Sunday, May 29, 2011

Film #142: Theater of Blood

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I spent much of my time at my grandmother's modest yet spectacular post-war house on Franklin Circle in Atlanta, GA. It was located only about two minutes away from my elementary school, so I'd amble down the hill when school was out and she'd watch after me until my parents came to pick me up. My grandmother was a funny, sweet, unique individual--I really loved her. But perhaps one of my favorite parts about visiting her house was the opportunity to hang out with her next-door neighbors, an intelligent and friendly (and childless) couple named Jane and Howard Schneider.

I always like to say that it was Jane who taught me how to read. She always counters by saying I already knew how to read when she met me (I must have been five or six at the time). She's right, I suppose; I had already started in on my movie obsession by pouring over the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's movie section (I remember asking my parents what sex was after seeing the ad for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask). By the time we met, I was already a confirmed horror movie fan; my mom and dad had long been allowing me to purchase of Forrest J. Ackerman's legendary Famous Monsters of Filmland. And I was also a devoted Sesame Street and Electric Company disciple, so I guess I did have some pretty fierce reading skills at a young age.

So if I ultimately have to agree with Jane in that I knew how to read, even she would have to agree that it was she who introduced my to my first, real meaty literature. Knowing that I was a horror fan, she decided to pull an Edgar Allan Poe collection off her well-stocked bookshelves. She helped me go through Poe's "The Raven" first. When I had trouble pronouncing or understanding words, she'd help me through it. Of course, the poem's mood, cadence and drollery had a tremendous effect on me. I was henceforth a die-hard Poe fan.

So when I found out that so many movies had been made from Poe's works in the 1960s, I gobbled them all up (they were playing on TV, and as second features at drive-ins a lot in those days). And, as a result, I then also became a Vincent Price devotee. I watched The Raven, House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligia, and The Oblong Box all because I recognized the titles as being Edgar Allan Poe stories. Sometimes, as with the
case of The Conqueror Worm or The Tomb of Ligia, the titles were the only things the movies had in common with Poe's works, but this didn't register with me until much later in life. What I really loved about these movies is that they all starred Vincent Price.

When the Journal-Constitution announced, in 1974, that Vincent Price was coming to Emory University to give a talk, Jane immediately bought two tickets and revealed to me that we were going to see my idol, live and in the flesh. I was flabbergasted. I wonder now if this wasn't my first realization that these were real people up on the screen--people with their own lives and experiences outside of what they did for the movies. I can remember the rainy night's drive to Emory's White Hall, and thinking that it was a fittingly spooky fall night to be seeing Vincent Price.

Before we got there, Jane asked me "Don't you think it would be nice if we got him a gift?" The thought hadn't occurred to me, but I immediately agreed. We decided to stop at a book store. I had read that he was a cook (a gormand, really) and Jane knew that he was an avowed Anglophile with a special interest in the Victorian Era. So we went to the cooking section and, amazingly, found a cookbook devoted solely to Victorian recipes; I can still remember the book's regal cover, with a portrait of the young Queen Victoria on it. It was a perfect, thoughtful gift.

We took out seats in the exact middle of the packed hall and at 8 pm sharp, Mr. Price was brought out on the stage. In his dark grey suit and bright tie, he looked like a giant, even from sitting this far back (he stood at around 6 foot three). He then proceeded to give a thrilling talk. I can recall his hearty recitations--by memory, no less--of an Oscar Wilde poem, and then an even more spirited one of my favorite "The Raven." And I can remember laughing at one tale he told about going to see House of Wax at an Los Angeles theater upon its 1953 release. With much sinister glee, he said that he decided to take a seat behind two teenage girls who sat screaming and squirming throughout the entire film. When it was over and the lights came up, he put his hands on their shoulders and asked them, in THAT voice, "Did you like it?" He said they almost soiled themselves.

Afterwards, Jane and I took our place in a line of people waiting to meet Vincent. He was very patient, and short-shrifted no one. When it came time for our visit with him, I was quite nervous. I was holding the book, and Jane did a lot of the talking. She shook his hand and introduced me as one of his biggest fans. He looked down at me and put his hand on the back of my head, and I said "We got you a gift." He took the book and thanked me profusely, saying that he'd never seen this particular tome. Jane told him that I was a huge movie fan, and very precocious. He then bent down and looked me in the eye and asked "Which picture of mine do you like the most?" I immediately answered Theater of Blood. He registered a bit of surprise and said "Well, you have excellent taste. That's my favorite, too." He handed me a sheet of paper, which he had signed and dedicated to me, "With gratitude and love." Jane shook hands with him and led me off. I waved to Vincent Price as we left the stage, and my first meeting with a celebrity was over. I was in a daze on the way home, and a passel of lifelong loves were sealed--for Mr. Price, for the movies, and for Jane, who has remained a strong influence (really, she's my other mother).

I still adore Theater of Blood to this day, way after I first saw it with my parents at the Northeast Expressway Drive-In in 1973. Price's role as the steadfastly Shakespearian actor Edward Lionheart, who refuses to abandon the past just for the sheer sake of keeping up with the times, seems ridiculously well-suited for him. But on top of that, I can now see that it's a skillfully directed, acted, and written film all around.

Theater of Blood begins with a brilliantly clever credits sequence that peppers the title cards with clips from silent film adaptations of Shakespeare's works. All of the scenes we see are murder sequences that will reoccur in the film we are watching. The sequence is backed by Michael J. Lewis regal theme music (his score is still one of the best ever written, filled with loss and longing). We are then treated to the film's first shot: a truck that's wryly marked "Shakespeare's Removers" barreling down the throughway, as the camera pulls pack to reveal one of the film's victims, stage critic George William Maxwell (Michael Hordern) reading the newspaper and complaining that his editors have massacred his newest scathing review. He answers the phone and is off on an errand to get some squatters out of a tenement building which he and a redevelopment committee are trying to tear down. His wife warns him vociferously not to go, because she had a bad dream the night before, and his March horoscope says he's to avoid difficult situations. "Ahh, the Ides of March," he comments before poo-pooing his wife's concerns, and he's on his way.

Here the horror begins, with Maxwell being cut to ribbons by a band of terribly scary vagrants a la Julius Caesar. He stumbles around and comes face to face with our hero, Edward Lionheart who, disguised as a constable, uses this opportunity to launch into some lines from Shakespeare's play. Hordern's character can only manage one last sentence as he looks into Lionheart's unmasked face. "You--but you're dead!" "No. No. Another critical miscalculation on your part, my boy. I am well. It is you who are dead."

And so the rhythm of Douglas Hickox's film is set up, as we are introduced to the members of the London Critic's Circle as a whole. They are, ironically, played by an exquisite set of actors with some hilarious character names: Robert Morely (the gluttonous Meridith Merridew), Harry Andrews (lustful Trevor Dickman), Ian Hendry (Peregrine Devlin, the youngest and most level-headed member of the crew), Arthur Lowe (henpecked Horace Sprout), Coral Browne (the vain Miss Chloe Moon), Robert Coote (the wine-crazy Oliver Larding), Dennis Price (the sneering Hector Snipe), and Jack Hawkins (jealous husband Solomon Psaltery, who's married to a licentious cow played by Diana Dors)  Now I'm seeing that they each and all represent the Seven Deadly Sins.

Through the investigation of the redoubtable Inspector Boot (played by Irish thespian Milo O'Shea), and through the amateur detective work of Hendry's Peregrine Devlin, we discover that the critics are being targeted by Lionheart because they continually murdered his performances by words and deeds. Lest you think that I'm giving away too much of the plot, this becomes very clear early on. The joy in watching Theater of Blood comes not in revelatory plot points--we know most of these despicable critics are doomed from the start. Said joy instead comes in seeing the inventive ways in which all murders are transposed from the pages of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter and into the modern world, all right under the noses of a grievously clueless Scotland Yard, who can't even garner leads from Lionheart's daughter, played with a witty coldness by Diana Rigg.

Chiefly, of course, Theater of Blood gives us an opportunity to see a fine and often equally misjudged actor like Vincent Price deliver some of the Bard's greatest words in a winkingly hammy fashion. The film, while being wonderfully grungy and gory, is a diabolically adroit compilation of many Shakespearian monologues from works like Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and Cymbaline. But, if that sort of thing doesn't float your boat, and gore is what you're after, then gore is what you get, in bright red strokes. There are stabbings, drownings, draggings, beheadings (oh, how the scene with Arthur Lowe being murdered in bed has me in stitches-pun intended--each time I see it), electrocutions, and a memorable gorging that's saved for last. Almost all of them are completely horrifying while also being keen and jolly, thanks to the superb script by Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann and John Kohn.

Director Hickox had previously delivered a passable 1970 adaptation of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and a notable 1979 prequel to Stanley Baker's 1964 war epic Zulu, called Zulu Dawn. But most of his output was forgettable, so it becomes even more remarkable that Theater of Blood is as fine a film as it is (though critics, predictably, savaged it upon its 1973 release; many were probably offended, I guess, that they were being targeted as villains). Hickox makes the wise choice to shoot entirely on location, making the film a grand tour of both the sumptuous and decaying sides of 1970s London (he's helped along by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, whose favoring of wide-angle lenses and colorful contrasts enlivens the movie considerably).

Still, when I watch Theater of Blood today, I am bowled over by Vincent Price's performance; it looms over everything else in the movie. Decked out in a myriad of inventive costumes (by Michael Baldwin) and make-up applications (by the deft George Blackler), his Edward Lionheart is at once dramatically compelling, darkly hilarious, and easy to love. The film must have appealed to him on so many levels (Price got to explore his Anglophilia, his acting roots, his love of good food and wine, and he even gets to murder his wife, actress Coral Browne, on screen). It's a terrific film. I'm so glad to have met Mr. Price, and to have agreed with him, for that one wonderful moment, that Theater of Blood provided him with his greatest screen triumph.

Friday, May 27, was the 100th anniversary of Mr. Price's birth. I celebrate it here, but also at The Flaming Nose, where I delve into his many television appearances, and deeper into the man's charming personality.


Lisa said...

Truly wonderful post, Dean!

Toby O'B said...

"Theater of Blood" is probably my favorite of his movies as well. So many of my interests converged with it - Shakespeare, great character actors, the lovely Diana Rigg, and of course, Mr. Price.

When I first saw "Sweeney Todd", I got the idea that somebody should transform this movie into a musical (and I still think it's a great idea!)

Of course the only difficulty would be in finding an Edward Lionheart as perfect as Mr. Price....

Man, it's been too long since I've seen this movie. I'll have to rectify that!

Thanks, Dean. And I loved the post over at Flaming Nose as well!

Dean Treadway said...

Thanks, Lisa! Interestingly, Toby, they DID do a stage version of it in London (non-musical) with Jim Broadbent as Edward Lionheart. It was all set in the abandoned theater from the film, and it didn't get great reviews. But, again, I wonder if haughty stage reviewers can find anything amusing about this subject matter. Anyway, a musical version COULD be great! Thanks for the comments, and I plan on checking out your blog soon!