Posts tagged Gothic Horror

Vincent Price & Theatre of Blood

Let’s be quite candid about Vincent Price’s acting style (and I say style, not ability) – he was an out-and-out ham. Under a particularly gifted director, he could produce a more serious, subdued performance, of course. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) is the most notable example. For the most part, however, Price was a larger-than-life presence on the screen, fond of exaggerated gesticulation and over-the-top delivery of lines. In his most celebrated films, the overacting served him well.

Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood

In the seventies, Price began to parody this camp tendency, and never more than in the trio of films he made in Britain between 1971 and 1973: The Abominable Dr Phibes, Dr Phibes Rises Again and Theatre of Blood. In the first Phibes film, he played a disfigured organist who takes revenge on the surgeons who failed to save his wife by subjecting them to his ingenious recreations of the biblical plagues on Egypt. (The deliberately absurd tone seemed lost on Time Out critic David Pirie, who rather humourlessly denounced it at the time as “perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945.”) In the sequel, Phibes picked off his enemies one by one with a similarly dramatic series of tortures. Then, in Theatre of Blood, he was Edward Lionheart, a stage actor, presumed dead, who borrows death scenes from Shakespeare to exact his revenge on the critics he blames for killing his career. It’s a Grand Guignol-style variation on the Phibes idea, but it stands out for its unique intertwining of Price’s persona with that of the central character.

Lionheart is a relic, an old-fashioned thespian once popular for a highly theatrical style of acting by now outmoded and damned by critics. Film and literary scholar Peter Hutchings describes Theatre of Blood as

an elegy for a lost style of Shakespearean drama, a style that involves approaching the films as barnstorming melodramas and one which is characterized by a reliance on non-naturalistic forms of acting within extreme situations, on scenes that emphasize pathos, cruelty and suffering, and on the presentation of wrongs done and of wrongs righted.

Lionheart’s own murderous actions are ironically self-reflexive, turning his theatrical craft to malevolent purposes to butcher his enemies. But there’s a self-reflexive element to the film itself, too, for Price represents an old style of horror movie that, by 1973, was well on its way out. It was the year of The Exorcist, a serious and scary drama that treated the supernatural like the stuff of documentary, not melodrama. The old school Gothic horror film had been declining for years, and traditional horror producers like Britain’s Hammer Films were fighting against the trends, finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the new universe brought to birth, arguably, in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Hutchings notes that even director Douglas Hickox’s approach is decidedly old-fashioned, “eschewing the subjective camerawork and fragmented narrative structures” common in genre films of the time. Nor is there evidence of “youth in revolt,” a popular horror theme of the time, with Lionheart’s daughter (Diana Rigg) presented as a “model of filial devotion” likened to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

So the movie is effectively a double joke – Lionheart defiantly turns his beloved but waning style of theatre into a weapon with which to destroy his critics, while Price gives a tongue-in-cheek FU to a genre that is quickly making his own style obsolete. It might very well be seen as his swansong, for after Theatre of Blood, the actor’s horror features consisted mostly of far inferior attempts at this kind of self-parody, such as Madhouse (1974), The Monster Club (1980) and House of the Long Shadows (1983).

In 2005, London theatre company Improbable recognized the genius of Theatre of Blood and co-produced a stage adaptation with the National Theatre. Jim Broadbent was cast as Lionheart – one need only watch him as the showman Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! (2001) to see how adept he is at the kind of the overblown theatricality needed for the part – and, in yet another self-reflexive twist, Rachael Stirling was Lionheart’s daughter, a role played in the original film by her mother, Diana Rigg.

Improbable and the National Theatre retained the seventies setting, for this was the decade in which the concrete National Theatre complex itself was erected on the South Bank of the Thames. The oft-criticized building and its context in the history of British theatre were the butt of jokes throughout the play, which is set as the NT is preparing to open. The critics in the supporting cast represented real British rags of the period, such as The Times, The Guardian and The Evening Standard. Ironically, however, the production itself received a mixed response, with some reviewers complaining that the play was apparently so self-reflexive, the industry in-jokes went over the heads of audience members unfamiliar with the context.

Undoubtedly, Price knew he symbolized a generation in horror that was becoming a quaint relic. But let’s not assume there was any bitterness behind Theatre of Blood’s tongue-in-cheek lament for the passing of an era. Price was not afraid to laugh at himself; his unique status as a pop culture icon in commercials, music videos and kids’ cartoons is testament to that. “The last thing my father was was a snob,” Price’s daughter Victoria told the Riverfront Times in 2011. “He understood that popular culture was an incredibly powerful force. He had fun.”

And fun was certainly what he had treading the boards as Edward Lionheart in the film that, arguably, contained more of the real Vincent Price than any other in the inimitable ham’s screen career.

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Sources Cited

Hutchings, Peter “Theatres of blood: Shakespeare and the horror film” in Gothic Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis & Dale Townshend, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)
Levitt, Aimee, “Back from the Undead: Happy 100th to homegrown horror icon Vincent Price” in Riverfront Times, May 19 2011
Pirie, David A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1945-1972, (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973)

Gothic Horror Theatre: It’s Alive! (Or Is It?)

When I hear of a stage play adapted from a Gothic horror story, like London’s National Theatre sell-out production of Frankenstein, there’s a vein of jealousy running through my excitement. For I began my writing career as a playwright, and I worked hard on several scripts of famous horror tales that never made it to the theatres. Yes, for reasons unfathomable to me, my Phantom of the Opera, written when I was nine, was eclipsed by some inferior version produced around the same time by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I hear it’s still doing quite well in the West End, but what do punters know?

My version was inspired not by Gaston Leroux’s novel, which I hadn’t yet read, but chiefly by the Universal film starring Claude Rains. Despite some beautifully expressionistic art direction and a tightly crafted chandelier sequence, this 1943 version smothers most of the terror with whimsical vignettes and protracted musical sequences. The few horror moments, such as the final unmasking – to reveal a relatively unimpressive Jack Pierce makeup – inspired me to pen a 10-minute adaptation, which my peers and I performed before a packed assembly hall. The other pupils loved it so much, I wrote a more action-packed sequel with gunfights, tied-up heroines and dramatic poisonings.

I later tried my hand at other horror classics, including Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeDracula and Frankenstein. I was particularly proud of Frankenstein because, like the mad scientist himself, I worked on it day and night in the confines of my writing laboratory. It was the only full-length play I ever finished, although I’m sure it was awful – I was still a mere 10 or 11 – and sadly, the manuscript has disappeared. I still have a box containing other plays, and even a few crumpled pages of Phantom still exist. (eBay?)

So the idea of horror theatre has a special resonance with me. Danny Boyle, best known for films such asTrainspottingShallow Grave28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, directs the new Frankenstein, which opened in February to almost unanimous acclaim. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. (The only other instance I recall of the dualism being quite so vividly portrayed is in the 1968 TV play for the ITV series Mystery and Imagination, in which Ian Holm played both parts.

The BBC followed with a contemporary, semi-comical adaptation of its own, Frankenstein’s Wedding, a multimedia staging before an audience of thousands in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, in Leeds, and broadcast live on BBC3. As the title suggests, the action centred around the night of Frankenstein’s wedding to Elizabeth. There were pre-filmed flashbacks on large screens, musical numbers by live bands and even flash-mob style dance routines that involved the entire crowd. The reviewers’ consensus, however, seemed to be that the much-hyped event was a flop, albeit a fascinating experiment that deserved praise for its daring.

Over in America, the new off-Broadway production of Dracula has received a critical bashing. The show is a revival of the Hamilton Deane-John L Balderston play that enjoyed huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s. In 1931, it was filmed by Universal with the star of the Broadway production, Bela Lugosi (Raymond Huntley had played him in the earlier London version), and then in 1979 with Frank Langella, also reprising a role he had played on Broadway. This new version stars Italian model Michel Altieri in the title role, with support from George Hearn – musical theatre’s definitive Sweeney Todd – as Van Helsing, and Emily Bridges, daughter of actor Beau, who took over from Thora Birch after her much-publicized firing a few days before the previews.

It turns out Birch may have had a lucky escape from a doomed production. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times doesn’t hold back in his assessment:

Sadly, this comically creaky production … makes the material feel about as immortal as a fruit fly. The creature this lumbering staging most resembles is not one of those comely young vampires with six-pack abs zigzagging at warp speed across screens today, but a lumbering, dead-eyed zombie fresh from the crypt. … [The] play comes across as a hopelessly hoary Victorian melodrama long on talky scenes rehearsing the by-now-familiar lore … and scarcely enlivened by cheesy would-be thrills that are not likely to raise a single goose pimple[.]

Who needs Van Helsing when you have critics like Isherwood?

Two misses out of three so far when it comes to this mini-revival in horror theatre. While the National Theatre’s Frankenstein may be an exception, the greatest stage adaptations of the classic Gothic tales probably have yet to be written. Balderston and Deane don’t hold up in this more sophisticated age. I’ve never read the play The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, made famous on the Victorian stage by Jack-the-Ripper suspect Richard Mansfield, but I suspect the same could be said of it.

I’d write the definitive Dracula myself, but Andrew Lloyd Webber would only steal the limelight again by writing his own musical version. I suppose with me it’s just a case of “Once bitten, twice shy.”