In which an old man suckers you in by talking about a movie you might have seen recently and then bores your balls bald by chuntering on about a triple bill of flamboyantly and unrepentantly 1970s Vincent Price horror movies. Cardomon - it's the spice of life! No, wait, it's variety!
THE GREY (Universal, 2011) Starring: Liam Neeson (Ottway) Frank Grillo (Diaz) Dermot Mulroney (Talget) Dallas Roberts (Henrick) Joe Anderson (Flannery) Nonso Anozie (Burke) James Badge Dale (Lewenden) Ben Bray (Hernandez) Anne Openshaw (Ottway’s Wife) Directed by Joe Carnahan Written by Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers Based on the short story Ghost Walker by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers Music by Marc Streitenfeld
I wasn’t going to watch this one; I figured it was going to be some kind of dumb but entertaining Liam Neeson versus wolves thing (“I will find you and I will skin you.”) but my Lady of Infinite Patience assured me it was better than that. Turns out it’s one of those movies about a small group in a hostile environment being picked off one by one. Personally I’m all about that elegant narrative concoction so she was bang on. She was also right in that the film should have started when the cast of salty roughnecks boarded their ill-fated plane. If you hang on in through the overly explicatory first ten minutes then you’ll be rewarded with a really good time watching other people having a really bad time. There are some great jolts (the snow that suddenly isn’t there; the quiet pan revealing the silent feral shape), plenty of emotional punches to the solar plexus (“You’re dying.”; the wallet growing increasingly obese with the family snaps of the deceased); good performances (everyone; no exceptions), tight scripting (the sparse words worked like sled dogs); sound direction (good at action; good at inaction) and I swear there’s even a faint keening of Meaning. Sure, there are a couple of bum notes (Ottway is fucken terrible at his job) but it’s certainly far more thoughtful and successful a movie than I’d expect from something where a character jury rigs some brass knuckles by taping broken miniatures to his fists. GOOD!
THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES (AIP, 1971) Starring: Vincent Price (Dr. Anton Phibes) Joseph Cotton (Dr. Vesalius) Peter Jeffrey (Inspector Harry Trout) Virginia North (Vulnavia) Terry-Thomas (Dr Longstreet) Aubrey Woods (Goldsmith) Caroline Munro (Victoria Regina Phibes) Directed by Robert Fuest Written by James Whiton, William Goldstein & Robert Fuest Music by Basil Kirchin
Doctors are dying and someone must be called to account. Inspector Harry Trout is on the case and soon finds not only that the murders homage the Plagues of Egypt but also that the finger of suspicion points to one Anton Phibes. Yes, Doctor Anton Phibes, the noted surgeon and accomplished organist whose wife died while under the ministrations of a rapidly attenuating list of physicians. Unfortunately Anton Phibes is himself deceased, having died in a car accident. What manner of deviltry is afoot and can the forces of law and order prevail before this diabolical masterplan reaches fruition?!
This is one of those movies where some nutjob with a grudge picks off a bunch of character actors in a series of ridiculously convoluted but thematically linked scenarios of slaughter. There are two things this movie is immediately reminiscent of: an episode of The Avengers and a comic book. Obviously there I’m talking about John Steed Avengers (the best Avengers of all) on which Feust worked (1961,1968-9) just prior to this movie. No surprise then that this delightfully offbeat thing seems to take place in its own pocket universe and chooses to ramp up the artificiality of everything. It’s set in the 1920s Art Deco period but it’s Art Deco through a very ‘70s filter. The Abominable Dr Phibes isn’t really bothered about historical veracity (it’s set in 1925 and features a song written in 1943) but then it doesn’t actually take place in the real world (the song is played by a band of Frank Sidebottom looking automata; Dr Phibes is a surgeon and a world class organist; the whole film is basically to realism what salt is to slugs).Very much like The Avengers The Abominable Dr Phibes is utterly charming nonsense delivered with a strangely tongue-in-cheek solemnity; an approach quite often found in comics. It also uses a couple of narrative tricks (notably scene transitions bridged by a single line of dialogue pertinent to both) comics have nicked. That latter one’s a very 1980s Alan Moore move and with its disfigured nutter of a protagonist, his memorabilia laden lair and his elaborate murders there is lot of Doctor Phibes in V For Vendetta. (There’s also quite a lot in V For Vendetta which has nothing to do with Dr Phibes). The Abominable Doctor Phibes is a very comic book movie despite having nothing to do with comic books. That just struck me really strongly this time around.
All of which probably managed to eradicate any of the sense of vitality and joy which informs this odd duck of a movie. It’s a stylised gem of a thing filled with dark whimsy. A bizarre mix of visual delights and cheeky wit. It's a movie where the villain not only puts his face on like Mr Potatohead but amonst the face bits on his tray slumber a pair of sideburns. Who is in the details? The Devil himself! It was also nice to be reminded that just like many a 1970s teenage boy Dr. Phibes spends an unhealthy amount of time looking at pictures of Caroline Munro while playing his organ. (I forget; are we still permitted to make jokes like that?) There's a lot to love about The Abominable Doctor Phibes if you're built that way. And since I am built very much that wayThe Abominable Doctor Phibes is GOOD!
DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN (AIP,1972) Starring: Vincent Price (Dr. Anton Phibes) Robert Quarry (Darrus Biederbeck) Valli Kemp (Vulnavia) Peter Jeffrey (Inspecter Trout) Fiona Lewis (Diana Trowbridge) Hugh Griffith (Harry Ambrose) Peter Cushing (Captain) Beryl Reid (Miss Ambrose) Terry-Thomas (Lombardo) John Cater (Superintendent Waverley) Gerald Sim (Hackett) Lewis Fiander (Baker) John Thaw (Shavers) Keith Buckley (Stewart) Caroline Munro (Victoria Regina Phibes) Directed by Robert Fuest Written by Robert Fuest & Robert Blees Based upon characters created by James Whiton & William Goldstein Music by John Gale
This is one of those movies where some nutjob with a grudge picks off a bunch of character actors in a series of ridiculously convoluted but thematically linked scenarios of slaughter. Again. However, it is my sad duty to report that this movie doesn’t work. Which is odd because it has everything the first movie had in Vincent Price (still Vincent Price, still can’t dance), The Frank Sidebottom Swingers and the old organ (nicely juxtaposed with an Egyptian tomb), ridiculous murders (clockwork snakes; man in bottle), witty dialogue (“Where do you think we are?”, “I don’t think! I know!”, “ I don’t think you know either.”), Terry Thomas (as a different character), brief glimpses of Caroline Munro (the one woman Kickstarter for 1970s male adolescence) and some very stylish sets. There’s even new stuff (Peter ”The Cush” Cushing (but just for a minute), Beryl Reid (the legendary), Egypt (well, some palm trees and sand). For all that though (and all that’s fun enough) there’s something missing you can’t quite put your finger on.
Whatever it is, its absence results in a disjointed mess even people inclined towards this stuff struggle with (a person not like me said it was “****ing ****”; honestly, she’s like a sailor sometimes!) I think the big thing missing is clarity. In Phibes everything was ridiculous but you knew why it was happening; it all made sense within the rules of the Phibes world. Here everything is ridiculous and you don’t know why it’s happening; it doesn’t even make sense in the Phibes’ world. It doesn’t help that there’s no one to root for. Cotton’s sympathetic doctor is replaced by Robert Quarry (as emotive as his surname) and he just seems like a big shit. So much so that you’d think they were maybe repositioning Phibes as a more sympathetic figure. Or you would if Phibes didn’t just seem to be killing people just because they’re around. For most of the movie he’s picking off an Egyptian expedition the members of whom he hasn’t even met before he gets stuck in. It’s just a shame. It isn’t a complete loss. I mean, Inspector Morse gets mauled by a hawk in a catacomb so, you know, there’s lots to enjoy. But damn if it just doesn’t work. If you loved Phibes you’ll merely like this but you’ll only merely like it because it’s EH!
THEATRE OF BLOOD (United Artists, 1973) Starring: Vincent Price (Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart) Diana Rigg (Edwina Lionheart) Ian Hendry (Peregrine Devlin) Milo O’Shea (Inspector Boot) Eric Sykes (Sgt Dogge) Harry Andrews (Trevor Dickman) Jack Hawkins (Solomon Psaltery) Diana Dors (Maisie Psaltery) Arthur Lowe (Horace Sprout) Michael Hordern (George William Maxwell) Robert Morley (Meredith Merridew) Dennis Price (Hector Snipe) Directed by Douglas Hickox Written by Anthony Greville-Bell from an idea by Stanley Mann & John Kohn (with contributions by a certain Mr. William Shakespeare Esq.) Music by Michael J. Lewis
Critics are dying and someone must be called to account! Inspector Boot is on the case and soon finds not only that the murders homage the plays of William Shakespeare but also that the finger of suspicion points to one Edward Lionheart. Yes, Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, the noted thespian and accomplished ham whose career died while under the ministrations of a rapidly attenuating list of critics. Unfortunately Edward Lionheart is himself deceased, having thrown himself off a balcony in a fit of pique. What manner of deviltry is afoot and can the forces of law and order prevail before this diabolical masterplan reaches fruition?!
This is one of those movies where some nutjob with a grudge picks off a bunch of character actors in a series of ridiculously convoluted but thematically linked scenarios of slaughter. If that sounds like it’s basically the same as The Abominable Dr Phibes then that’s intentional on my part. Maybe it was intentional on the part of the film makers too; there’s having certain similarities and then there’s straight up taking the piss. And there’s just no way Theatre of Blood isn’t absconding with industrial quantities of urine. With its adoption of the same basic template (and star) it’s highly likely Theatre of Blood is a wilfully raucous riposte to the earlier, more genteel movie. While Phibes’ nastiness is tempered by its campily weightless tone Theatre rubs its malice in your face like riverbed mud; at one point the beloved narrator of Paddington Bear is knocked off. Oh, it’s revolting stuff but it’s still campy and very, very funny; it’s just the humour is lip smartingly brackish so it reduces the horror not a jot. If anything it makes it worse. Location shooting makes Theatre feel more alive and grounded in reality than Phibes; the squalid goings on in Theatre are going on in a very squalid and very real world. This has the added bonus of an absolute beauty of a moment; in the background of a scene outside Meredith Merridew’s house a woman pauses midst rummage in her handbag upon noticing the commotion the film crew over the road are making. Due to the nature of the role Phibes could be said to have largely wasted Price under latex and afterdubbing but Theatre gives Price his druthers and allows him to belt out The Bard as he’d never been able to before (typecasting, darling; plays merry Hell with careers). Not only that but Price is given a ridiculousness of grotesques (groovy chef; camp hairdresser being the highlights) to portray which display both his range and utter lack of conceit. Some of these and the generally grubby demeanour of the movie itself might paddle in what modern viewers may believe is a very ‘70s kind of bad taste. In the film’s (and the decade's) defence I think Theatre draws its lewd and impudent tone from farther back; as far back in fact as the revenger’s tragedies it and Phibes’ basic plot echo so strongly. I’d say it was Jacobean but you’d think I was crackers.
Other than getting you to watch this movie, I think my point was that bad taste is eternal because we all enjoy a bit of it on the sly; we always have and we always will. While the casts of the Phibes movies are all good with a few standouts the whole cast of Theatre is great; each fruity thesp clearly revelling in ensuring his/her critic is as odious or foolish as possible. In fact they might be a bit too good because by the end you’re kind of starting to see Lionheart’s point. Luckily this veritable shit of critics counts amongst their number Ian Hendry and no one presented, as we are here, with the ineluctable allure of Ian Hendry in a too tight polo neck would ever wish harm on Ian Hendry’s head. Alcohol robbed cinema when it took Ian Hendry. As good as The Abominable Doctor Phibes is (and it is GOOD!) Theatre of Blood is better; it is VERY GOOD! it is also the only movie in the history of cinema with a 'Meths Drinkers Choreographer' in the credits. Probably (I didn’t check; I'm not made of Time).
So there you go. Watch ‘em or don’t just remember to read some – COMICS!!!