Taking a look at a couple of Vincent Price features this week, it's tempting to revisit some of the old Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. There's a lot to choose from when considering his colourful filmography. But then struck by inspiration I thought it would be best to start at the very top, and feature Theatre of Blood.
In spite of the similarities with the Dr. Phibes films with their themed death sequences and overall revenge plots, this manages to go beyond homage and become something superior. Taking a cue from them and merging it with the world of Shakespeare on the stage allows Price to really go overboard in terms of costumes, acting and speeches. It also results in some effective pathos when flashbacks reveal the nature of his murderous plan. Getting back at critics for dismissing his work, Price as Edward Lionheart gets to work on offing the local theatre review group. It's probably something that would strike a nerve, or at least illicit a few laughs from actors in general. The deaths are pretty grisly when you consider his older films where blood was unrealistic if shown at all. The '70s style comes through in both these effects and the outfits characters are seen wearing. But the tone allows this to produce a lot of black comedy as he reproduces famous stage deaths with his new involuntary co-stars.
The murders are a mixture of gruesome and outright silly as Lionheart works his way through the likes of Othello and Julius Caesar. The sequences involving hair curling equipment and a cookery TV show set in particular are ridiculous. The disguises worn by the outraged performer and his assistant push this even further with some crazy hair pieces on show. Yet in one moment during a sword fight he wears only a false moustache; dramatically revealing his barely concealed identity with a dramatic flourish which makes for a good laugh. Liberties are taking with The Bard's plays in many instances, but it allows for elaborate and amusing moments. This is a creative man in pain and he deserves vindication after all. Helping set the stage for all of this are a band of homeless drunks acting as his theatre audience as well as setting up his victims. The obvious purple dye in the methylated spirits they are drinking in every scene adds to the bizarre nature of all this. The critics themselves include familiar faces including Arthur Lowe and Jack Hawkins, and Lionheart's daughter played by Diana Rigg completes the ensemble feeling of the film. It's a heady mixture of overblown acting, vengeance and Elizabethan soliloquies that makes for a good time.
The second part of the billing here is The Last Man on Earth from 1963. While one of my favourite books is I Am Legend, the later adaptations were pretty poor efforts in terms of keeping to the material. The Omega Man did its own kind of thing with Charlton Heston versus a nocturnal cult, but the Will Smith vehicle which used the name of the book was even worse; after a moody first act things start to fall apart and the ending kills it entirely by going off the rails and losing the title's meaning. Watching the first version to be filmed I discovered at last an effort to use many of the great scenes from the Richard Matheson novel. The hero Robert Neville has become Robert Morgan for some reason ... but parts including the plague backstory, scenes showing pits where infected people are taken, and the nightmare of what happened to his wife are present and correct. He's still a scientist, which still is a cop out. I understand it's easier to skip over the story of a drunk blue collar worker trying to understand biology when the film has limited running time, but I liked all that stuff. He needed to be yelling at microscope specimens and becoming angry about his lowly existence. Price does a decent job as a grumpy, worn out guy who has the occasional breakdown, but it loses some aspects of the character this way.
For the '60s it's pretty bleak. Perhaps it's a result of the Italian production being outside Hollywood norms. It would have been a Hammer horror feature but the censors wouldn't allow it. As a doomsday story there are many instances where its influence can be seen. There are a lot of elements that seem quite similar to the classic siege situation from Night of the Living Dead here, even the monochrome visuals are reminiscent of Romero's first zombie outing, even if the ghouls here are mostly the vampires from in book. Some elements like having to be invited into a home are implicit but they do seem to have trouble with this, preferring to break windows and yell at Robert from outside each and every night. If only scenes of his research on the subject were included. There's a lot of atmosphere, and the sense of gloom is maintained when they show him making wooden stakes and the map showing areas he has used them on. Things being to stumble a little in the climax and they don't use everything that made the original story so intriguing, but I guess it's a decent attempt. It's not a great film but there's enough to enjoy if you're up for a downbeat and moody evening.