Scream of Fear (1961) and Theater of Blood (1973)
Directed by Seth Holt, Douglas Hickox
October 30-Novemver 5 at Film Forum
Like pain and pleasure, horror and comedy are two sides of the same emotional coin: either one can make you piss your pants. So it’s no surprise that, in the movies, comedy has long been a part of horror. In the 30s, Frankenstein frightened audiences still acclimating to a relatively new visual medium; by the 40s, the bolt-necked monster made them slap their knees in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Part of the reason is that each generation considers itself more sophisticated than the last: yesterday’s bugbears are today’s punchlines, if only for practical reasons: we need to destroy our monsters before they destroy us. And nothing vanquishes fear quite like laughter. But how to stimulate those giggles?
Saturation plays a role: how scary can monsters be when they’re not only the stuff of nightmares but of billboards and breakfast cereals? Freddy Kruger didn’t deliver bons mots to his victims in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street; he didn’t start double duty as a comic until he’d become such a familiar cultural presence that he couldn’t possibly haunt your dreams anymore than Count Chocula.
Culturally, we continue to scramble to come up with new things to be afraid of, and later in the day a homemade YouTube clip, or later in the week an SNL skit, tries to transform it into an object of mockery. How long did it take before all the Blair Witch send-ups made it impossible to see that booger-nosed crybaby on the DVD cover without snickering?
Some of us thrive off feeling afraid; others, off of conquering their fears, usually through snide dismissal. (Others can't confront them at all.) The conflict between intentional risibility and sincere frightmongering continues right up to this time of writing: at the box office this Halloween, you could choose the genuine jolts of Paranormal Activity or the (attempted) jokes of Stan Helsing, the latest spoof from one of the producers of the original Scary Movie. (Presuming the latter is still playing next week.)
Or, you could catch the double feature-a recession-era bargain!-playing at Film Forum from the 30th through November 5th, which features two revived footnotes from either strand's archives: Hammer Studio's straight-faced, psychological ghost story Scream of Fear (1961), and the deliciously campy Vincent Price vehicle, Theater of Blood (1973). Price was his generation's Boris Karloff, a ubiquitous presence in countless horror vehicles of the 50s and 60s. By 1973, after that kind of saturation, who could take him seriously as a legitimate bugaboo?
Despite its histrionic title and a handful of unsettling sequences, Scream of Fear is less a horror movie than a mystery: not Carnival of Souls so much as an episode of Scooby Doo. Its alternate title, Taste of Fear, might be more accurate: just a nibble, not much more. Susan Strasberg, daughter of acting-coach legend Lee, stars as Penny, a young woman in a wheelchair who leaves Italy, after the death of her beloved nurse, to live in the South of France (rough life, kid!) with the father she hasn't spoken to in ten years. Holt begins by setting a mood of deceptive tranquility, meant to lull viewers into a calm out of which he can then unloose them: snowcapped peaks; a lakeside idyll; the swaying palms of Nice; the cricket-chirping solitude of Penny's father's baroque mountaintop manor.
That house, with its gilded moldings and ornate candelabras—all the trappings for a Victorian ghost story!—becomes the setting for Penny's unfolding and unlikely madness: though her stepmother (Ann Todd) tells her that her father has been called away on business, the old man's corpse has a habit of turning up, when she's the only one to bear witness, in the strangest places: in a chair by her bed, or propped up in the summerhouse (a cottage bursting with macabre artifacts, like a voodoo Xanadu in miniature). Anytime she sees him, Strasberg screams-blood-curdlingly. (See: title.) Is Penny imagining things? Or is she the victim of conspiring forces?
As this is this is Hammer Films, not The Innocents, the answer is actually pretty clear from early on—I wonder if a will is involved?—but Holt, with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, still works in a few delicious plot twists. In fact, Scream of Fear is almost ready for the opera house, with all of its surprises, coincidences, and mistaken identities-its tragedies—while, visually, it's a descendant of Welles and Clouzot. It doesn't all add up to a lost masterpiece. But it's at least an eerie and efficient guessing game.
One hesitates to write a bad word about Theater of Blood, a goofily highbrow splatterfest, given that it's a movie in which critics who file negative notices get murdered in manners most clever and classical. Vincent Price stars as Lionheart, a thespian who only played Shakespeare and never got a good review; he fakes his own death and then picks off, one by one, the circle of London critics who disparaged his star turns. Lionheart and his merry band of feral followers, mostly backalley drunks, kill each in the manner of a death scene from the Bard's folio: one is stabbed multiple times on the Ides of March, like Caesar; another by false friends, a la Hector in Troilus and Cressida; another beheaded in bed, as in Cymbeline. (A highlight: as Price saws off the critic's head, the decapitee's sedated wife moans, "You're snoring again!") This time, Shylock gets his pound of flesh! And so on.
The series of reworked murder scenes are clever, but in succession are a bit exhausting, especially as they increasingly rely on contrivance and coincidence. (For the Othello segment, one critic is led, a bit too easily, to murder his wife out of jealousy.) The real pleasure here is watching Price exercise his campy range, not only by hamming his way through the grand speeches of the Great Tragedies but also by appearing in a variety of costumes, in that grand English style of dress-up that extends from Elizabethan men playing Juliet to Peter Sellers and Sacha Baron Cohen; Price turns up not only in the pancake make-up of the stage, but disguised in the uniforms of a variety of professions: surgeon, gravedigger, bobby, masseuse, French-accented fencer, and, most hilariously, a homo-fied hair dresser, complete with billowy permanent.
Beyond its playfulness, Theater of Blood makes those old tired arguments against critics—why don't you try to make something, then? —and posits all its reviewers as self-satisfied aphorists, full of "overweening malice," who surely deserve to die for their withering wits alone. Still, the movie, perhaps inadvertently, tries to flatter us writers, too: the movie suggests that critics wield an awesome power, that they can destroy not only productions but entire careers. Pff, maybe in the theater world.