Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Carving the Bard

I have survived Theater of Blood. The movie and I have a checkered history going back forty years to its original release. 

This was one of the films I first learned about in the pages of the now long-defunct genre “newspaper” The Monster Times. From the start it intrigued me… but it was an “R” picture, which meant something in those days, and I have always been pretty squeamish about onscreen bloodshed, violence and torture. Most likely this is connected at least in a minor way with Asperger’s: movies have always been vivid and much more real than Real Life to me, and depictions of the mildest violence would send me running from the room.

There were episodes of Star Trek (of course I’m talking about The Original Series, which is the only Trek that means anything to me) that I could not watch: Too Scary. I dreaded the sound of a woman screaming. To some extent, I still do. If I could sense that a woman was about to scream I would tear out of the room and bury my head in the living room sofa. To this day, I cannot watch the shower scene in Psycho. The original trailer for Psycho opens with a woman turning to face the camera and screaming like a banshee. A TV station ran this trailer one afternoon (I think it was during The Wild, Wild West) and it pretty much traumatized me for life!

Jungle pictures, Tarzan movies, scared me the most. People were always getting killed in horrible, awful ways. Even on the Tarzan TV show with Ron Ely, Tarzan was always scary. One episode I’ve never forgotten opened with an invisible monster sneaking into the tent of a sleeping native. The native man woke, looked up directly into the camera and started screaming his head off. 

I ran out of the room.

Over the years my tolerance gradually deepened, and eventually I could look at all the scary episodes of Star Trek that I had run out on as a kid. And I developed that little-kid love of monsters, as distinct from horror. The Universal monster movies have always been pretty mild, so they gave me a safe outlet to explore my curiosity of All Things Scary.

When Theater of Blood eventually aired on TV, I finally got a chance to explore its dark depths. And I loved what I saw. Like the arguably better Abominable Doctor Phibes, also starring Vincent Price in his prime, its real story is about The Old World rearing its head to take revenge on the Modernity that has consigned it to mothballs. Unlike Phibes, Theater of Blood has several different “readings.” It can also be seen as the Creative Mind getting its due at last from Indifferent, Un-creative minds — the critics. At the same time it functions as theater critic on its own terms, exploring the darkly violent, gory, sensationalistic stuff concealed under all the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays (When asked why he had made his film version of Macbeth so very gory, the yet-to-be-exiled director Roman Polanski replied along the lines of “I didn’t make it gory. Shakespeare did.” — That said, I don’t think the extremely distasteful bear-baiting scene was in Shakespeare’s original).

With a great cast including the always-delightful Diana Rigg, the version of Theater of Blood that I watched that evening quickly became a kind of favorite. But —

— it was “edited for television” and I knew it. Very sloppily edited for television, I might add, with awkward jump-cuts that made it self-evident where the bloody parts had been hacked out. I was of two minds about this. On the one hand, I knew that I would not be able to watch the unedited theatrical version, and this allowed me to get a kind of grip on the movie that I otherwise would not have had the chance to experience. On the other hand, it always pains me to see Bozos come in and chop a movie to death.

Many, many years passed and I always harboured a secret desire to see Theater of Blood again, wondering what it would be like uncut. At the same time, I was terrified of it… and this was not helped by critics like Leonard Maltin who wrote that the movie was “marred by a series of incredibly gory murders.”

I talked to a fellow who had seen it, and he confirmed “Oh, yes, it is incredibly gory.” Reviews at online sites drove this point home repeatedly. So I stayed away all these years — all the while harboring an undying curiosity about the thing.

Well. This Halloween Season I let my curiosity get the better of me, and when the now-unavailable DVD came up online in a used copy at an affordable price, I bit the bullet and ordered her up.

Glad I am that I did not watch this when I was younger. Even now, there were sequences that I had to watch with the sound turned off. Still and all, having sat through and not just survived but having actually enjoyed it for all the same reasons that I enjoyed the cut version years ago, I have to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Because Theater of Blood, although it emphatically deserves its R rating even today, is not nearly as gory as I was led to believe that it would be… and in fact is quite mild by today’s standards. More to the point: Theater of Blood is so skillfully shot and edited by the filmmakers that, through implication and camera angles and suchlike, it makes its audience believe that it’s far gorier than it actually is. These days, you see just as bad (or worse) on a network TV crime drama. These days, some of the things that are only implied in Theater of Blood are now shown in full and awful CGI detail. 

Especially the Maltin comment now irks me. Because Maltin reviews many movies in his annual Movie and Video Guide, and some of them — like Re-Animator and Peter Jackson’s almost pornographic Braindead — are far more violent, far more explicit, far more sadistic with far less justification, and use buckets and buckets more blood than Theater does … yet never once does Maltin advise or admonish his readers that they are “incredibly gory.” 

If Theater of Blood was remade today, I shudder to think what it would be like. Even at the time, it could have been worse. Theater of Blood has a point or two to make, and it gives you just enough to make that point. As an example, in the Shylock sequence a heartless critic has his own heart cut out — the pound of flesh (“exactly!”) that the Merchant of Venice demands. But you don’t see it happen: you see Price approaching the man with a knife, you see some very suggestive motion as the action itself is completely obscured by theatrical staging… and then you see the consequences of that action, as Price carries the organ in his hands to the weighing scale. Yes, that part is gory. But it could have been so much worse.

Today, in the hands of a less talented director, every detail of that scene would be explicitly shown. You would see the knife cutting flesh, you would see the actor’s hand reaching into the cavity to rip out the still-beating heart. Blood would be everywhere, by the gallon. Modern filmmakers do not have the creativity to stage it any other way. This is what I was afraid of. This is what I thought “incredibly gory” meant. And this is what Theater of Blood does not do.

So — yes, the movie is bloody… as bloody as a movie with a title like Theater of Blood needs to be… and no more.

Enough of all that. The movie is a sly wink wrapped around a Great Idea that manages, in a way that seldom works, to combine genuine wit, black humour  and morbid scares in the cleverest of ways. You’ve just got to love the concept of a Bad Actor (itself a pretty good play on words) going out of his way to murder all of his biggest critics, and doing it using the plays of Shakespeare for inspiration (wait ‘till you get to Titus Andronicus). To use an appropriately outdated and chauvinistic expression, it’s “a thinking man’s horror movie.” Edward Lionheart is the role that Price was born to play, and he goes to town with it. As though to compensate for his deliberate over-emoting (I think Price as the hairdresser is the funniest bit), Rigg deadpans her way through the picture. 

The critics are a roster of great British character actors demonstrating what Good Sports they are. On an interesting side-note, Price met his future wife Coral Browne on this picture — she plays one of his victims!

I wouldn’t show it to a child, who wouldn’t get the joke anyway, nor even to a particularly sensetive teenager. I’m glad that I waited until now, well into my middle years, to fully attend the Theater of Blood. Having done so, I’m glad to report not only that I got through the experience unharmed, but found it a good bit of old-fashioned morbid fun.

— Freder

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