Thursday 29 April 2021

Dilys dances again… Theatre of Death (1967)

This is the third part of my Dilys Watling series and is the first in colour, as it needs to be for a story with the alternate title of Blood Fiend! Dilys does a fair amount of dancing in this film but is some way down the cast list as Heidi a member of a Grand Guignol theatre company that specialises in the uncanny and sexually provocative occult themes. If nothing else it shows the kinds of gigs you could get in this early stage of the actress’s career and it is a genre film cashing in on the Hammer craze with the focus on action and suspense and the psycho-dramatic dramas of the central players. As a consequence, Heidi is the least rounded character she plays in these films but at least she moves…

Directed by Samuel Gallu and enlivened by a score from avant composer Elisabeth Lutyens, the film stars the always enigmatic Christopher Lee as Phillipe Darvas, who is following on from his father as director of the Theatre de Morte. Phillipe is very dedicated to the off-Pigalle project as if there’s more truth in horror dancing than people expect. It may be the family business but you’d think he’d be aiming somewhere posher… but then again, naturally enough, we suspect his motives from the get-go a) he’s Mr Lee and b) it’s, literally, called the Theatre of Death.

Christopher Lee makes sure Dilys Watling gets the point..

Patron Mademoiselle Angelique (Evelyn Laye) asks for a preview at the opening night party and he asks experienced Dani Gireaux (lovely Lelia Goldoni) to perform with a nervy newcomer, Nicole (Jenny Till) who Darvas hypnotises before they begin. The dance is about the Witches of Salem and as it progresses Nicole is more and more lost in the role and we are convinced she’s actually living it as she draws closer to a red-hot poker glowing in the fire and which her character intends for Dani…

Before reality can be confirmed against performance – and this is a genuinely sweaty palmed moment – Dani’s escort, Charles Marquis (Julian Glover) steps in just before a smiling Darvas was about to conclude the show. For those who don’t know, Glover is Robert Wyatt’s half-brother and one can well imagine them discussing this one after a The Soft Machine gig at the Roundhouse, Middle Earth or UFO Club… far out!

Anyway… Gallu directs this story well and manages the tension and the rather deceptive narrative well. Casting is also key but I’m not telling you why!

Jenny Till

Charles is a police surgeon recovering from a hand injury, yet also involved with the police investigation into the deaths of three women, who have all been murdered in the same way: stabbed in the neck, drained of blood in a manner suggesting the killer was either fetishizing vampiric “theatre” or has genuine hematophagy and needs to feed on the blood on the living! The murder weapon resembles the knives used in one of the performances at the Theatre of Death, and so Charles – as do we – naturally suspects Darvas.

The film settles into an unsettling rhythm with murders continuing and, Charles, along with Inspector George Micheaud (the not at all typecast Ivor Dean!) pursues Darvas as the chief suspect. He’s a devotee of magic and rituals, ostensibly as material for the theatre but, perhaps, he is not only taking it too far on stage, but he may also be conducting brutal research beyond… Darvas is certainly a strange fish and takes a Svengali interest in the innocent Nicole, soon asking her to move in with him in his apartment at the theatre so that he can develop her technique to perfection.

Naturally Dani – who has been rooming with Nicole is concerned but we soon learn how ruthless Darvas is when he dismisses her as a burnt-out failure following a nervous breakdown at the ballet she previously worked. Christopher Lee is of course excellent at this kind of exegesis and Lelia Goldoni is also very emotionally controlled. I’ve not seen much of her before but she has had a long and distinguished career including  John Cassavetes's ground-breaking film Shadows (1959) and Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) by way of Danger Man!

Lelia Goldoni

Then Darvas seemingly disappears and things go quiet, Nicole moves back in with Dani and we all wait for the inevitable re-appearance… Strangeness keeps on taking place and again the atmosphere is built with care and intensity.

Dusty Verdict: This film was far more nuanced than I expected and enlivened by good performances as well as the atmospherics of direction, design and Lutyens’ score.

And that’s not to forget the contribution of our Dilys who is there for the grand finale as well as adding to the glamour and clamour of the theatrical scenes. The closing Voodoo sequence is breathless with drumming provided by the frantic beats of The Tony Scott Drummers and specialist risqué frenzy from dancer Evrol Puckerin.

Julian Glover and Lelia Goldoni

There was actually a theatre called the Grand Guignol in the Pigalle area of Paris which specialised in naturalistic horror shows from 1897 to 1962. The theatre would feature short plays about the underworld of prostitutes, criminals and the city’s poorest often mixed with comedies to lighten the mood between the horrors.  

Paula Maxa was one of the Grand Guignol's best-known performers and from 1917 to the 1930s, she was known as "the most assassinated woman in the world”, murdered more than 10,000 times in at least 60 different ways and raped over 3,000 times.

That’s entertainment I suppose…





No comments:

Post a Comment