October 11, 2012

Lionheart's Greatest Performance

by Adam Sweeney

Theater of Blood (1973) - dir. Douglas Hickox

Listen to some of the score while you read

There is a certain amount of joy that comes with watching a Vincent Price movie. He's probably the finest actor that ever consistently played in horror films. With that kind of career, he only had the opportunity to stray from those particular roles very rarely. He was easily typecast, as his voice and features didn't lend themselves to much else.

 Surprisingly, Theater of Blood deals with these issues. It concerns an actor named Lionheart who was the bane of critics’ existence. They just didn't like him for one reason or another. Some thought he overacted, some thought he underacted. Pretty much, Lionheart was in a perpetual Catch-22 where he was critically panned no matter what he did.

Lionheart decides to take his frustrations out on the critics themselves by echoing his final string of performances and murdering his in-print enemies in the vein of Shakespearean plays. So, yes, there's a ton of violence in this movie as you'd expect. The blood is bright red and Price is delightfully evil as we have come to expect. But, the thing that is most striking about this film is the sympathy you feel for Lionheart. Some critics at the time considered Price too sympathetic in his portrayal of this serial killer.

Sound at all familiar?

The life of an actor is typically not an easy one. They are constantly under scrutiny and, because they have to work with their emotions, the way they feel is always close to the surface. You have to dig deep in order to act to make things seem realistic. Same thing with writing and art. If someone critiques what you do, it almost feels like a slight against you.

Throughout the movie, Lionheart executes these critics, and you feel he's justified in his actions. Granted, yeah, the man is insane. He cooks a couple of poodles into pies and then feeds them to their owner. But, he’s driven to madness by a gaggle of bullies that are paid to be snarky.

Let's, for a moment, assume that this was taking place in the present. I don't think that Lionheart would stand a chance. He's an emotional guy. With the way that online critics are nowadays, he would have killed himself a long time ago. Or at least attempted to and then come back to kill all the critics. But, it begs the question: why? Why have all critics become huge dicks as opposed to legitimate criticism?

The answer is simple: it sells.

Take for example The Fashion Police on E! I don't watch E! all that often, probably because they have an exclamation point directly in their cable call sign. The Fashion Police show is there to ridicule people that have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on dresses. How have we come to this? Why do we watch these sycophantic assholes on TV insult other people?

Really, though, a lot of critics have not strayed from their critical standings. Granted, Roger Ebert wrote a screenplay for what could be considered a B-movie and Rod Lurie used to be a critic and then turned into a rather decent director. But what makes these people qualified to understand what the actors go through? Lionheart poses that question to one of the critics in the film, and, not too surprisingly, he does not have an answer for him.

As a society, we have become like these critics: just a bunch of bullies.  It could stem from jealousy, but what it boils down to is that these people who speak about film nowadays are comfortable hiding behind their computer screens in their mother's basements. We have seen what bullying can do to people under stress, just look at the number of school shootings in the past decade and a half for evidence of that.

Theater of Blood throws a mirror up to the bullshit that comes with being an actor. They have to deal with a lot of things from a lot of people. I'm sure there are people that are out there reading this now thinking that it comes with the territory or it's an occupational hazard for an actor, not unlike black lung for a coal miner. But, if we can somehow curtail this harassment, why shouldn't we?

In the end, I think we're all a little bit like Lionheart. I believe that he was bullied and retaliated in the only way that he knew how. He is a sad, sympathetic character in this film and I believe there is a lot of Price in him. He was always striving for something different, but could never get out of the cycle. Critics were holding him back.

Price will always be remembered for his horror films, but the reason he endures is because of his incomparable skills as an actor, and I submit Theater of Blood as evidence.

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