This is one of my favorite Vincent Price films. I’ve heard that it was one of his too.
It’s a bit gruesome, but played for comedy and a lot of fun. Some of Britain’s finest actors queued up to play the critics/victims in this film and have their own vicarious revenge. I know it’s a Dr. Phibes knock-off, but I prefer it. With my background in English Lit, I’d rather watch a movie about a hammy actor committing a series of baroque Shakespearean-themed murders to a disfigured doctor committing Biblically-based ones.
The film begin with Michael Hordern (last seen here as the skeptical and nearly incoherent Mr. Parkins in Whistle and I’ll Come to You) as London theatre critic George Maxwell. He and his wife are having breakfast in their flat overlooking Hammersmith Bridge and the newspaper he’s reading informs viewers that the date is March 15, 1972.
Maxwell’s reading the latest of his own scathing reviews is interrupted when receives a telephone call asking him to come to an empty tenement that’s about to be torn down to help evict some squatters. As chair of the local housing committee, he sees nothing remarkable with this request apart from his needing to be present so the police can see the squatters off the property. His only concern is whether or not it will make him late for his Critics Circle meeting.
His wife, whose name is not Calpurnia, gets into the theme of the movie before we even know what it is by warning him not to go; she’s had dreams of a disaster befalling Maxwell. Dismissing her fears, off he blithely goes.
When he arrives at the abandoned building, two people dressed in policemen’s uniforms are waiting for him. In spite of the abundant facial hair both wear to conceal their features, their voices are distinctive and easily recognizable. They escort Maxwell up a couple of floors to where a group of tramps and meths drinkers are lying about on filthy pallets. But when Maxwell tries to shoo them out, they rise up, smashing the bottles they’ve been drinking from or taking up other sharp objects, chase him until they trap him, then stab him viciously.
Bleeding, Maxwell staggers toward the taller of the two policemen, who have stood by watching while all this has been going on. Instead of saying anything to the point, the man begins to recite a speech from Julius Caesar.
Maxwell falls down (the camera looking up through the slatwork floor beneath him); the supposed policemen stands over him, still reciting. Stripping off his helmet and false mustache, he reveals himself to be… well, it’s Vincent Price. Like his voice didn’t make that obvious the instant he spoke.
Maxwell has just time to choke out, “You… but you’re dead,” before he dies himself.
We cut to Price’s faux policeman on the stage of a grand, old, abandoned theatre, dressed in a Roman toga and plenty of stage make-up, giving the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. The murderous meths drinkers are seated in the audience, but they don’t have much interest in Shakespeare’s plays and get a bit obnoxious. The actor summons his “stage manager”–a long-haired, big-mustached hippie who was the second faux policeman–from backstage to deal with the rowdies. This young man tosses the worst of the drunken audience around, chiding them that they should “treasure the opportunity to listen to the world’s greatest living actor,” the presumed late Mr. Edward Lionheart.
Meanwhile, the other members of the Critics Circle have assembled at the extremely stylish high-rise flat of their chairman Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) overlooking the Thames. Waiting impatiently for Maxwell to show up, they discuss starting their meeting without him. This conversation, before they hear the news about his death, not only introduces the rest of the Circle but gives us a little information about each to display the character flaws that will be used to murder them:
- Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) ogles Devlin’s secretary; he’s a lech with a weakness for pretty young women.
- Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins) speaks of his wife; he’s irrationally jealous and suspicious of her.
- Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) goes to get another drink and obviously likes his wine.
- Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) camps it up as a femmy gay man overly devoted to his two miniature poodles, whom he refers to as his “babies”.
Once he hears about Maxwell’s murder, Devlin joins some real police officers, including Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea), at the scene of the crime. Amid the rubbish left by the squatters, Devlin notices one item of interest: a theatre poster for Edward Lionheart performing in Julius Caesar. Devlin recalls that Lionheart wasn’t a very good actor, to put it mildly, and remarks that a critic gets resentful when he has to write bad reviews about a performer all the time.
We didn’t learn anything important about the second victim, Hector Snipe (Dennis Price*), but the key thing turns out to be his name.
Lionheart’s hippie stage manager brings Snipe to the burnt-out theatre, ostensibly for an interview with the actor about how he’s not dead after all and is planning a comeback. Lionheart is waiting, dressed as Achilles and, like that character in Troilus and Cressida, stabs this Hector with his spear after assuring him that he’s among friends.
Hector Snipe’s body, dragged behind a galloping horse, shows up at Matthews’ funeral.
Also at the cemetery, Devlin sees and speaks briefly to Edwina Lionheart (Diana Rigg) as she sits devotedly at the grand memorial raised to her father. From their exchange, we learn that her father’s body isn’t actually buried here–no surprise, since we already knows he’s alive–but that Edwina fiercely blames Devlin and the other critics for his death.
The next murder is the grisliest: Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) and his wife** return home that evening to find a very large trunk sitting in their bedroom. The maid says it was delivered by mistake and Sprout says they’ll have to leave it where it is for now and he’ll see about sending it back in the morning. He won’t get the chance.
After the couple has fallen asleep, the trunk opens. Lionheart and his hippie friend are inside, dressed as surgeons and bringing equipment necessary for surgery. They sedate both Sprouts with stabs from the same hypodermic, then cut Horace’s head off with a scalpel and small bone saw.
Mrs. Sprout wakes in the morning when the maid brings in the tea, and sees the blood all over the bedsheets. She tries to rouse her husband by shaking him. His head rolls off and falls on the carpet next to the fainted maid.
Lionheart and his friend must have still been hiding in the trunk, since Sprout’s head shows up later that morning perched on top of a milk bottle outside the door of Devlin’s flat.
By this time, Devlin has seen the theme connecting these murders with Edward Lionheart. When the police come to retrieve the severed head, he shows Boot a poster for Lionheart’s last season of performances:
- Julius Caesar: Maxwell, like Caesar, was killed by multiple stab wounds on the Ides of March.
- Troilus and Cressida: Hector Snipe, like the classical Hector, was stabbed with a spear, and his body tied to a horse’s tail and dragged away.
- Cymbeline: Imogen wakes next to the beheaded body of a man she mistakes for her husband.
Devlin also gives the viewer as well as the police the backstory on what happened to Lionheart and why he has reason to want revenge on the Critics Circle.
Two years earlier, the Circle had given its prestigious Best Actor of the Year Award to a up-and-coming young actor instead of to Edward Lionheart, who felt he deserved it. The critics all thought Lionheart a ham, unimaginative, and uninterested in expanding his career into anything except Shakespeare. After the award was given, Lionheart came to Devlin’s flat with his daughter to confront the critics en masse, but they only laughed at him as he went out on the balcony to do “To be or not to be” from Hamlet before jumping off into the river.
Since Lionheart is assumed to be dead, Inspector Boot is very interested in talking to Edwina. He agrees that the rest of the critics’ group is in danger and sends men out to guard them. Boot is also curious about the next play on the list.
It’s The Merchant of Venice. But nobody dies in that.
I think it was a mistake to make it obvious that Edwina is working with her father so early in the story–since she’ll continue to insist to Devlin and the police for some time that she believes he’s dead–but that is what they do for the next murder. Wearing a blonde wig and a very short skirt, Edwina picks up Mr. Dickman at a restaurant before the police locate him; she coos that the theatrical troupe she’s with is doing an exciting new adaptation of the play and takes him over to the old theatre, where Daddy is waiting to play the role of Shylock. Edwina will play Portia. They want Dickman to play Antonio.
But in the Lionhearts’ version of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock gets his pound of flesh, cut from Antonio’s heart. This, they send to Devlin’s flat in a box with a note: “Sorry to miss the meeting, but my heart is with you.”
Devlin: “Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.”
The rest of the group–a seriously diminished number–are terrified, but not frightened enough to leave London or barricade themselves in their houses, or even to stop going about their usual routines. Their police escorts are pretty much useless.
Oliver Larding can’t miss the wine-tasting he’s been invited to at “Geo. Clarence & Sons” vintners, and doesn’t notice that the other guests appear rather shabby and even more into drinking than he is himself. Lionheart, dressed as Richard III and having already done his “Now is the winter of our discontent…” speech, pops Larding into an enormous cask full of wine, a la the “Butt of Malmsey” death of the Duke of Clarence.
An anonymous phone call tips off Psaltery that his wife (Diana Dors, who 10-15 years earlier had been the British blonde bombshell equivalent to Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield) has been getting more from her masseuse than backrubs. The masseuse is in fact Lionheart, using a Scottish accent; while they haven’t been up to anything illicit, that’s not how it sounds to Psaltery when he comes home unexpectedly and hears little moans and groans coming from the bedroom upstairs. In a jealous rage, egged on by an Iago-ish remark or two from Lionheart, Psaltery finds himself cast in the role of Othello and smothers his own Desdemona with a pillow. “Die, you strumpet!” While he’s alone among the critics to survive, his wife doesn’t. Psaltery will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Chloe Moon (Coral Browne***) isn’t the least suspicious when her hairdressing appointment is moved to 7 in the evening. She arrives at an empty salon–except for the very familiar-looking hippie receptionist and the new hairstylist Big Gay Vinnie, who introduces himself as “Butch”. Expressing a desire to do something “camp” with her hair, “like flame with ash highlights,” “Butch” fixes wired-up curlers to Miss Moon’s head and electrocutes her in a modernized version the burning of Joan of Arc as featured in Henry VI, Part 1.
The next to last play on the list is Titus Andronicus which is full of gory moments including, as one of the policemen puts it, “some old queen has her children served to her baked in a pie”.
Meredith Merridew returns home and looks around for his poodles. He doesn’t find them, but there is a full camera crew and Lionheart in a chef’s outfit hiding in the dining-room, waiting to greet him as the surprise guest for that hit TV show, This Is Your Dish.
The delighted Merridew is served a large meat pie, which he enjoys until he’s informed that his “babies” have gone into it. Lionheart et al then force-feed the rest of the pie to Merridew via a funnel until he chokes.
That’s everyone in the Critics Circle taken care of, apart from Devlin. He’s already survived one encounter with Lionheart, engaging in a swashbuckling Romeo / Tybalt swordfight at his gym, but the actor isn’t through with him yet.
When Edwina says that she’s heard from her father and that he wants to turn himself him, we know it’s a trap. Devlin and the police are suspicious too and try to set up a trap of their own–but this backfires and the next thing Devlin knows, he’s in that theatre, strapped to a chair with a complicated mechanism that will launch two knives into his eyes. If he doesn’t recant and give Lionheart that Best Actor of the Year Award, he’ll be playing Kent in King Lear.
Devlin refuses. The knives slowly start to slide down toward his face….
Will he be rescued by the bumbling police before he’s blinded at the least, if not killed?
I won’t answer that, but I will say that before the curtains come down we do learn the true identity of Lionheart’s hippie accomplice. Next to the Shakespearean murder theme, it’s my favorite thing about this movie. It’s an excellent disguise–only the voice gives it away. Like Price’s, this person’s is distinctive and too readily recognizable.
* Dennis Price murdered Alec Guinness about 8 times in various imaginative ways in Kind Hearts and Coronets, so his being among the victims here is some kind of film-karma.
** Mrs. Sprout is played by Joan Hickson, who played Miss Marple in the television series in the 1980s. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get to solve any murders here and sleeps through the one that she’s present for.
*** This is the only scene Vincent Price and Coral Browne have together, but they met and got on like a French saint on fire while making this film. The two were married in 1974 and remained so until Browne’s death in 1991.