Theater of Blood: A Brief Discussion
I would like to discuss, briefly, one of my favorite films, starring one of my favorite actors of all time.
I am referring to the 1973 crime psychodrama, or "horror" film known as Theater of Blood, with Mr. Vincent Price in the lead role.
Now, before I say something about the plot, let me say that I intend to devote myself to two questions: 1) Is the film, Theater of Blood, an "exploitation" film?; and 2) Is Theater of Blood a so-called "B-movie"?
Having said that, perhaps I should define my terms, or at least explain what this writer means by them.
What is "exploitation" in film?
I do not use this term to mean that a movie treats a person or group of people "badly." For example, a film may be misogynistic ("woman-hating"), as many films are. One can say that the image of women is "exploited" or badly used and abused, scandalized or libeled, demeaned, and all that good stuff.
However, that is not what I mean by "exploitation" in film.
A film may be exploitative of certain cultural fears and prejudices about race, gender, etc. A film may push certain hot button issues in such a way that may seem exploitative.
Again, this is not what I mean by "exploitation" in film.
Here is what I mean by exploitation in film, or a film that is what is called an exploitation film; of course there is the sub-genre, so-called "Blaxploitation," which is a predominately African-American-cast film, usually set sometime in the 1970s, which is of the mold of which we are talking about. In other words: a black exploitation film.
Okay, here is what I mean by exploitation in film.
A film is an exploitation vehicle if it features what I call a central spectacle, which, under normal circumstances would give rise to elements that would check or thwart the outrageous thing from happening. But the exploitation film suppresses or eliminates those elements that would restore sanity.
Indeed, under normal circumstances, the outrageous thing, or central spectacle, would not be allowed to happen in the first place.
I know that doesn't make much sense right now, but please hang in there.
Let me give an example. Take the 2016 movie, The Fifth Wave, a science fiction film starring Chloe Grace Moretz, who was "Hit Girl" in the Kickass movies.
Now, I have not seen The Fifth Wave; but from the way a reviewer on YouTube who calls himself Fanboy Flicks (his show is called Bad Movies --- he reviews bad movies, talking about what makes them bad), talks about the film, I would call it an exploitation film.
From his commentary, I gather that the film is a kind of fantasy fetish of kids, not even out of high school, taking over the world, without any adult restraint. In fact, according to Fanboy Flicks, the film, The Fifth Wave, dispenses with the world's adults with a very neat plot convenience. I don't want to spoil the film for anyone who has not watched it yet, so I won't say exactly what happened to all of the adults.
At any rate, this fantasy fetish ("Don't trust anyone over 25!") is served up under the guise of an alien invasion of the Earth. But interestingly and strangely enough, it is a rather anonymous alien invasion we're talking about in The Fifth Wave. I gather that the actual aliens are never actually seen in the movie.
Now, this "fantasy fetish" I'm talking about which, in my opinion, makes The Fifth Wave an exploitation film, was much more directly and explicitly invoked on an episode of the old radio mystery anthology series, Suspense, from the forties, fifties, and early sixties.
The episode is called Zero Hour, based on a short story written science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury. In that story, a little girl gleefully anticipates the very moment when her alien friends will invade the Earth and, shall we say, suppress all the adult restraints---including, most definitely her own parents---that keep children from having fun.
Now, one last small detail to note about The Fifth Wave: it is a film based on Young Adult fiction.
Now, if you think about it, it is probably possible to classify most things (in the United States of America) that we see on the small and big screen, as an "exploitation vehicle" of one sort or another, according to the definition I have laid out.
For example, consider the television show, Murder, She Wrote, which aired for twelve years from 1984 to 1996, and starred Angela Lansbury. Let me be clear: That show was an "exploitation vehicle."
In the following way: The show featured the preposterous scenario, what I am calling the "central spectacle," of Jessica Fletcher (Lansbury), as a widowed, sixty- or seventy-something former school teacher and mystery book author --- with no experience whatsoever in law enforcement or any related fields --- who insinuates herself in the middle of official police investigations concerned with homicide.
In real life, under normal circumstances where sanity prevails, such nonsense would be instantly shut down by the proper authorities; who tend to frown upon such things... something to do with Obstruction! or something.
But in the universe where Murder, She Wrote takes place Mrs. Fletcher's exploits are not shut down because, wherever she goes, the police authorities are idiots and she ends up having to do their jobs for them. The police exhibit the most pronounced "Keystone Cop" quality where Mrs. Fletcher is from, Cabot Cove, which is somewhere in New England, I think.
Having said all of that, let me also say that just because a television show or movie is an exploitation vehicle, that does not necessarily mean that the television show or film is a bad or poor quality television show or movie.
I have always liked Murder, She Wrote very much.
... Ditto for Columbo ...
... Ditto for Perry Mason ...
... Ditto for Matlock ...
... Ditto for Sherlock Holmes ...
... And "Ditto" ad infinitum...
Which is to say that some exploitation vehicles have more charm than others.
I previously reviewed a film, here on Hubpages, many moons ago, called Bullet To The Head, starring Sylvester Stallone. If you look at one of the posters for the film, you will see a tag line that says: "Revenge Never Gets Old!" Bullet To The Head (2013) is, in my opinion, an exploitation vehicle, whose charm escaped me then as now.
What makes the film an "exploitation vehicle" is the following "central spectacle:" Mr. Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a professional hit man who has been arrested dozens of times and convicted a handful of times. He has served prison time, which has helped to "harden" him and all that good stuff.
At the opening of the film we see Jimmy Bobo and his killer partner execute a job, an assignment, a hit. The partner is killed in what is, apparently, some kind of retaliatory action aimed at both killers.
Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) escapes, of course.
Enter Sung Kang who plays police detective Taylor Kwon. Mr. Kang is an actor, who looked to be about one-half to one-third Mr. Stallone's age. At the time, I thought Sung Kang was so good looking, in a male model sort of way, that I ventured to call him beautiful.
Stay with me because here comes the central spectacle!
I am not going to rehash the whole plot of the movie, or my previous review of it. But for our purposes here, you should know that Detective Kwon is a police officer from out of town.
He comes into town to investigate the killing of a man, his former partner-turned-drug dealer, which has a connection to the death of hit man, Jimmy Bobo's partner.
Now, before Detective Kwon even checks in at the precinct, whose jurisdiction the homicides fall under, he seeks out Jimmy Bobo. He proposes to the hit man/convicted felon that Bobo and he form what can only be called an INVESTIGATIVE PARTNERSHIP!
I want to be very clear about this: 1) Detective Kwon never even proposes to treat Bobo as a confidential informant, which would be a more normal relationship between police officer and felon; 2) Detective Kwon never even proposes to treat Bobo like a material witness, which might be a more normal relationship between police officer and felon; 3) It has been a while, but I don't even recall Detective Kwon so much as asking Bobo, the hit man: "Who hired you to kill so and so?"
From the first, there is never any hesitation, no question in Kwon's mind that he and Bobo team up. What I'm saying is that Detective Kwon essentially deputized Jimmy Bobo.
The detective trusts the hit man more than the other police officers at the precinct he's visiting --- with good reason, as it turns out. You see, practically the entire department is corrupt and on the take, and on the side of whoever engineered the hit of the cop-turned-drug dealer, etc.
However, Detective Kwon does not know this in the beginning or middle of the movie. The reason he never physically checks in at the precinct is that he is most comfortable essentially telecommuting via his Smartphone.
Therefore, one of the questions we will be concerned with is this: Is Theater of Blood an exploitation film? Is the central event of the film, or its plot, maintained in an inorganic way, through plot contrivances of the screenplay?
In other words, we are asking this: Is the plot maintained by rendering the story's opposing characters generally, or at least in a situation-convenient way, stupid or incompetent?
What is a so-called "B-movie"?
To save time, let's say that a B-movie is one that is absent of timeless, resonant themes. The element of timelessness is key because it keeps a movie from becoming "dated" and not worth even thinking about thirty, twenty, or ten years later.
When I say "resonant themes," I do not mean "morals" or "messages" of films. In other words, saccharine sentimentality doesn't count.
Good films are intelligent enough to know that they cannot pose ultimate answers to ultimate questions. What good films do is discuss those questions in interesting ways.
There is a tricky thing that goes on with Theater of Blood. In my opinion, the film is most definitely not an exploitation vehicle. However, I do, unfortunately, judge the film to be a B-movie --- but with a qualification.
So, what is Theater of Blood about?
It is, quite simply, about a Shakespearean actor called "Edward Lionheart" (Vincent Price), who takes murderous revenge upon a few critics, whom he sees as particularly spiteful, vindictive, and malevolently envious, in their unjust criticism of his thespian genius.
His means of murder are ironic. He employs adapted methods taken from Shakespeare plays. One of the interesting things about the film is that Lionheart sets up his prey in ways that show his creativity; and, dare I say, show that "Edward Lionheart" is, in fact, a talented actor.
In other words, I am saying that it is possible to visit the conceptual universe of the film, and disagree with the critics!
At the same time, the critics are not mere "hacks." They are made out to be, for the most part, reasonable, intelligent, refined souls. This gives the film pretty good tension. You cannot easily point to either side (in their critique of Mr. Lionheart's acting ability) and say: "You are wrong!," or "You are right!"
Does that make sense?
I hope so!
I don't want to give too much away, but Mr. Lionheart is ably and eagerly assisted by his daughter, Miss "Edwina Lionheart" (played to the hilt by Dianna Riggs). Edwina is also an actor (though I believe one said "actress," in those days, for women).
Here's the thing
Theater of Blood is not an "exploitation" film, in my opinion and by the standards I have set, because the police (in consultation with one of the targeted critics) are trying to stop Lionheart. They are made out to be reasonably intelligent and competent. There are no convenient lapses into idiocy that I recall.
That Lionheart and his daughter get away with their crimes for so long is testament to their (especially the father's) criminal brilliance. The pair prove to be very good at their newfound vocation. They are very slippery and devious killers. But I implore you to watch the film and judge for yourselves.
Finally, here is why I think that Theater of Blood was not a "B-movie" in 1973, when it was released, but is, unfortunately a "B-movie," in today's world of 2017
My reasoning is completely subjective, intuitive, unscientific, and unproven. Nevertheless, for some reason, I believe the following to be true.
I believe that in the 1970s, when Theater of Blood was released, the American public still believed that acting was a serious profession, whose members study and train for many years to sharpen their craft. I believe that one could still use the phrase, "acting is a craft," without choking.
This belief, I think, made Theater of Blood viable for wide theatrical release in the early 1970s.
I do not believe, in 2017, that most of the American public believe in acting "as a craft." For this reason, this film --- which is kind of Phantom of the Opera-ish --- does not appear to be as commercially viable today as it may have been in the 1970s (I haven't looked at any figures of ticket sales or anything like that).
When acting-as-a-craft was still a thing, in the 1970s, American audiences, I think, could get behind the premise. Theater of Blood was not a "B-movie" when it was released in theaters. But since acting-as-a-craft is not such a thing today, in 2017, this classic is, technically, now, a "B-movie."
Alright, I'll leave it there.
Thank you for reading!