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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Witchfinder General

Vincent Price

 

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

 

 

30 January

 

 

Oliver Cromwell executed two years after death, 1661

On this day in 1661, Oliver Cromwell was posthumously executed.

A member of parliament who had entered the civil war against the king, Cromwell had risen quickly to become on of the best generals on the side of the “roundheads”. In 1649, Cromwell was one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. In 1653, having led campaigns against the Irish and Scots, he abolished a quarrelsome parliament and became de facto monarch of the country. When he died five years later, in 1658, the title of Lord Protector went to his son, though Cromwell Jr would hold it for only a year, leading to the end of the Protectorate.

In the power vacuum that ensued, George Monck, the English governor of Scotland, seized the initiative, marched on London, restored the parliamentary system that had been in existence under Charles I and set about organising the restoration of the monarchy.

On 30 January 1661, 12 years after Charles I had been executed, Cromwell’s body was dug up from Westminster Abbey and was subject to a ritual execution. His body was then hung on chains at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) and his head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall for the following 25 years.

Whether it actually was the body of Cromwell which was “executed” has always been moot.

 

 

 

Witchfinder General (1968, dir: Michael Reeves)

Set in an England where the fighting between Oliver Cromwell’s men and royalists has torn the social fabric, allowing opportunists of all sorts to make sport, this cult horror film comes at the real-life tale of witchfinder Matthew Hopkins from a typically 1960s direction – youth, sex and zoom lenses.

Ian Ogilvie is the callow member of Cromwell’s army, Vincent Price the witchfinder terrorising the people of Norfolk with his pointing finger, and Hilary Dwyer the soldier’s comely fiancée who catches the eye of the charlatan.

It’s a cult horror film for several reasons, not least the death shortly after it was made of its young director, 25-year-old Michael Reeves. And though Reeves is often over-rated by horror geeks he clearly had something about him. For example he managed to persuade Vincent Price to leave the full basket of fruit at home, wrangling a performance out of him that’s ripe rather than rotten (this wrangling is the subject of a brilliant and amusing BBC radio play by Matthew Broughton you can hear here).

Witchfinder General is the best of Reeves’s slim output of four films, a brutal and bleak treatise on terror that survives the poor acting and post-dubbed sound thanks to its psychological insight, measured treatment of its villain – Hopkins is a man led astray by power, not the devil – and an eye for a pastoral image.

It’s sometimes called The Conquering Worm in the USA, where it was sold as the latest in the line of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. But though Poe wrote a poem called The Conquering Worm, and that title is tacked on the front of the DVD for its US release, this film has nothing to do with it. And unlike those Poe films, or almost any other horror film of the time, there is no supernatural element in Witchfinder General at all. As with The Wicker Man, with which it is sometimes lumped, the horror here is all man-made, psychological, political and very nasty.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Vincent Price playing it straight (ish)
  • A cult film from a cult director
  • Play “what would Reeves have produced if he hadn’t died”
  • British folk horror at its psychological best

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm – at Amazon

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The Raven

Artwork for the original poster of The Raven

 

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

 

 

23 November

 

 

Boris Karloff born, 1887

On this day in 1887, the great horror actor Boris Karloff was born. Disappointingly, his birth name was William Henry Pratt and he wasn’t born in some Carpathian cave but in the inner suburb of Lewisham, South London. A well educated young man with a lisp and a stutter, he dropped out while training to become a functionary of the British Empire and instead took to farm labouring before becoming an actor. He took the name Boris Karloff while in travelling repertory theatre in Canada, and after arriving in Hollywood he played a number of villain roles before getting some notice in the Oscar-nominated newspaper drama Five Star Final. The same year, 1931, saw Frankenstein hitting the screens with Karloff as the monster. He instantly became one of the most famous actors in the world. Within a handful of years he had also appeared in The Mummy and The Old Dark House, other classics from Universal’s golden horror era. Karloff loved to work and was always grateful for the opportunities the bolt-necked monster had given him. He continually sought to widen his appeal, though it was as mad scientists, deranged villains or even as the demented Captain Hook that his gifts for deadpan and the sibilant vestige of his lisp would stand him in best stead. Towards the end of his career his star waned. Whether he would have kept his career in better health by not being so ready to spoof himself, so keen to work in no matter what low quality B movie, to appear as a regular on any old TV show is debateable. What isn’t is that Karloff was a trooper and a gentleman who gave handsomely to charity and dressed up as Father Christmas every year to hand out presents to orphaned children. He worked right to the end, through emphysema and arthritis: Peter Bogdanovich cast him in his first film, Targets, as a horror actor approaching the end of his life. It was in fact Karloff’s final film (though four further Mexican films, shot earlier in 1968 would appear posthumously). He died in England, of pneumonia, and was cremated and laid to rest as William Henry Pratt in a low-key service.

 

 

 

The Raven (1963, dir: Roger Corman)

There’s a scene towards the end of the final Harry Potter film when the massed might of Hogwarts stand up for a “wands at dawn” showdown against Voldemort’s cohort. It’s a thrilling sequence that brings to mind the finale of Roger Corman’s great adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Like all Corman productions it was made on the cheap. But Corman always had an eye for talent going for a song, rising stars who’d work for buttons and, most of all, the main chance. All combine in The Raven, which sees the cut-price horror triumvirate of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, rising star Jack Nicholson and genius sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) collaborating on one of the best fantasy B movies ever made. The plot is Poe’s (sort of): a retired widower wizard named Dr Erasmus Craven (Price) is visited by a talking raven (Lorre) who claims he was turned into a bird by the most powerful magician in the world – Dr Scarabus (Karloff). After Craven returns the raven to human form, he learns that his wife isn’t dead after all; she’s shacked up with Scarabus. Apparently. So off the pair head to Scarabus’s castle for a showdown. Cue wands, wizardry, special effects and ever increasing amounts of camp. It’s here that the film comes into its own, as Karloff and Price try to outdo each other with “serious face” spoof-acting, while Lorre bounces around improvising trying to make them corpse. Corman was just off a string of Poe adaptations with Price and both are clearly enjoying the opportunity to have a bit of fun at the old drunkard’s expense. This was the first time that Lorre, Price and Karloff appeared together. And though it happened again the following year in Comedy of Terrors, the later film is not a patch on The Raven. As for Jack Nicholson – let’s just say he was yet to invent the “here’s Johnny” persona.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great example of a Roger Corman film – cheap but full of ingenuity
  • Karloff was also in the 1935 The Raven – which is nothing like this
  • Lorre’s improvising
  • A camp classic

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Raven – at Amazon