Theatre of Blood

Vincent Price and Diana Rigg in Theatre of Blood


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 May


Sam Jaffe born, 1901

On this day in 1901, one of the great characters of Hollywood was born, in Harlem, New York. Sam Jaffe, not to be confused with the actor of the same name, dropped out of high school and, thanks to his brother-in-law being a producer, got a job as an office boy at Paramount.

He rose quickly and by 22 was production manager on films directed by such luminaries as Lubitsch, Von Sternberg and Mamoulian. Having dated Clara Bow and saved Paramount studios financially by inventing the “night for day” system of shooting – which used the nightime streets (plus massive amounts of lighting) as sets rather than the incapacitated studios (being refitted for talkies) – Jaffe worked briefly at Columbia in the 1930s. Then he went solo and went on to become an agent for Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, David Niven, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick and others. It was Jaffe who took out insurance in case Humphrey Bogart was shot by his own wife while making Casablanca. He also became in independent producer, until the McCarthy enquiries into Communist sympathisers holed his business below the waterline.

He moved to London in 1959 and officially retired, though continued producing projects that took his fancy, making films such as 1966’s Born Free and 1973’s Theatre of Blood. Otherwise he studied and collected art. He returned to Los Angeles in the 1980s and became an avid student at UCLA’s perpetual learning (PLATO) project. He died aged 99 in 2000.




Theatre of Blood (1973, dir: Douglas Hickox)

As the British movie industry went into one of its periodic flop-sweats in the early 1970s, it turned to soft porn, smutty humour and feature-length versions of TV comedies to bale it out. The Hammer studio continued making horror films, with more breasts. The comedy series Carry On carried on, also with more breasts.

Which makes Theatre of Blood something of an oddity – a witty horror film eschewing nudity, with a big cast of familiar actors, sumptuous sets, good locations, all the things that say “proper movie”. And a movie star – Vincent Price, hot off the back of the Dr Phibes films, which also mixed high camp and comedy.

Here, Price is playing a dreadful old ham actor, no stretch, who is working his way through the critics who cruelly denied him an acting award, on account of the fact that he’s no damn good. Undaunted by fickle opinion, Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart continues to believe he is the best interpreter of Shakespeare – all other playwrights are beneath him – ever to have trodden the boards. And so he kills them all, these critics, one by one, in scenes lifted from Shakespeare, loosely adapted by Lionheart and his aide whose bubble perm and moustache combo appears to have been borrowed from ELO’s Jeff Lynne. The aide is in fact Lionheart’s daughter in disguise, played by Diana Rigg, and I’m not sure if we’re meant to know it’s her or whether it’s all part of some big reveal.

The deaths of the actors are fairly gruesome – one is drowned in a vat of wine, another gets a spear through the chest, another is electrocuted in a hairdresser’s chair… but I’m spoiling the fun. And it is fun, watching ripe British talent such as Harry Andrews, Michael Hordern and Robert Morley getting a few minutes in the spotlight before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Fun but not funny, I must say. Camp rather than hilarious, much as director Douglas Hickox’s previous film, Entertaining Mr Sloane, had been (well worth a gander if you haven’t seen it).

Other little joys include shots of London, after decades of post-War decline, just poised on the beginning of the decades-long climb back to being one of the glittering global capitals. There’s also Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography, which really lifts this from out of the normal rut of British films of the early 1970s (he’d worked similar magic on Get Carter two years earlier).

If you were going to make a shortlist of Price’s best films, then this, along with Witchfinder General, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and House of Wax (possibly the first Phibes film) would be high on any shortlist, because it is Price playing Price, a man who has spent so long in grand guignol mode that he isn’t sure where the off switch is.



Why Watch?


  • One of Vincent Price’s best films
  • Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography
  • The cast is all top drawer
  • Because the 2014 restoration is so good


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Theatre of Blood – at Amazon

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19 May 2014-05-19

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street

Out in the UK This Week

The Wolf of Wall Street (Universal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Scorsese’s best film since Casino also continues his trend towards flabby films. Twenty minutes can, and let’s hope eventually will, be trimmed from a film with a Goodfellas arc – we start with a voiceover of Leo Di Caprio saying, in effect, that for as long as he could rememeber he’d always wanted to be a richfella. And off we go into a roaring rush of the true story of Jordan Belfort, who became a licensed Wall Street broker on the day the market crashed in 1987, then started at the bottom all over again, selling penny stocks to dentists and climbing his way back to the top by setting up his own boiler room, followed by his own high tone outfit, Stratton Oakmont.

If Casino had Sharon Stone, The Wolf of Wall Street has Margot Robbie – a body which seems to consist entirely of muscles – as the blonde skank golddigger happy to tolerate Belfort as long as he’s in the money. Jonah Hill plays Belfort’s gopher pal, the scenes they have together being the ones most in need of a trim, though the actors are having such a good time it probably felt mean to hit the delete key. Does editor Thelma Schoonmaker have no sway?

It is all good fun, especially key scenes of bad people doing bad things, such as quaaludes and alcohol in excess – with enough comedy to remind us that Scorsese’s films back in the day were actually quite funny.

The Wolf of Wall Street – at Amazon

A Birder’s Guide to Everything (Solo, cert 12, DVD/VOD)

An unusual film, relaxed, modest, quietly delightful, about a gang of teenagers who go off on a birding trip to try and spot a rare duck. The four leads are to some extent standard issue – king birding geek is Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the kid struggling with the death of his mother. Also along for the ride are Oversexed Jewish kid Alex Wolff, Super Straight Chinese Guy Michael Chen and Sweet And Doesn’t Know She’s Hot Girl Katie Chang.

It’s very like an old Disney rites-of-passage movie, with a pair of bad-guy villains out to steal the group’s thunder, and a stand-in father figure in the shape of Ben Kingsley (another of his eccentric turns). Except Disney films never have a crystal meth subplot, avoid any mention of sex if at all possible and would never feature teenagers whose secret gang language is Latin.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything – at Amazon

Reaching for the Moon (Peccadillo, cert 15, DVD)

The American poet Elizabeth Bishop hit a creative speedbump in the 1950s and, encouraged by fellow poet and friend Robert Lowell, headed off to Rio de Janeiro to recharge the batteries. There she fell in love with a female architect, Lota de Macedo Soares, now best remembered for her design of Rio’s Flamengo Park.

This film tells that story. And it is beautifully told, with characterful performances by Miranda Otto as Bishop, Glória Pires as the Von Stroheim-esque Soares and Tracy Middendorf as piggy-in-the-middle Mary, pushed out by Soares when she falls torridly for the poet.

Bruno Barreto captures the lush looks of Rio, the fine high modernism of the late 1950s, and of Soares’s airy open designs. It really is all extremely well done, exquisite, in fact. What is less obvious is why anyone should be in the faintest bit interested.

Reaching for the Moon – at Amazon

The Good Man (Soda, cert 15, DVD)

What a strange small film this is. Watching it is an odd experience, since we’re following two narratives that seem to have no connection to each other. In one there is Aidan Gillen accidentally causing the death of another man and becoming consumed by guilt about what he has unwittingly done. In the other we have a South African township, where there is a budding romance between two bright teenagers (played by Thabang Sidloyi and camera magnet Lunathi Mampoful), Sidloyi playing the guy hoping to get the girl by reconnecting her part of the town to the electric supply.

How these two stories connect is what the film is about. And it’s a very unusual coupling indeed, unsettling even, taking what Gillen’s character has called the “holy knot” that unites humanity and showing us that when stretched out beyond its original intended limit, it becomes something else entirely. Is that what the film is saying? That our attitude to people in foreign countries should be “even if I could help them, I really shouldn’t”? Is it?

The Good Man – at Amazon

Made in America (Signature, cert 15, DVD/VOD)

Jay-Z’s admirable Made in America “artist’s festival” in Philadelphia has been running for a couple of years now. This is the film of the first 2012 event, which looks to have been programmed by Jay-Z himself, who is keen to push two ideas: that being a self-made music star, up from the streets etc, is actually what America is all about. And that music has hit some tipping point, that we’re in a post-racial age. Hence the eclectic collection of artists – Skrillex to Rita Ora to Pearl Jam to Kanye West to Passion Pit to The Hives and D’Angelo.

Ron Howard’s film is the standard backstage and frontstage affair, with a few other strands – an elderly local initially complaining about the noise, a striving food-van entrepreneur, some local kids hoping to get a spot on stage – adding a bit of extra texture. Howard himself does a lot of the interviews, and he’s a likeable, knowledgeable, friendly and skilled interviewer. If offers for directing gigs ever dry up…

However, there really isn’t enough actual music here for the film to qualify as a music doc – Skrillex’s shrieks and booms are absolutely awesome, Rita Ora is bright and bouncy, D’Angelo soulfully rocks out – but most of the others, even Kanye West, just aren’t on screen enough to register. Leaving the whole thing feeling a bit like a promo doc for Jay-Z Inc.

Made in America – at Amazon

Wish You Were Here (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Capturing that vibe of The Beach, Kieran Darcy-Smith’s thriller is about four Aussies who go to Cambodia for a drugs-n-booze-n-dancing-till-dawn holiday. Only three come back. What happened to number four is what the film is about. And also what happened between Dave (Joel Edgerton) and Steph (Teresa Palmer), the very hot sister of Dave’s wife Alice (Felicity Price).

Of course you already know what happened between Dave and Steph, and the film spends an inordinate amout of time setting up the idea that this girl is smoking, before E’s are consumed and the inevitable happens. But what has that got to do with the disappearance of Jeremy (Antony Starr)? In the end, not very much, sadly. Because, in the end, not very much happens in the film.

Edgerton is believable, earnest and gritty, as always, but this film was made before he turned up in Zero Dark Thirty and then dominated The Great Gatsby as the unpleasant rich snob Tom Buchanan. Which probably explains Wish You Were Here‘s present release.

Wish You Were Here – at Amazon

Theatre of Blood (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray)

Theatre of Blood might be the best film Vincent Price ever made. It’s certainly one of the truest to life, being a comic horror about a terrible old ham called Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart (Price), a Shakespeare virtuoso in his own mind at least, murdering all the critics whose bad notices murdered his career.

As with the two thematically, stylistically similar films that preceeded it, The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again, the joy of watching comes from seeing a fearsome overactor being given a licence to shoot for some kind of camp bullseye. One joy at least. The other is in watching a troupe of now dead British character actors – Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, Ian Hendry, legends all – being terminated with extreme prejudice, each according to some nastiness from a Shakespeare play. A pound of flesh here, a drowning in a butt of wine there, all pretty fiendish, some rather gory.

Diana Rigg acts as youthful connective tissue, while Wolfgang Suschitzky provides cinematographic brilliance, as he’d done two years earlier, and in similar raggy, beautifully composed style in Get Carter, this very decent restoration making clear what an asset he was.

Theatre of Blood – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2014