Monday, July 16, 2007

Theatre of Death – review


Director: Samuel Gallu

Release date: 1967

Contains spoilers

This is a little known film, in the grand scheme of things, which is less a horror than it is a whodunit. An English film set in Paris, probably the only way you would know the setting is by the French character names as English accents abound and there is nothing in the way of famous landmarks.

guillotineThe film begins with a scene of a guillotine being used on a young woman, later revealed to be Nicole Chapelle (Jenny Till). We see that we are in a theatre and the crowd gasp as the woman is beheaded and then they break into tumultuous applause. The curtain falls but Nicole appears around the curtain – it was all stagecraft.

We are in the Theatre de Mort, once a church it now specialises in horror shows. Through the stage door comes Charles Marquis (Julian Glover) looking for Dani Gireaux (Lelia Goldoni). It was her first night and he has brought her flowers. It becomes apparent that she has had issues in the past; she was a ballerina but suffered a nervous breakdown and spent two yours hospitalised and then convalescing. She invites Charles to a party thrown by the director Philippe Darvas (Christopher Lee).

Charles and DaniAt the party we discover that Charles is damaged also, but his damage is physical. It appears he was in a car accident and has suffered damage to his hand. He is still undergoing treatment but is on sabbatical from his profession as a surgeon as he cannot use a scalpel. He tells Dani his hand is slowly improving however. The goings on in the party are secretly observed, through a painting with the eyes cut out, by Darvas.

Christopher Lee as DarvasDarvas makes his appearance and tells everyone that it was twenty five years ago that his father first put on a production at the theatre. The owner of the theatre, Madame Aneglique (Evelyn Laye), asks him to reveal some of his plans for coming productions and he sets up a reading of a sketch he has written set during the Salem witch trials. He has Nicole and Dani perform.

hypnosis Lee styleDani is tied to a coat stand and Darvas has placed a poker in a fire. He then hypnotises Nicole, using his ring as a focus. Of course it was a wonderful moment, watching Lee hypnotising someone like this, and the director clearly was using expectations of Lee and his previous performances.

ooh... pokerThe girls act out the scene with Nicole still hypnotised. At the climax she picks up the poker and approaches Dani. It looks for all the world like she will use it on her fellow actress (and room mate) until Charles intervenes. At first Darvas sounds angry at the interruption by this stranger in his home but then he tells the cast present that it is lesson number 1 – catch your audience.

Ivor Dean as Inspector MicheaudCharles is at the morgue, where he has been summoned by Inspector Micheaud (Ivor Dean) – it seems Charles was a police surgeon at one time. It becomes clear that Charles lied to Dani, his hand is not improving. The inspector has three murders. Each woman was killed by a jagged triangular object inserted into the throat. There is little blood at the scene or left in the body in each case. Charles comments that in doctor’s parlance they are dealing with a hematophagiac or, in the inspector’s parlance, a vampire.

the corpse of the drunken victimThere is no relevance to the victims all being women, they quickly learn, as that very night a drunk man is also attacked. Charles is hanging around the theatre a lot and quickly makes a link between the crimes and the theatre because they use Toledo blades in some performance, that are shaped very much like the wounds. In the meantime we have heard Darvas say that all his sketches are based in reality.

One of Darvas' vampiric slidesOther things we discover is that Darvas’ father mysteriously vanished. We also see Darvas look at slides that have vampiric imagery. At one point Charles gives the director a lift and mentions the murders and the vampiric overtones. He then muses that the last sketch in the show (with the guillotine) has a vampiric undercurrent – the director is incensed – it is more than an undercurrent he exclaims.

Eventually Darvas vanishes, leaving only a blood stained cloak behind and yet the murders do not stop.

The film is chock-a-block with clues and red herrings but the murder mystery does push out the horror aspects. death sceneWe never see a murder properly, the screenshot with this paragraph is the most we see and this has much to do with keeping the killer's identity a secret from the audience. There is also a frustrating lack of character exploration, again because there is a need to inject red herrings that more thorough exploration of character might dispel. Finally, despite wrapping the main plot up quite neatly, I was left with some questions which are too spoiler heavy to reproduce here.

It would have been nice to see some of the final sketch that Charles suggests has vampiric overtones; we only see the guillotine climax and can only take the character’s word that this scene was vampiric in nature. Later a psychiatrist, Schiller (Joseph Fürst), suggests that the man who wrote the sketch knew all about bloodlust – a confirmation of Charles’ suspicion that is frustrating as we want to see the sketch even more.

Nicole with AngeliqueThat said, as a murder mystery this is a satisfying film. The majority of performances are good enough for the material but it is Lee who shines – and that probably comes as no surprise. His is a thoroughly dislikeable character, sardonic and full of arrogance. This does lead to some marvellous scenes, especially when he is berating, and firing, Dani for daring to interject when Nicole looks set to move into his house. He accuses her of jealousy and then with utter contempt tells her why she is unattractive as an actress and a woman. Finally he suggests that if she cannot cope with the world of the unemployed she can always return to the asylum and if that does not work there is always the river.

The real joy of the movie is the cinematography however; it is simply a joy to behold. The film is vividly coloured (in technicolor) and despite some all too vividly red blood it looks absolutely marvellous.

This is not a perfect film but it is entertaining and definitely worth a look. 6 out of 10.

By the way if you want to know if it really is a vampire… you’ll have to watch the film I’m afraid.

The imdb page is here.

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