WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS (AND SOME HAM).
I’m sure that we have all thought about which films would be on our list of all time favourites. I have no doubt about my number one – Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s masterful exposition of the life and times of media mogul Charles Foster Kane. After that it becomes a bit more complicated, but my list would probably include The Godfather, Duck Soup, Casablanca, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Bringing Up Baby, High Noon, Modern Times, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Forrest Gump and Life of Brian. This is a pretty conventional list. However, if I were compiling my top 100 there would be some other films I would want to include. They are generally less well known and don’t tend to appear in the top 100 lists, but I love them nevertheless. So this will be the first in an occasional series in which I will pay homage to these films.
For my first film I am going to go back to 1973 and an old-style horror flick starring the legendary American horror movie actor Vincent Price – Theatre of Blood. Apart from Price, the director, Douglas Hickox had a wonderful cast of talented British thespians including Diana Rigg, Jack Hawkins, Eric Sykes, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Joan Hickson and Robert Morley, at his disposal. And we mustn’t forget Diana Dors, Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. Price must have felt like a kid in a sweet shop surrounded by such talented co-stars. He discovered that between them all they had done every single Shakespeare play on the stage. He also loved getting to play eight Shakespearian characters in one go. The script was by Anthony Greville-Bell, with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.
Price plays Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who has routinely been panned for being a “ham” actor. Unable to deal with critics’ hostility and annoyed at their passing him over for an award, he decides to end it all by jumping out of a window of a high building. When he is rescued by a group of meth-drinking down-and-outs, he decides that instead of trying to top himself, he should bump off all the critics who he blames for having destroyed his career. Lionheart is a bitter man:
How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because you lack the ability to create yourselves! No Devlin, no! I did not kill Larding and the others. Punished them my dear boy, punished them. Just as you shall have to be punished.
And punished they are. Over six gallons of fake blood was used to produce the eight ghastly murders. These grisly deaths are all highly inventive with Shakespearean themes. Here are a few of the highlights:
Troilus and Cressida: Hector Snipe (Dennis Price) is speared through chest, dragged away tied to a horse like Hector in the Trojan epic.
Richard III: Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) is drowned in a vat of wine like the Duke of Clarence. Larding loves his wine and Lionheart uses this to lure him to a wine tasting at a basement location. The bon vivant, who once fell asleep during one of Lionheart’s performances, is dunked in a keg of wine till he drowns.
Othello: Soloman Psaltery (Jack Hawkins) gets an anonymous tip-off that his wife, Maisie (Diana Dors), is being unfaithful. Lionheart pretends to be a masseur and makes it look like he is having an affair with Psaltery’s wife. The critic walks in on her while she is being massaged. Lionheart manages to convince Psaltery that there have been with more than twenty other men. The furious husband suffocates Maisie with a pillow while exclaiming “Die, you strumpet!” Lionheart doesn’t actually murder Psaltery, but his life has been destroyed and he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Henry VI Part 1: Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) arrives at her regular hair salon. She is told that her usual stylist is away and that the rather camp Butch (Lionheart) will be her hairdresser today. Moon is strapped to a salon chair and gagged to prevent her from sounding the alarm. Lionheart switches the electricity to maximum; the metal rollers in her hair are excellent conductors and Miss Moon is burnt to a crisp like Joan of Arc.*
Titus Andronicus: When Meridith Merridew (Robert Morley) arrives home, the curtains are flung open, and Merridew is duped into thinking that he is appearing on the TV cookery show, “This Is Your Dish“. Unaware that anything strange is going on, he tucks into a succulent pie. The only thing missing are his beloved poodles. He finds a strange hair and Lionheart’s dastardly plot is revealed. He lifts the lid on the platter to reveal the mysterious ingredient in the pie. We see two poodle heads. Merridew is force fed his “babies” by way of a funnel until he chokes to death.
King Lear: The bloody finale involves an evil contraption built to blind the leader of the Critics Circle, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry). After the mayhem is over, Devlin pithily sums up the career of Lionheart:
A remarkable performance. He was overacting as usual, but he knew how to make an exit.
They just don’t make films like this any more. Charming, literate, with a wonderful cast – what’s not to like? To continue with last week’s culinary theme, this film is revenge served cold on a bed of wicked black humour and well-cooked ham. Price is in full self-parody mode. Chef Lionheart serves up his hapless victims with the gusto of Ferran Adrià crafting a fine meal. There may be a few broken eggs, but the final result is a gastronomic delight.
* Some trivia I found online:
After filming the scene, Price sent Browne a bottle of champagne. Shortly afterward, he divorced his second wife Mary (with whom he had co-authored a cookbook), so that he could marry Browne. “That’s a way to meet your wife!” Price would laugh, recalling the electrocution scene.