Friday, August 22, 2008

A Very Vigorous Actor

It's amazing what we're willing to accept in a film if we know going in that the premise is absurd. Almost any amount of plot contrivance is acceptable as long as we know that they know that we know that we're only buying any of this for the sake of our own enjoyment. If the film gets enough stuff right and doesn't act as though its absurdities would somehow fly in any other kind of movie, we'll allow it.

Anyone who's seen Theater of Blood knows how ridiculous its plot is: an actor named Edward Lionheart is killing all the critics who ever gave him a bad review, and his methods for murder are taken from Shakespeare's plays. But those who've seen it should also know what a strange and compelling movie it is. While most horror movies use as their unstated theme our fear of mortality, and of the unknown in general, this film, which is occasionally genuinely disturbing, actually has the balls to be a horror film about acting and criticism.

Vincent Price plays Lionheart. I think Price's greatest performance is in Witchfinder General, but this might be just beneath that one. He's creepy, deranged, and in one brilliant scene, he's absolutely heartbreaking. The scene is a flashback to the moment where the seed of his plan to kill these critics was planted. The moment takes place following the critics' annual award ceremony, at which Lionheart was expecting to win their Actor of the Year award. He didn't, and is devastated. The critics, meanwhile all meet up at a private party, which Lionheart later crashes.

There, Lionheart rages at the critics for ruining his reputation, insulting him, and giving their award "to a twitching, mumbling boy, who can barely grunt his way through an incomprehensible performance!" Devlin, the lead critic, has stated earlier in the film that he gave Lionheart all those scathing reviews to help pull the actor into the present, because Lionheart would only do Shakespeare and refused to modernize his style. So suddenly we've found ourselves watching a movie that's about classical stage actors being unceremoniously pushed aside by the new wave of Method actors? Apparently!

Regardless, in this party scene, even after Lionheart has angrily and publicly spilled out his anguish, the critics continue to laugh at him. After stumbling out onto their balcony, clutching the award he believes should be his, he begins reciting Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. The camera is still in the room with the critics, looking past them, through the window at Lionheart, who seems genuinely shocked that in his moment of despair these people are still mocking him.

There seems to be genuine rage in this film, directed at the critical profession. The idea that a single review can ruin careers and trash reputations might be overstated (and as presented in a movie like this, it would kind of have to be), but at the very least the standard critic's rebuke that their savage comments are meant constructively and shouldn't be seen as hurtful is now and always has been laughable. I like reading a good negative review, one that wittily shreds a particularly lousy film, but, as William Goldman always says, nobody sets out to make a bad movie, and to see people insulted for their efforts...I mean, we all have our limits, and I don't spend my nights wondering if Oliver Stone is still smarting over that whole U-Turn thing, or hoping that Ashton Kutcher will someday learn to not take these things to heart. No, I'm spending my Friday night writing about a 35 year-old Vincent Price movie for an audience of eight, tops. But in the broader view I do realize that years of hard work is often cruelly dismissed in a few paragraphs. Hickox and Greville-Bell know that, and you can bet your ass that Vincent Price knew it, too.

But, really, the film backs off from all that a little bit. As nasty as the film can be (that beheading scene! Holy Jesus!), it does lose its nerve a little bit towards the end (although that weird final exchange and glance between Milo O'Shea and Ian Hendry is worth thinking about), around the same time that the murders become simply too dumb to be effective either as horror or comedy. However, I don't care, because, boy, what an odd movie, a pissed-off horror film that has a sense of humor about itself. But only up to a point.


Fox said...

"But in the broader view I do realize that years of hard work is often cruelly dismissed in a few paragraphs."

One of the things I like about bloggers is that they have the means to combat that type of dismissal. Sure, we can contribute to it too, but I probably would have never thought to rent Theater of Blood had it not been for this post.

It's cool that bloggers (like you, Jonathan, and Marylin, for example...) champion older films that time may have forgotten.

Also, do you know if the director or writer of this film had a particular incident with a critic?

bill r. said...

Fox, I don't know anything about any of the people involved in this movie, other than a few of the actors. I thought that Theater of Blood was going to be just an amusing black comedy. I didn't know it was going to actually be sincere.

Greg said...

Fox - I wouldn't classify Theatre of Blood as a lost film or anything, it's pretty big. And not only is it sincere, as Bill says, but quite disturbing in parts. I hadn't seen it in years when, a couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to watch it again and got it on DVD. I told my wife that our little one could watch it with us since she loves old Universal horror films so much that I've introduced her too. Anyway, she was five at the time and the crazy bums killing the critic at the beginning just freaked her out and I was like, "oops, I forgot how dark this movie is."

But it's a great one I think, despite the flaws Bill mentions.

Say Bill, didn't you get this in a bargain bin or something and want to watch it after seeing clips in my October trailer? I hope I remember that right cause that would be super cool.

Oh yeah and I left a comment last night on Mamet just as you must have been writing this because I didn't see this up when I commented. Just missed it. I guess I'm not a closer.

bill r. said...

And that beheading scene, with the shot of the bed shaking due to the sawing...yikes.

Jonathan, I did get this in a bargain bin, but I can't remember seeing clips of it at your site. I know you'd raved about it, which made me want to see it, but I don't know about the rest. Maybe you're thinking of The Devil and Daniel Webster.

Greg said...

There's a clip or two from it and Phibes in my October trailer too.

Anonymous said...

Nine readers, my friend, nine ...

And has there ever been a more memorable line than "to a twitching, mumbling boy, who can barely grunt his way through an incomprehensible performance!"?

The movie lives in immortality for that line alone.

bill r. said...

It's a great line, Rick. And the shot of Price through the window, looking back at the critics laughing at him, really haunts me.

I'm not sure I've seen many movies that so completely upended my expectations, as this one did. Not because I liked it -- I expected to -- but because of what it was all really about. I need to do an IMDB search for Hickox and Greville-Bell, and see what else they put out there...