❉ We review the first two titles in the ‘Midnight Movie Monographs’ series, ‘Martin’ by Jez Winship and ‘Theatre of Blood’ by John Llewellyn Probert.
Electric Dreamhouse is a newly launched cinema imprint from UK-based genre publishers PS Publishing under the editorship of Neil Snowdon. Apart from being a writer and editor, Snowdon is also a film programmer, and he has combined these skills to assemble a full programme celebrating some of the more offbeat corners of horror cinema (and occasionally supernatural television fare) with Midnight Movie Monographs, described as ‘an ongoing series dedicated to outstanding genre titles that just don’t get the attention elsewhere.’
Written by a mix of genre authors, critics, film-makers and more, forthcoming titles cover a broad spectrum from Hammer horror to folk horror, arthouse to grindhouse, supernatural tales to psychodramas – films whose merits are already lauded in genre circles but whose charms may have eluded the more mainstream critics.
For the opening night feature at the Electric, and displaying the genre’s breadth of range from the off, we have a double bill of 1970s horrors worlds apart in style and tone but linked by a common factor – blood! The drinking of it in one instance, the quite copious spilling of it in the other, as Jez Winship tackles George Romero’s vampire drama, ‘Martin’, and John Llewellyn Probert draws back the curtain on Douglas Hickox’s Shakespearian tragi-comedy, ‘Theatre of Blood’.
‘Theatre of Blood’ is one of my favourite horror films. In fact you can strike the word ‘horror’ from that previous sentence. It delightfully combines humour and horror in a manner that fits its leading man, Vincent Price, like a gore-streaked glove, and forms the closing act of an unofficial trilogy of gleefully macabre revenge thrillers alongside ‘The Abominable Doctor Phibes’ and ‘Doctor Phibes Rises Again’. As such, I’ve watched it dozens of times since my first encounter with it as the more colourful half of a BBC2 Horror Double Bill, which Mr Llewellyn Probert’s introduction helpfully points out was in the summer of 1981. (In fact I only saw half of it, as my Dad switched it off and sent me to bed so for several years my memories of the film began with the wistful opening music and its montage of scenes from black and white filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays and culminated with Eric Sykes’s police sergeant trying and failing to retrieve Arthur Lowe’s severed head from atop a milk bottle – the sublime and the ridiculous both present and correct.)
Only a few years later I had my first – to date only – viewing of ‘Martin’. As a fan of the Hammer and Universal styles of vampire films, the illustrated sleeve of the copy in my local video rental shop – caped and fanged Count Yorga-lookalike front and centre – misled me into expecting the standard Dracula-style antics. Anyone who has seen George Romero’s contemporary take on vampirism, where fangs and neck nuzzling are replaced with syringes and razor blades, will know otherwise. It was a film that left me queasy and questioning whether what I had just watched was a vampire film at all.
So it was interesting to read these opening titles – one detailing a film I know incredibly well, the other exploring one I saw once over three decades ago – together. Would the former offer much that I hadn’t already learned for myself through years of being a dedicated Vincent price fan? Would the latter be the equivalent of being stuck at a party with someone banging on about a subject you have limited knowledge of while you try to feign an interest?
Happily the answers to those questions are yes and no, in that order.
John Llewellyn Probert is a horror author, film critic (the reviews on his House of Mortal Cinema blog are frequently an absolute hoot), and creator of the Vincent Price-fixated killer Dr Edward Valentine, star of the novellas ‘The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine’ (Best Novella 2013 at the British Fantasy Awards), and ‘The Hammer of Doctor Valentine’. Given this pedigree, it’s hard to imagine an author more suited to tackling ‘Theatre of Blood’. And given that his subject involves various characters being gleefully but gruesomely despatched in return for harsh critiques (and since his day-job grants him access to all manner of surgical implements), just how wise a move is it to highlight any flaws in his work?
Thankfully that’s not a question that needs trouble this reviewer, as the author’s undoubted enthusiasm for his subject infuses the text and fills it with a similar joie de vivre as the film itself. In his Introduction, Probert is likely to stir up some warm memories for any horror fan growing up in Britain in the 1970s, and this sets the mood for a brisk, witty, and enjoyable romp through one of horror cinema’s briskest, wittiest and most enjoyable romps of all.
The main bulk of the text is taken up by ‘A Commentary in Eleven Chapters’ – breezing through the film in chronological order and chaptered according to the films various murders and the Bard’s plays they quote – or frequently misquote – from. This really has the feel of a particularly enjoyable DVD commentary track – a nice accompaniment to that recorded by The League of Gentlemen for the Arrow Films Blu-ray release, perhaps – following the action and dropping in tasty morsels of information, such as the sources of the clips in that elegiac title montage, or pointing out sly in-jokes in the film’s score.
That score is discussed in ‘Much Ado About Music’, an essay in the second part of the book, alongside an appreciation of Vincent Price’s performance in this, his favourite film, and an overview of the National Theatre’s 2005 stage adaptation in which Jim Broadbent donned Price’s role as Edward Lionheart and Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachel Stirling, stepped into her mother’s shoes as the deranged thespian’s grief-driven offspring, and even a word or two from the afore-mentioned Dr Edward Valentine. But the main delight in this section of ‘Essays and Extras’ is an interview with the film’s composer, Michael J Lewis, whose recollections of working on the film are full of insights as well as charm.
Jez Winship is, amongst other things, a writer, broadcaster, critic, photographer and storyteller. His examination of ‘Martin’ employs the skills necessary for all of these pursuits. As with much of the ‘Theatre of Blood’ book, this takes the form of a commentary, following the progress of the film. There aren’t the accompanying essays and extras, though Winship makes use of footnotes for additional information not directly relating to the film under scrutiny.
‘Martin’ is a more serious film than ‘Theatre of Blood’, though not entirely without humour. And Winship’s approach is serious without ever being ponderous or dry. Scenes are explored in detail, context is discussed and comparisons are drawn on – from cinema and also from the folklore elements that infuse the film, and key shots and visuals are explored. And he also tells the story of the film so well while doing so that I found myself remembering great swathes of it from that long past single viewing.
Part of the beauty of these monographs is that they don’t purport to be the definitive guides to their subjects, but instead offer far more personalised viewpoints – something which should appeal to regular We Are Cult readers, as it shares a similar aim of bringing together knowledgeable people to write engagingly about subjects they’re passionate about.
Neither ‘making of’ books, giving us the minutiae of production schedules and backstage wranglings, nor the type of essays to leave the casual reader wishing for a glossary or another book entirely, these stand as informative but personal commentaries on some remarkable films as they play out in our memories – or on the slightly threadbare and tattered silver screen of the Electric Dreamhouse in our imaginations.