd almost changed his mind"), that sort of thing. Something that does something, not just King Kong with a 62 year old (though I wouldn't say this was *poorly* done).