Starring Vincent Price as an artist turned into a monster by the greed of those around him, House of Wax was one of the big 3D spectacles of the 1950s. It is available on 3D Blu-ray from Warner Bros.
Arrow present a handsome Blu-ray set of Robert Fuest’s two campy, art deco black comedies celebrating the sinister machinations of an evil genius played by Vincent Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Rather than a mad scientist, Anton Phibes is a doctor of musicology and theology, studies he relies upon when he decides to revenge himself upon the surgical team who failed to save his wife’s life. It’s a slender motivation, but a very thorough revenge, murdering the medicos according to his own interpretation of the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt.
Co-writer and director Robert Fuest was an art director in the early days of commercial television in Britain, graduating to director on early episodes of The Avengers, where he obviously responded to the campy, surreal sense of Englishness. (He also introduced Richard Lester to the music of the Beatles, whom he had made amateur recordings of.) A heavy drinker, rumoured cross-dresser, and a favourite of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Fuest made only a few features, and the last two were heavily compromised, but between Hitchcockian thriller And Soon the Darkness, pop art sci-fi apocalypse The Final Programme, and his two Phibes films, his cult reputation is assured. His first film, comedy Just Like a Woman, is a funny and convincing portrayal of 60s media people, and his version of Wuthering Heights (1970) with Timothy Dalton is actually one of the finest Brontë adaptations.
The first Phibes film inaugurated the mini-sub-genre of themed murder movies continued in Theatre of Blood and Se7en, and is a precursor of the slasher genre: the plot is essentially a string of elaborate killings, with the authorities continually several steps behind, so as not to interfere with the fun. The themed killings are sometimes horrible, sometimes enjoyably ludicrous, but it’s actually the incompetent investigation following Phibes that provides most of the fun.
Price, that inveterate ham, is somewhat muted by the script’s casting him as a man with a prosthetic face and no vocal chords, relying on a gramophone plugged into his throat to communicate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to constrain Price’s mugging… The presence of Joseph Cotten points up the film’s debt to Citizen Kane, joining disparate scenes together with witty links, in which a spoken question is answered by the first image of the following scene. All in all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a unique, crazy, and rather personal film, devoted to Fuest’s love of jazz, elaborate art direction and costume design, fruity performance, and naked sadism.
The sequel struggles a bit, lacking the structure of 10 curses, and has to keep inventing excuses to kill people in ridiculously elaborate ways, and shuffling guest stars on and off, but it benefits from Robert Quarry’s faded matinee-idol charm, and a rather intriguing mythological grounding, capitalising on the 20s-30s enthusiasm for Egyptology. Rather than relying on a virtuous hero (ditching Joseph Cotton’s crusty protagonist), the film pulls off a nice trick by opposing Phibes with an equally ruthless villain, while Inspector Trout scurries in their wake, perpetually baffled.
Like the original, it lurches from one gruesome highlight to another, sometimes stumbling, but helped along by grace notes of performance (Terry-Thomas, Beryl Reid) and set design (by Brian Eatwell, consistently ravishing). And Peter Jeffrey, as Trout, accompanied by his truculent, yapping terrier of a boss, John Cater, is a joy, delivering some truly awful joke dialogue with stiff-upper-lipped aplomb.
Watch the trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes:
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.
The first of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, The Fall of the House of Usher features an iconic performance by Vincent Price in the lead role. A guest arrives at the Usher home, where he finds a house literally crumbling apart, in an echo of the mysterious illness that has infected the home’s inhabitants, including the woman he hopes to marry.
To mark the UK Blu-ray & Steelbook debut of Corman’s chilling classic (released by Arrow Video on 26 August 2013), Jaime Huxtable imagines a conversation between Roger Corman and Edgar Allen Poe.
The opening credits in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir roll over an oil painting of a beautiful woman; this is Laura, but as the story begins, she has already been found murdered. ‘I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,’ says Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in a voice-over, as the camera pans around his museum-like apartment, lingering on luxurious objects collected by the wealthy society figure, who delights in excoriating Manhattanites in his newspaper column and radio show. We soon learn that Laura has been shot in the face at close range, right in the doorway to her apartment, and Waldo is one of Lieutenant Mark McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) chief suspects.
So is Shelby (Vincent Price in an early role), something of a once wealthy playboy, now fallen on hard times. We discover through flashbacks, as their stories are recounted to McPherson, that the two men were engaged in a tussle for Laura’s affections. Lydecker ‘discovered’ Laura (played by the beautiful Gene Tierney), helping to further both her career and her climb up New York’s social ladder. So enamoured of his own status, Lydecker struggles to understand how Laura could fall prey to Shelby’s charms, failing to see the appeal in being with a younger, more attractive man (who also appears to have a lot to hide, including a love affair with Laura’s wealthy aunt).
This is film noir set in the rarefied milieu of the elite, rather than in the mean streets below the glittering penthouses. They eat out at the legendary Algonquin, not at seedy diners. Their world is beyond McPherson’s reach; his only chance at coming close to a woman as refined and elegant as Laura is through the - possibly distorted - imaginings of Lydecker and Shelby. Lydecker (who is given many of the film’s best lines, his caustic wit one of its highlights) in fact reprimands the detective when he crassly refers to Laura as a ‘dame’. For all of her success - she rises to the top of the advertising world, even hiring Shelby when he’s down on his luck - Laura is neither vamp nor moll, leaving McPherson and the audience to puzzle over her true character. What is clear is that McPherson finds himself seduced by the idea of Laura; and, in a terrific plot twist, it’s left to the audience to decide whether his desire for her, and with it his need to solve the case, is merely a fantasy, or something more real.
Always lingering beneath the genteel surface is the shocking brutality of the violent murder; Preminger makes the blistering case that the rich elite are capable of any crime if it means getting what they want. All of this makes Laura a thrilling, absorbing and original example of the genre; it’s also beautifully shot, pure escapist entertainment. It dates from a cinematic era when two characters could still fall in and out of love seemingly overnight, and when plots could be full of holes (common in the genre) without critics deriding the film as unrealistic. Despite some of the all-too-human mistakes that she makes, Laura is also a strong, independent and desirable woman, and an unusual, almost accidental femme fatale.