After acting in two of Ben Wheatley’s films – Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012) – and co-writing the latter, Steve Oram strikes hard with his first opus as director. Sightseers opened with a long series of moans uttered by the unhappy mother, and here Oram limits his dialogue to just that. The film starts with Oram and Tom Meeten (it would be pointless to give them names, even though each character is duly attributed one in the final credits) crossing the woods and performing a strange ritual of urinating on the picture of an ex-wife or girlfriend without uttering a single intelligible syllable, contenting themselves with expressive grunts and growls. This sets the scene for the remaining 80 minutes. For Aaaaaaaah! is a Planet of the Apes, the other way round. Rather than having the apes evolve to a near human level of civilisation, Oram prefers to bring Londoners down to their very primal selves.
Oram has embarked many of Wheatley’s crew on this low-budget project that manages to fuse two cornerstones of TV broadcasting: soap opera and wildlife documentary. Also caught in the adventure is Julian Rhind-Tutt playing an alpha male scoffing in front of a brand new plasma screen and playing video games; Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding from the surrealistic The Mighty Boosh; and Toyah Willcox, who played Miranda in Derek Jarman’s Tempest (1979) but also, prophetically, Monkey in Quadrophenia (1979), and who plays the leading female part. With Willcox came Robert Fripp, who happens to be her husband and who improvised a bewitching music that advantageously compensates the total absence of articulate dialogue. (And make sure you stay for the final credits if you are a King Crimson fan.)
Seeing Julian Rhind-Tutt going ape is a delight in itself, and most likely a turning point in his career, but beyond the comic effect of the concept, Oram shows how little our behaviour as well as family and social structures have evolved since we were apes ourselves. Although Oram denies any attempt at serious social criticism, the modern consumer society so perfectly fits the animal struggle for food, territory and a dominant position within the group that by the end of the film the rudimentary and limited communication between the characters sounds like an improvement over the compulsive use of the F-word in so many contemporary productions.
With his debut experiment, Oram vindicates the importance of slapstick comedy and fart jokes (aren’t they timeless after all?), and the final TV show compulsively enjoyed by the surviving homicidal outcast heralds tomorrow’s post-reality-television. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
Writers: Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann, John Kohn
Cast: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Milo O’Shea
Theatre of Blood is almost the last horror film Vincent Price made in the 1970s. Price was famous for a rather broad style of acting, and his last few 70s horror roles reflect that – the Dr Phibes films are high camp, and Madhouse (1974) casts him as a hammy old horror star. Theatre of Blood, Price’s favourite of his horror roles, has him play a Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart, out for revenge on the critics who gave him bad reviews. He murders them using methods taken from the Shakespeare plays he performed in his final season (although it’s unclear who Lionheart would have played in Cymbeline, a play without a lead male role).
Price’s star turn walks the line between humour and pathos extremely well. Like most of Price’s best parts, Lionheart is all flawed nobility, and gives the actor plenty of scope for his well-practised head-tilting, eye-rolling mannerisms. It is the culmination of the onscreen persona he had cultivated since at least The House on Haunted Hill (1959). Price is backed by a peerless supporting cast of British character actors, which includes his future wife Coral Browne, with Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews and Robert Coote particularly good. Diana Rigg plays Lionheart’s adoring daughter (a rather under-written part) and the reliably unlikable Ian Hendry is the leader of the critics.
Comedy horror is difficult to pull off, and Theatre of Blood plays the horror mostly straight. The early murders are authentically nasty, especially the first, in which Michael Hordern is stabbed by meths drinkers. The later killings become more elaborate and outlandish, most famously in the Titus Andronicus sequence, but the gory effects still pack a visceral punch that is absent from most Vincent Price films.
The comedy is rather underplayed, and is best when it isn’t obtrusive. The funniest moment comes when the stunt doubles for Price and Hendry indulge in some preposterously athletic fencing. There are also nice little character moments among the critics, played to perfection by comedy veterans like Robert Morley and Arthur Lowe. Price’s disguises are funny, especially the Olivier-baiting false nose he wears as Richard III. Other attempts at humour, such as the slightly jarring presence of Eric Sykes as a detective, are less successful.
The director, Douglas Hickox, had done comedy before (Entertaining Mr Sloane, 1970, a film that isn’t screamingly funny), but made Theatre of Blood just after the depressing crime thriller Sitting Target (1972). His next film was Brannigan (1975), a John Wayne action movie. Theatre of Blood certainly feels like a film made by a director happier with violence than comedy.
In spite of its advantages, though, the film doesn’t quite work. The unrealistic elements – comical names, plodding detectives – don’t fit with the brutality of the killings. While deaths plucked from Shakespeare’s plays are a worthy follow-up to Phibes’s Biblical killings, the derelict, grimy London of Theatre of Blood is light years away from Phibes’s art deco dreamland. The film also feels a bit too long – one or two of the critics could have been jettisoned. Shaving 15 minutes from the run time would have made this much stronger.
Still, it’s interestingly positioned at the end of an era. The film makes it clear that Lionheart isn’t a bad actor; he’s just an unfashionable one. At the Critics’ Circle awards, his old-school barnstorming is ignored in favour of a younger method actor (‘a twitching, mumbling boy’). 1973, the year of Theatre of Blood, saw the National Theatre move from the traditional Old Vic to Denys Lasdun’s modernist South Bank complex, just downriver from where the critics meet in the film. Director and businessman Peter Hall took over from actor-manager Laurence Olivier as its artistic director that same year, cementing a general shift in influence from star performers to directors. It’s hard to imagine Edward Lionheart taking too kindly to modern-dress Shakespeare or social realist readings of Hamlet.
And, of course, the same thing was happening in horror films at the same time. Star-vehicle horror of the kind that had kept Price in art and cookery books died out in the 1970s. We tend to think of 1960s horror in terms of its actors; 70s horror belongs to directors like George Romero and Wes Craven. 1973 saw the release of classic new-style horrors like Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist alongside some of the last Hammer Gothics and Amicus portmanteau films. The writing was on the wall.
It’s tempting to see Lionheart’s refusal to bow to changing times as reflecting Price’s own attitude. Better to go out howling defiance than to go on like Hammer and Amicus did, churning out the same old stuff and hoping the audiences would come back. But perhaps that’s reading too much into a film in which a man is forced to eat his own poodles.
Arrow’s Blu-ray release upgrades the film’s image in impressive fashion without losing its grimy ambience. The extras are a bit light compared to some of their releases. The best is a commentary by the League of Gentlemen, who know a thing or two about mixing horror and comedy (although Mark Gatiss should note that Tutte Lemkow was, in fact, a man). If it isn’t quite the classic it could have been, there are still pleasures enough to make Theatre of Blood well worth watching.
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Kristofer Hivju, Bruno Ganz
Norway, Sweden, Denmark 2014
Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) doesn’t talk much. A snowplough driver by profession, and recently elected as the community’s ‘Man of the Year’, he’s more the kind of guy who skips the chitchat and gets right to the action – especially if he is upset, or angry, or both. And when his son suddenly dies of a heroin overdose, he is devastated and opts to take revenge.
His urge for personal vengeance soon becomes a dangerous threat not only for the gangsters responsible for his son’s death, who wrongly believed him to be engaged in a spurious drug scam. Rather, in the course of his investigations, he also shakes up the frosty relationship between the Norwegian drug Mafia and their Serbian opponents, which inevitably leads to a big showdown at Nils’s depot. To reveal much more of the story would take the fun out of Moland’s droll and deftly crafted crime thriller, but rest assured that the number of characters drops quickly once Nils gets into the flow of things.
Although the filmmaking is assured and the pace correspondingly brisk, keeping in line with its hero’s spirit, there is no denying that Moland reworks a well-tested formula here, which places his playful slice of Nordic noir at risk of running idle. He occasionally tries too hard to exploit the winning (and sometimes worrisome) simple-mindedness of some of the villains, while the initially amusing structure of the film (each death on screen is marked with an intertitle of a cross and the victim’s name) somewhat looses momentum towards the end. But you have to give it to Skarsgård for keeping a perfectly straight face throughout, while Moland makes excellent use of the crisp, snowy landscape that, as ever, serves as an appropriate setting for a staggering war of revenge.
Pedro Almodóvar has said that he has often contemplated making a film in the English language. I suspect I’m So Excited would have been the perfect film with which to start. This colourful comedy, set on a malfunctioning aeroplane, is one of the campest films he has ever made (which is saying something), so imagine what Carry On fun he could have had with ‘cockpits’, ‘touch down’ and ‘oversized baggage’ as opposed to their less-euphemistic Spanish equivalents.
On the flight, destined for Mexico but doomed to ‘doing circles around Toledo’, we have three out-and-proud flight attendants (one alcoholic, one pill-popper and one Hindu), two sexually-confused pilots, a drugs mule, a psychic and a high-class dominatrix. If you think this sounds like early Almodóvar, you’d be right, and I’m So Excited recalls the director at his most fun, his most rebellious and his most absurd. In a nod to the spiked gazpacho of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987), the flight staff numb the passengers to the impending danger with Bucks Fizz laced with mescaline, while there’s more than one Labyrinth of Passion-style love triangle (1982), and the cabaret and lip-synching used to emotional effect in High Heels (1991) and Law of Desire (1986) are reinvented here by a hysterical song-and-dance number to the film’s title track.
It’s a relief to welcome back a puerile Almodóvar after the knowing Broken Embraces (2009) and the dark melodrama of The Skin I Live In (2011), and – with colours as bright as a high-vis jacket and his usual parade of interesting faces – nearly every frame of this film is a joy to behold.
I’m So Excited is not an entirely smooth ride though. An ensemble piece with numerous interweaving stories, the strongest plot points take place in the cabin, despite Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz putting in game cameos on the ground. And, although one of the characters is given a key part in the film’s emotional and narrative denouement, it’s hard to care too much about a passenger who spends most of the film conked out.
More problematic still are the film’s two rape scenes. That there are any rape scenes may escape many viewers, and this ambiguity appears to be an emerging motif in the director’s body of work (the Skin I Live In is a case in point). It might be po-faced to get moralistic with a director as irreverent and loveable as Almodóvar, but the fact is that having sex with someone who is drugged and/or asleep is rape, and that it’s not treated as such is alarming. Almodóvar made light of rape in the early film Kika (1993) and was upbraided for it then. The difference is that Kika’s response to her rape was arguably funny and part of a grander narrative about the metaphorical ‘rape’ of subjects by the media. Similarly, the director made child abuse funny in What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984) and terrorism funny in Women On The Verge. But the rape in I’m So Excited is not funny, it’s flippant, and, for someone capable of writing an otherwise tight and comedic script, he should know better.
Luckily for him, it’s bad turbulence and not a fatal crash. Tourists to his wacky world won’t be disappointed, and those with him for the long haul will be pleased to see he is at least travelling in the right direction.
Watch the trailer:
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