Monday, November 30, 2009

A Very Scary Christmas: Theater of Blood

[Note: I'm watching a bunch of horror films, mostly slashers, for research for a script I'm writing, and I figured I could start generating content on here again if I posted my reactions. This is the first such entry in a series titled, entirely due to the season, A Very Scary Christmas. Enjoy, whoever you are.]

To my shame I’m not familiar with Vincent Price’s body of work (outside of an old Tim Burton animation short about a boy who thinks he’s—wait for it—Vincent Price), but Theater of Blood, less of a detour in the series of horror films I’ve lately been watching than one might think, is a delightful introduction. Essentially, Price plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who attempted suicide after failing to win a prestigious award and proceeds to kill the critics who snubbed him, in the manner of death of characters from Shakespeare plays, delivering some of those plays’ best and most well-known speeches all the while. Shakespeare contrived some particularly nasty deaths in his day, and so the movie’s violence isn’t entirely shocking, but that some of it is as graphic as it is, is startling when one considers it came years before Dawn of the Dead, and still a year in front of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is actually much less bloody than its reputation would suggest.*

But then again, the mayhem is played obviously for laughs (it contains one of the most hilariously methodical decapitations I’ve ever seen) and most of the critics are ciphers anyway. This makes it, bizarrely, something of a proto-slasher film, insomuch as it contains elaborate killings committed by a madman against a number of barely-defined schmucks, a formula that would be refined in John Carpenter in 1978 with a focus on developing the victims rather than the killer (as well as significantly lowering their age), and then be bastardized and codified just a year later with Friday the 13th, which prized sensationalism over character, story, logic, and basic technical competence. The key difference between Theater of Blood and Halloween’s debased progeny, of course, is there is actual talent at work: Price tackles the role of an egotistical ham actor with gleeful abandon; the script by Anthony Greville-Bell is smartly written, drawing from several obscure plays in the Shakespeare canon for its kills but setting them up enough to let neophytes know what’s going on, and containing some nice, dry one-liners; and in an unexpected twist, Michael J. Lewis’ melodramatic score is surprisingly well-done and fits perfectly with Lionheart’s antic disposition.

I’ll add for the sake of completeness that the kills require a ludicrous degree of meticulous planning (even granted the help Lionheart is receiving, he puts to shame the Rube Goldberg scenarios of Saw’s Jigsaw killer), one of them (Othello) is less funny than mean and so not effective, and a late twist is aimed less at the other characters than the audience and as a result is kind of silly, but that’s the movie in a nutshell: it’s all silly and never plausible beyond the confines of the story, but it’s always aware of that (though the characters never are—a distinction that makes Lionheart campy, not cloyingly stupid), and it’s never condescending. Due to the robust stomach and possible Shakespeare geekery necessary, Theater of Blood’s appeal might be somewhat limited, but those who can clear those hurdles will find a bloody good time to be had.

*Edited to correct dates of release

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