Saturday, October 26, 2013

Monster Serial: THEATRE OF BLOOD, 1973

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Let's not talk about camp, okay?  It's there, it's funny, it works.  Easiest thing to discuss about the film, and it's also the most superficial.  I'd rather talk about its heart.

Visit THE NITRATE DIVA for more Vincent Price this week!
Spurned by a cadre of catty London theatre critics, we find hardworking actor, Edward Lionheart.  He's a man whose acting style is sadly too grand for the "Method" age of performance that has eroded that last bastion of Grand Performance, the Shakespearean stages of London.  Decades out of fashion, he is denied these critics' highest award (and suffered their editorial slings and arrows) one too many times.  Despondent and like any tragedian worth his greasepaint, he takes his own life as a final response. 

Or so he tries.  Rescued from the Thames by a homeless retinue of loyal winos -- and bolstered by his ever faithful daughter (Diana Rigg at her most excruciatingly dishy) -- Lionheart decides to rob each critic of his life.  His calling card?  The murders are all inspired by the works of Shakespeare.  Yes, the interpretations  can be often hilariously loose, but we get an odd satisfaction from Lionheart's final curtains.  The Phibes doctors screwed up.  These critics are relentlessly and needlessly mean-spirited over years and years, with no conscience for the hard work and great dreams dashed by their acid bon mots.   In a flashback, when Lionheart confronts his nemeses before his suicide attempt, we feel equally angry for him and embarrassed by him, and that sums up the sad ambiguity of this most Shakespearean of horror films.

THEATRE OF BLOOD is really the third of the Phibes Trilogy, and if it's not the best known, it's certainly the classiest, smartest, and most emotionally rich.  And, for anyone who has ever been in the position to win and lose an award, it's the most bittersweet.  Awards are so cruel.  To win one is to know that others lost.  To lose one is, well, to lose one.  It would be easier to say "they don't matter" if everyone would stop giving them and praising them.  But they don't, and in theatre, where the art is so damnably ephemeral, sometimes an award is the only thing a man has left that says, "I did something that mattered."

Edward Lionheart understands that, and the last of his critics to live -- Peregrine Devlin, played by Ian Hendry -- does, too.  Devlin's conscience genuinely eats at him, and that's why we can feel sympathy for him.  Ultimately, though, we're reluctantly rooting for Lionheart's sense of spirit and celebration of pique.  God, what a sad movie, and what a beautiful one, whose melancholy and bombast are aided by Price's great co-star, Michael J. Lewis' heartbreaking score.

Price really has it all in this film.  Does he get to Grandly Perform?  Yes.  Does he have quiet moments that summon our tears with only the sad truths in his eyes?  Yes.  Does he get to inhabit a variety of wildly funny, diverse characters with a creative immersion that would awe even Sellers and Aykroyd?  You bet.  The whole movie is the greatest audition reel that the man never needed, and it's the best argument that Vincent Price was the most versatile genre star of all time. 

Perhaps with the exception of Lugosi, and I'm just guessing there, the great genre actors seemed pretty mature about their genre work's invulnerability to awards.  They even seemed pretty self-deprecating about the films, knowing full well that they weren't working for Billy Wilder.  As fans, though, we see tremendous dimension to their labors.  I don't think it takes being a Monster Kid to appreciate what was accomplished by Lugosi and Karloff.   We see what an impact their work had, not only on cinema but on our very cultural lexicon.  We know how deserved and appreciated the truly Big Awards would have been to these men.  I think we sense the unfairness that they were never recognized.  And it rubs off on us, because as fans, we don't have their Oscars at which we can point.*

This movie is about that, too.  It could have been made with any great actor.  Olivier would have put in a stunning turn, but only Vincent Price could have communicated the story.

Under the hilarious gags, zingy dialogue, marvelous performances by many of England's great character actors, genuine suspense, auto-self-congratulating Shakespeare shoutouts, and a truly memorable white miniskirt and subsequent blue top on Diana Rigg, there are deep truths being told.  And, like the works of Shakespeare, it nimbly pops between tonalities with confidence and mirth.  As for the gore?  Given that the Bard's biggest moneymaker in his day was, I believe, TITUS ANDRONICUS (the original "torture porn"), I think Good Will would have considered it a very palpable hit.

*But when you can connect a horror great with an Oscar, it's delicious.  Man, the minute a hipster putz thinks he's winning the room by cracking on Grayson Hall, the citation of her Oscar nomination for a Tennessee Williams movie really shuts him up.  Try it some time.  

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.


startspreading said...

Wow, I didn't know this film until now and I now I really wish to watch it. You review got me hooked, very well done!
forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Le from Critica Retro

Nitrate Diva said...

This is such an eloquent tribute to Price and to the much-kicked-around underdog genre of horror. I particularly enjoyed how you suggest the parallels between Price's character and the snubs that he no doubt received in real life for being a genre actor, no matter how versatile. I also love your phrase "melancholy and bombast" which could really stand as an epitaph for all of the great horror actors, I think.

Thank you for contributing to the blogathon!

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