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August 16, 2007

Christopher Lee: Entertainment to Die For!

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Theatre of Death
Samuel Gallu - 1966
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

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Circus of Fear
John Moxey - 1966
Blue Underground Region 1 DVD

I wanted to take a break from more serious film and serious writing about film to see a couple of films starring Christopher Lee. This was sort of like the filmic equivalent to comfort food. I sort of knew what to expect, and enjoyed being distracted for a couple of hours. Both films are murder mysteries rather than horror films, with Lee as the chief suspect.

Theatre of Death is actually a pretty good film, with Lee as the director of a Grand Guignol theater that seems a bit too realistic in its depiction of mayhem. The trail of a vampire-like killer leads to the theater and Lee. What may be more interesting is that it brings up the argument about what defines entertainment. Especially with the controversy over what some call torture porn, how different is something like Hostel or Saw to what played on Parisian stages? Or, if there is a difference, how is that difference defined? Maybe I can't really escape from writing somewhat seriously about film after all.

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But getting back to watching Christopher Lee in the mid-Sixties, the two films were sold as being more horrific than they really are. Theatre of Death starts off with a fake decapitation on a guillotine, and ends unsurprisingly with the death of the killer. What’s fun is watching Lee as the Stanislavski of Slaughter declaiming on what theater and acting should really be about, bringing comedy out of tragedy and vice versa. There is nothing scary about Theatre of Death, but the parody of method acting is as amusing as it is incongruous.

Circus of Fear is less interesting, although it is one of the more credible films from writer-producer Harry Alan Towers. Lee is hidden behind a black mask and a faintly Eastern European accent through most of the film. Loot from a heist is hidden at a circus. Hot on the trail, detective Leo Genn has to wade his way through the various rivalries in the circus. Several people are killed by a knife of the style used by circus performers. Could the killer be lion tamer Lee? The high point is seeing Klaus Kinski as one of the gangsters who was part of the heist. The most shocking aspect of Circus of Fear is seeing how relatively healthy Kinski was during this time. Inspired by the Edgar Wallace films of the time, Circus of Fear also has a proto-Gialli touch with only the black leather gloved hands of the killer visible.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 16, 2007 08:19 AM


I really like both films a lot, but when it comes to giallo and krimi films (or stylish murder mysteries) I'm totally biased in my love for them and I may like Circus of Fear a bit more than I should. It does have some great stuff in it. Kinski's performance is definitely the high point of the film for me, but Lee is really good too. I think you can see Lee's performance in the film as just a little reminiscent of his previous terrific role in Bava's Whip and the Body which is one of my favorite Bava films. The whole kinky "whip" aspect reminded me of it I suppose.

Oddly enough, I also have a strange fascination with all horror films or thrillers shot in and around circuses or carnivals. I'm not sure why I love them so much, but it probably goes back to childhood or something.

Posted by: Kimberly at August 16, 2007 05:25 PM

More specifically, it's one of the circuited mise-en-scene of the psyche, I believe. I too have a thing for the circus; one of the reasons I love author William Goyen so much: HOUSE OF BREATH and HALF A LOOK OF CAIN, for those who have ever wanted to run away with an acrobat.

I enjoyed reading your post, Peter, because lately I've been enjoying vintage genre fare so much better than the tiresome product coming out of L.A. For you Christopher Lee; for me, Vincent.

Posted by: maya at August 18, 2007 01:50 PM