I’ve lived in London for twenty-five years and I love this city. It’s my home now and probably always will be. But my word, it isn’t cinematic! Compared to Paris, which is wide, beautiful, with photogenic boulevards, it forever seems small and dingy. The roads are clogged, the streets narrow and the buildings a lifeless grey. Far from one of the world’s major metropolises, it appears distinctly provincial.
Okay, there’s the Richard Curtis route. It’s possible to film all the tourist attractions in bright sunshine and make them seem eye-wateringly good. But the results never look like a real city. It becomes Disneyland London.
In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock returned to the city of his birth and singularly failed to make London look attractive. Instead, he married the grimness he found around him to the grimness of his story.
But a year after FRENZY, a film was made which showed London’s dinginess, but also found a certain vibrancy. The result was a film which not only celebrated the city but – incredibly – made it feel like somewhere you’d like to live.
That film was THEATER OF BLOOD. Although I can’t help thinking that given its London setting, the spelling of THEATRE should be different.
THEATER OF BLOOD was one of those gaps in my horror knowledge. A classic British film of the early 1970s that was well remembered and written about, but which I’d never seen. Despite me, certainly when younger, being something of a Shakespeare buff too.
Well, I finally got around to it and it is a hell of a lot of fun. Horror as high camp. Not a comedy as such, but more a film to watch with a wry smirk and a willingness to buy into the nonsense. It’s gruesome, while not being terrifying, so seems to be offering the horror connoisseur a grin rather than tremble.
Vincent Price is front and centre, as a ‘great’ actor who is systematically killing the critics who dogged his career. He is as over the top Vincent Price as you could ever want. However, even with the gruesome kills, that could be very tiresome if he was the sole focus. A little of an unhinged Vincent Price goes a long way. Fortunately, we have Diana Rigg, who treats the material with a seriousness that stops it from being a simple cartoon. She approaches her role with depth and heart and compassion and really makes you believe in it all.
But I’d say that as much as the brilliance of Diana Rigg, it was the sense of place which really captured me. A vision of London which is declining and over the hill, like most of its characters; but, also like them, having a certain poetry.
First to die is grand theatre critic, Michael Horden, who despite having a penthouse clearly overlooking Hammersmith Bridge, is apparently the chairman of a residency association in Bermondsey. Now Bermondsey is a far scruffier neighborhood on the other side of London. So this feels a misstep in terms of geography and probability, but one I was prepared to forgive. As the grand man coming to lower social strata and being destroyed by the mob is clearly, well, Shakespearean.
From there we move around the various environs of Chelsea and Kensington, hip places for the bright young things then and now. Yes, these buildings aren’t glamorous, but there are things happening in them. They give the characters a chance to live a full life. To enjoy themselves. There are clearly many places of pleasure in this London.
But most impressive as a locale is Putney Hippodrome.
It fits the themes of the film perfectly for Vincent Price – actor turned supervillain – to make his lair in a disused theatre. Fortunately one was available. Knocked down in 1975, the theatre had actually spent most of its existence as a cinema, before sitting empty for more than a decade. It has the perfect façade of faded grandeur. A place for has-beens.
Why does the city work in this film? Why is it really an advert for London?
It’s because the grey and poor-looking 1970s London is the perfect match of theme and story. But unlike Frenzy – which revels in its nastiness – there is a great sense of fun here. Yes, there might be gruesome murders happening, but there is also a thriving arts scene, wine tasting events, and funky new hair salons. All of these are put to use in nefarious ways, but it’s a sign that – even though it might be in decline – there’s a lot happening in London. You could probably have a good life here if you weren’t a pompous theatre critic
This isn’t the London of the Swinging Sixties, nor is it the London that would later become the capital of Cool Britannia. It still isn’t a beautiful, cinematic city, but this story wouldn’t work in somewhere beautiful. It needs to be happening in a place that has lost its luster, which is past its prime. But a place that nonetheless still has stuff happening. Whose rejection would be enough to send a fragile ego over the edge. It’s the perfect meeting of story and setting.
I’ve just written my own gruesome killer in London story. I originally envisaged it as a screenplay and if that film had been made and was half as good as this, I’d have been thrilled.
Oh, and Diana Rigg in the lead would have been great too.
F.R. Jameson was born in Wales but now lives in London with his wife and young daughter. He writes both historical thrillers and supernatural thrillers.
His books are, at the moment, mostly sorted into two different – but complementary – series. The first is disturbing and scary, and lives under the moniker: ‘Ghostly Shadows Anthology series’. There are seven volumes published: ‘Death at the Seaside’, ‘Certain Danger’, ‘Won’t You Come Save Me’, ‘Call of the Mandrake’, ‘The Hellbound Detective”; ‘Terror of Breakspear Hall’ and ‘The Caller’. Each book is its own disturbing piece of brilliant British horror.