Where acting can be murder.
Theater of Death, or Blood Fiend as it was originally marketed in the US, is more of a whodunit with Gothic overtones than a true horror film, but it tries hard while staying very British in its outlook. Christopher Lee adds class and a great performance in an otherwise somewhat derivative film. While it won't faze the jaded horror fans of today, it's still a pretty good movie, and Anchor Bay did a fine job with the DVD release. Anchor Bay can still do more with a second tier title like this than some studios do with truly deserving, much better films.
Facts of the Case
The Theater du Mort is a Parisian playhouse in the tradition of the Grand Guignol, a theater infamous for it's gruesome horror productions. The troupe is led by tyrannical director Phillipe Darvas (Christopher Lee), who will spare nothing or no one in getting the horrific spectacle he desires. He sees great potential in young actress Nicole Chapel (Jenny Till, The Great Train Robbery) and seeks to mold her through total control. When a series of vampiric looking murders occur, Darvas seems the most likely suspect, but is he the killer or not?
I didn't have very high expectations for the film going in, because it represents one of a whole series of cheap exploitation movies made during the late '60s that seem more carbon copies of themselves than original horror. After getting through the whole film, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it's still one of those cheap exploitation films with low production values, but the story held up pretty well in the end. Several red herrings are well done and I was kept guessing until the end, where a twist definitely caught me by surprise. Christopher Lee really came through early in the film to create a sense of dread, although part of that feeling came from the awful hair style he sported. Probably my biggest complaint with the film is that Lee doesn't spend more time on the screen. He disappears for periods of time that left the film wanting for his presence.
Anchor Bay is the studio of choice for niche audience titles like this, especially in the horror genre. It's doubtful the film would have seen the light of day from a major studio, but Anchor Bay gives it a sweet anamorphic transfer and some high quality extra content. Especially considering the age of the film, the picture quality is excellent. Details are quite clear, colors well rendered, and only a bit of loss of shadow detail mars an overall terrific picture. Though the hair and clothing styles date the film, you wouldn't guess its age from the image quality. Sound is a 2 channel mono mix, and should be decoded in Pro Logic to get the proper anchoring in the center channel. Dialogue is clearly understood, though the fidelity of the track leaves much to be desired with a somewhat strident quality, particularly in the musical score. That said, the sound is quite clear.
It was the extra content that really made me appreciate this DVD release more, however. There aren't a ton of bonus features, and I could certainly have wished for more, but what is there is very satisfying. First and foremost is "Sinister Theatrics," an 11-minute interview with Christopher Lee about Theater of Death and his career in general. I found it very informative and was happy to learn a few things about the actor who has risen from the Hammer horror films to some of the biggest films of today, such as Lord of the Rings and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode 2. He speaks quite frankly about his many times playing Dracula; that in most cases he turned the roles down and didn't think much of the films, but was persuaded to play the title role over and over again by the studios because he didn't want to put his friends and colleagues out of work. A terrific interview, and perhaps worth getting the DVD all by itself. From there we have the theatrical trailer, several radio spots, a still gallery with posters and lobby cards, and an in-depth biography of Christopher Lee. Sure, a commentary track would have been great, but I'm very happy with the extras we did get.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Besides the too-long absence of Christopher Lee from the screen, the film has some problems with pacing. This is a British film, and suffers from too much talking and too little action, particularly early on and up to the third act. People talk to each other…a lot. Julian Glover is fine as the doctor aiding the police, French actress Lelia Goldoni is alright as the actress concerned about Nicole, but Jenny Till is forced to literally sleepwalk through much of her role. The film plods along somewhat, and there was a time or two I considered whether to stick it out until the finish. I'm glad I did in the end, as there were some nice twists and the red herrings kept you wondering who the real killer was throughout. That said, horror fans used to the gore of horror films of the last 25 years will find this a bit too bloodless, a bit too scarce on outright scares.
This isn't a film for everybody. A bit too slow and not so outrageous as a straight up horror film, it may leave some of the traditional horror audience behind. Fans of the British films of the era will be quite pleased, however, and I think a rental would be a low risk time investment that many will enjoy. Some will want to add this to their collection just for the great extra content.
To find guilt with the film would be to demand that it be something other than what it is, a low budget British horror film of the exploitation era. I won't do that, and I think the film can stand on its own well enough for an acquittal. The disc is absolutely acquitted, as I continue to be pleasantly surprised with the efforts Anchor Bay makes on titles to which other studios wouldn't give a second thought. Only the lack of subtitles continues to hurt their image and the overall quality of their discs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Christopher Lee Interview
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