Friday, April 18, 2014

Theatre of Blood


It has been a highly unpleasant day, here on Fanning Island.  Celebrity Survivor continues to be no picnic. No sooner do I catch my breath from one spectacular stunt, than they have us moving on to the next. Today, we were supposed to retrieve gull eggs from half way up a fairly sheer precipice; I made myself a lovely little flying trapeze rig out of bamboo and liana vines and found that by attaching it to the trees growing above the cliff, I could lower myself in basic knee hang position and do quite well. Or it would have gone quite well if one of the other contestants hadn't arranged for a particularly sharp rock to cut one of the vines. Plunging forty feet face first into a lagoon is not good for the complexion.

My unintended stunt may knock me out of the running and I have heard rumors that my tiki torch may be extinguished tonight. Let them try. My solar powered laptop has kept me in touch with Joseph, my manager, who has found out some rather interesting things regarding the production company and its finances. Let's just say that he's found it wise to get my appearance fee in cash and in advance. Should they try to vote me off the island on such a technicality, I have a few things I could spill to the press about the reality of this reality television. In the meantime, I'm practicing my best Lady Macbeth should a public denunciation become necessary.

In order to sharpen up by dramatic Shakespearean skills, I flipped through my film collection and came across an old favorite, Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg. This highly theatrical 1973 horror film contains not one, but nearly a dozen golden Shakespeare moments, so I found a quiet glade, spread myself out to dry, and lost myself in thoughts of high drama and revenge.

Vincent Price plays Edward Lionheart, a British actor-manager of the old school, devoted to the works of Shakespeare. Emoting in the style of Kean or Irving, he marches through his decrepit theater as Shylock or as Mark Antony, in full costume and make-up, playing to his current companions, a bunch of addle-pated meth drinkers. Lionheart, you see, was a legend in his own mind, savaged by the critics. As he descended into madness, he was convinced that the London critics circle would vote him 'Actor of the Year'. When they did not, he seemingly committed suicide in a spectacular fashion. Now he's back, seeking revenge on the critics who did him wrong.

The film opens with one critic, George Maxwell (veteran British character actor Michael Hordern) discussing business with his wife. He needs to help the police run some squatters out of a building he has an interest in. The weather has been stormy, his wife has been having bad dreams and it's the 15th of March. (This scene should seem familiar to those who read Julius Caesar in high school). At the building, Maxwell is stabbed by a mob as the police are revealed to be Lionheart and his assistant who set the whole thing up. As the critics start to be bumped off one by one, in creative and gory ways, it occurs to police detective Boot (Milo O'Shea) and heroic critic Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), that the murders are following the patterns of death as written by Shakespeare and the order is that of the plays Lionheart presented in his final season, before his 'suicide'.

Devlin and Boot team up with Edwina Lionheart (Diana Rigg), Edward's daughter, now a make-up artist to try and find Edward and stop him before there's no literate theater criticism left in London. Edwina hasn't done well since her father's death and seems to spend a lot of time hanging around his tomb in various diaphanous chiffon draperies. The thought that he might still be alive, however, brings her out of torpor and into more action than might be good for her.

Price gets to pull out all the stops as Lionheart. He gets to declaim famous Shakespearean soliloquies in scenes in an over the top manner. He gets to be his usual psychotic in the Dr. Phibes mold. He adopts a number of disguises as he sets up his victims for their dooms, most notably as a swishy hairdresser and a smarmy television host. He's having a ball and he's never been better. Diana Rigg is nearly as good, but she's hindered, through a lot of her performance, by a hideous early 70s wig.

The critics are played by a number of British character actor veterans including Robert Coote (the original Pickering in My Fair Lady), Coral Browne (Vera Charles in Auntie Mame), Robert Morley and Jack Hawkins. They're great fun to watch and they steal scenes from each other effortlessly, even if they are done up in some truly terrible early 70s fashions that lean heavily to ascots, flared trouser legs, and wide stripes.

The combination of Shakespeare and gory murder might discomfit some viewers but, if one looks at the original texts, they're full of rather nasty scenes that would make even the makers of Friday the 13th take pause. The film is true to Shakespeare's original intentions. He lived in a violent time and violent death permeates his dramatic works. Director Douglas Hickox films the murders for melodramatic shock effect, which works for the tone of the film. The script, by Anthony Greville-Bell, is a cut above most horror films with its Shakespearean allusions and is full of macabre humor moments that make the film extremely watchable.

Bloody plastic sheeting. Funeral drag. Permanent permanent. Headless husband. Gratuitous Diana Dors. Burning theater. Vile jelly references. Yappy poodles. Yappy poodles silenced. 

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