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Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 3)

Determined to pursue his research, West is in desperate need of space for his experiments. Therefore, he asks Daniel, who  has “access to certain authorities,” for help (Gordon 28:27).  For a successful reanimation, a fresh specimen is required because otherwise the side-effects of the serum cause uncontrolled violent outrage. Hence, West needs access to the hospital’s morgue which only Cain can provide. But instead of granting him assistance, Cain approaches dean Halsey and tells him about West’s efforts. The dean does not believe him and gets upset when he learns about his daughter being involved in Cain’s “insanity” (Gordon 31:05). Cain’s admission does not have the desired effect, but eventually gets him and West expelled from school. Daniel Cain never intended to rebel against the hierarchy of Miskantonic University, yet his attempt of “getting along with people” gets him in trouble (Whyte 205). Herbert West is the personification of a revolt against corporate subordination, whereas the character of Daniel Cain depicts the consequences of Whyte’s theory. “Cain wants to follow the rules; West never does,” and as a result of his subordination, Cain falls by the wayside (Newitz 79). Having lost his place at university, Cain ends up helping West to get access to the hospital’s morgue and resume his experiments. As Newitz concludes, “Cain’s desire to be good and do his low-level work gets him used and manipulated by West (after which he loses his student loans and class status)” (Newitz 80). Now that Cain is assisting West with his experiments on human bodies, his sense of duty is subverted. From this point on, “the film bifurcates the Frankenstein mad-scientist attributes into two characters working in tandem” (Muir 465). West wants to become famous for his research, so he is boasting “the skill and brains” (Muir 465). Cain on the other hand has a “deep-seated personal reason for needing the experiments to continue” because in the end of the movie, he must save his girlfriend’s life by injecting her the serum (Muir 465).

In order to test the serum on a recently deceased person, Cain sneaks West in the morgue. Herbert backs up their intrusion and asserts that “any evidence of reanimated consciousness will justify proceeding” (Gordon 34:57). When they get interrupted by Halsey, the dean gets attacked and killed by a corpse they just brought back to life. West does not hesitate and declares the dean his next human guinea pig since “this is the freshest body that [they] would come across save of killing one [themselves]” (Gordon 41:20). Halsey is reincarnated as a drooling zombie and put in charge of Dr. Hill who keeps him locked up in a padded cell. Dr. Hill seems to realise that West has something to do with the dean’s condition because he is referring to West’s theory about the brain functioning on biological processes when he tells Megan that her “father’s problem is neurological” (Gordon 46:56).

Dr. Hill’s behaviour retains consistency when he tries to arrogate his rival’s discovery. His intention to steal West’s elixir of life and claim it his own achievement once again verifies Whyte’s theory. In this particular scene, Dr. Carl Hill effectively demonstrates his higher rank over the medical student. He blackmails West into handing him out his research results because otherwise he would have him “locked up for a madman or a murderer” (Gordon 52:00). The second Hill triumphantly proclaims that he “will be famous,” he is hit with a shovel by West (Gordon 54:43). Of course, West instantly draws his syringe and injects a shot of his serum into the decapitated head of Dr. Hill and his torso since he has “never done whole parts” before (Gordon 56:01). Few seconds later, both parts “come to life exactly as they were before, insane and hungry for power” (Newitz 79). Although his head and his torso are separated, Hill can still control his body. The interaction of mind and body shadows out “how anxieties about a proletarianized professional class tend to create formal connections between madness and professional success, and simultaneously between routinized mental labor and manual labor” (Newitz 79). Hill escapes West and then uses his mind to control his own body as well as other reanimated corpses on which he conducted a special lobotomy. His experiments have the purpose of establishing a status quo in which his power is ensured by “enforcing a kind of absolute mental hierarchy where Hill will do all the thinking, and his lobotomized zombies will be controlled entirely by his thoughts” (Newitz 81). One of his living dead servants is Alan Halsey. Thus, Dr. Carl Hill has breached the corporate hierarchy of Miskatonic because his “madness has propelled him into a position where he can control the college dean” (Newitz 81). Dr. Hill strives for fame, but his greatest obsession is the “total mastery of the human will” (Gordon 74:18). “Hill, in other words, wants to control the will, while West is only interested in bodies,” concludes Newitz (Newitz 80).

It appears that Hill’s torso does not necessarily need a brain to work because in some scenes it is walking around the hospital with the head hidden in a bag. The body’s ability to operate independently from a brain suggests that “the head truly is just another body part, interchangeable with all other body parts” (Newitz 82). An autonomously working body needs no brain to think for it. At this point, the movie alludes to the fear of a missing “dividing line between professional ‘think work’ and manual labor ‘body work’” which, as a result, “would threaten all . . . privileges [of professionals]” (Newitz 82). In a scenario in which thinking brains “are not so special after all,” the qualities of scientific professionals may be expendable (Newitz 70). This is the case if scientists accept a subordinate role to corporate decision making which intends to restrict their individuality, as formulated by Whyte in his theory. A verification of this anxiety is portrayed in an extreme way in the climax of Re-Animator. When Cain and West face Dr. Hill and a bunch of reanimated corpses in the morgue, West overdoses the headless torso in order to destroy it. Even though Hill’s head is in the meantime crushed by Halsey, the remains of his body are still alive. Due to the overdose of the reagent, the guts of Hill’s torso take on a life of their own. Bursting out of the torso’s chest, Hill’s colon ultimately strangles West to death. Although Halsey has successfully removed Hill from his unjustly gained position, it turns out that his body does not need a brain at all. Dr. Hill’s scientific expertise has hence become redundant since his body can perform manual labour without a thinking brain.

Madness in Stuart Gordon’s movie is presented as a result of frantic struggle for success and power. Although Herbert West declares his reagent “can defeat death,” his true motivation is “to be famous and live lifetimes” (Gordon 28:32). John Kenneth Muir points out that “Herbert West is not truly a thoughtful genius, only a dork and perpetual overachiever” whose pride is not based “on his desire to keep alive the ones he loves, since he loves only himself” (Muir 464). West’s revolt against Miskatonic’s professional chain of command is intended “to prove he is right, that others are wrong” (Muir 464). His status as a student determines his rank at the lowest level of the medical school’s hierarchy. Yet, he is still ahead in terms of scientific knowledge and wit compared to his fellow student. While “mad doctors West and Hill are capable of performing fantastically successful, though immoral, experiments because they are mad,” Cain’s abiding by the rules costs him his status (Newitz 80). His moral constraints are the reason for his failure because when he informs Halsey about his roommate’s secret research, he gets himself and West expelled from school. Thus, Cain’s good intentions turn into a backlash against himself and others. For Megan, the consequences of her boyfriend’s straightforwardness are fatal. Alarmed by Cain’s confession about Halsey being a victim of both, West’s reanimation and Hill’s brain surgery, she tries to rescue her father. When she finds him in the morgue, she gets trapped by Dr. Hill and eventually killed by one of his mind-controlled corpses on her attempt to escape. Cain is the only one who makes it out of the morgue alive—and literally in one piece—“because he is ‘sane’” (Newitz 80). The final scene, however, depicts him with a syringe in his hand and about to administer the serum to Megan. For that reason, “Cain ultimately goes mad too—leaving us with the impression that perhaps he has survived precisely because he has lost his mind” (Newitz 81).

In the end, mad scientist Herbert West becomes a victim of his own experiment which makes him the tragic hero of the film because he embodies “the direct antithesis of the company-oriented man” (Whyte 211). According to Whyte, subordination to corporate interests rather than conducting individual research “inhibits the flow of really good ideas” (Whyte 216). In his view, scientists need to be able to “follow their own interests without direction or interference” (Whyte 211). West’s insubordination is a protest against the restrictions imposed by the administration of Miskatonic Medical School. He unwaveringly refuses to acknowledge Dr. Hill’s theories and even impeaches his credibility as a scientist. Following Whyte’s argumentation, the fear of mental labour being replaced by manual labour due to the restriction of scientific independence, dominated the discourse about work ethics in the 1980s. In Re-Animator, the protagonist’s defiant attitude derails the hierarchy of the facility he is working for. Therefore, Herbert West serves as an example of a mad scientist scattering such anxieties, even though his efforts end up in a disaster for all involved parties. Despite the fact The Organization Man was published about three decades before the first release of Re-Animator, the relevance of Whyte’s thesis still prevailed in the 1980s. In this context, Stuart Gordon’s splatter comedy “bears all the marks of conflicted eighties discourses about professional work,” as Newitz points out (Newitz 80).

Jeffrey Combs reprises his role as Herbert West in two sequels to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, both directed by Brian Yuzna. In Bride of Re-Animator it is revealed that West has actually survived the massacre at Miskatonic Medical School. He teams up with Daniel Cain again to assemble a whole new creature made of body parts from stolen corpses. The central part of their “bride” is the heart of Megan, Cain’s girlfriend who did not survive the events in Re-Animator. Dr. Carl Hill’s separated head also reappears and wreaks another vengeance on his rival Herbert West. Although his sequel released in 1990 “is even closer to the original” Lovecraft story in terms of setting and characters, Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator lacks the originality of Gordon’s take on the story since it is, as the title already implies, rather a parody of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (Mitchell 40). Hence, the film “could not duplicate the chemistry and magic that made Re-Animator a unique thriller and black comedy” (Mitchell 36). Junge and Ohlhoff confirm that Brian Yuzna’s Beyond Re-Animator from 2003 marks the transition of the mad scientist into the 21st century (see Junge and Ohlhoff 13). However, the third instalment of the series adds nothing new to the character of Herbert West, who is therein conducting his experiments on prison inmates. In an interview director Stuart Gordon talks about his plans of making House of Re-Animator which was supposed to be set in the White House. Since the movie was intended to be a satire on the Bush administration, which is now history, Gordon considers this project “kind of pointless” (Brown).

Works Cited

Beder, Sharon. “Conformity not Conducive to Creativity.” Engineers Australia April 1999: 60.

Brown, Todd. Fantasia 2010: A Conversation with Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs. <http://twitchfilm.com/interviews/2010/07/fantasia-2010-a-conversation-with-stuart-gordon-and-jeffrey-combs.php> 6 Jan. 2011.

Charney, Mark J. “Beauty in the Beast: Technological Reanimation in the Contemporary Horror Film.” Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastics in the Arts. Ed. Michael A. Morrison. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161-170.

 Dixon, Wheeler W. The Second Century of Cinema: The Past and Future of the Moving Image. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

 Hallenbeck, Bruce G. Comedy-horror Films: A Chronological History, 1914-2008. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.

 Junge, Torsten and Dörthe Ohlhoff. “In den Steinbrüchen von Dr. Monreau: Eine Einleitung.” Wahnsinnnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Ed. Torsten Junge and Dörthe Ohlhoff. Aschaffenburg: Alibri, 2004. 7-23.

 Mitchell, Charles P. The Complete H.P. Lovecraft Filmography. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.

 Muir, John K. Horror Films of the 1980s. Jefferson: McFarland, 2007.

 Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. London: Duke University Press, 2006.

 Nocera, Joseph. Introduction. The Organization Man. By William H. Whyte. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. vii-xvi.

 Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon. Perfs. Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and David Gale. 1985. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2007.

 Shapiro, Jerome F. Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.

 Whyte, William H. The Organization Man. 1956. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

 Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.

Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 2)

In the prologue scene of Re-Animator, Herbert West is shown at the brain research institute of the Zurich Medical University. He has obviously just tried his formula on his mentor Dr. Gruber who is now screaming in agony. The alarmed security personnel can only witness Dr. Gruber’s eyes popping out of his skull. West declares “the dosage was too large,” excusing Gruber’s reaction, but not his own behaviour because in his opinion he “gave him life” (Gordon 1:53). Dr. Gruber’s gruesome demise sets the pace for the further development of the story. Accompanied by a music score that resembles the main theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, anatomic sketches of the human head in radiant colours scroll across the screen as the opening credits roll. The “eerily abstract credit sequence of Vertigo” crosses the viewer’s mind, too (Worland 247). “These Hitchcock allusions serve as a wry distancing device that reiterates the sense of genre history evoked by West the mad scientist, and hint at a witty undercurrent,” observes Rick Worland (Worland 247). It is details like these that account for the movie’s “reflexive humor and intense self-examination” (Dixon 71). Wheeler W. Dixon rates Re-Animator

a genre film that is fully cognizant of its ancestry; it takes the conventions and rules of the horror genre and breaks them into wildly configured shards of thematic material, pushing the normal audience tolerance for gore, and for outrageous plot exposition, past the boundaries that still, even in 1985, were rigidly enforced by audience expectations. (Dixon 71)

The first scene after the opening sequence introduces Bruce Abbott as Daniel Cain, an ambitious medical student at Miskatonic University, trying to save a woman’s life in the emergency room. Even though the electrocardiogram already displays a flatline, Cain continues the resuscitation attempt. Recognising his effort was in vain, he is disappointed by himself. Cain is presented here as caring and dedicated to his profession, even though another doctor calls his optimism “touching, but a waste of time” (Gordon 5:42). When Cain arrives at the morgue, he meets Herbert West for the first time. Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Dr. Carl Hill, the remaining protagonists, are presented as well in this scene. When addressed by Halsey, West does not look at the dean. His overt disinterest in being introduced to other people is a first sign of his otherness. While Halsey, Hill and Cain are talking to each other, West turns his back on them. Instead of joining the conversation, West immediately accuses Hill of plagiarising the work of his former mentor Dr. Gruber. Summing up the doctor’s findings, West professes that Hill’s “work on brain death is outdated” (Gordon 8:57). This short dispute is Herbert West’s initial attack on Miskatonic’s corporate hierarchy. He not only puts Hill’s expertise in question, but also his authority when he debunks him in front of the college dean. Additionally, Whyte’s above mentioned fear of scientists relying on other scientists’ discoveries rather than their own research results, is expressed here (see Whyte 205). Dr. Hill is alleged to claim the ideas of Dr. Gruber his own results instead of presenting new facts. West’s “disdain for the protocols of professional hierarchy” continues during Dr. Hill’s lecture (Newitz 81). While the professor is conducting an autopsy in front of the class, West interrupts him by breaking a pencil in order to express his disagreement with Hill’s theories about the human brain. Hill explains “it takes desire, an obsessive desire” to examine its function (Gordon 16:28). Before he can conclude his remark, he is interrupted by West again. In the course of the plot it becomes clear that West is very determined to bring up this particular obsessive desire mentioned by Dr. Hill. However, he is not willing to share his findings with his rival.

Shortly after West has moved in with Cain, his new roommate gets suspicious of the odd student. When Cain discovers his girlfriend Megan’s dead cat in West’s refrigerator, he also notices a small bottle of a fluorescent green liquid. Interrogated about the dead cat and the substance, West becomes nervous and threatens Cain. He signifies Cain that he would be loosing his profession at the medical school if the dean finds out about the relationship between him and his daughter Megan. West’s extortion proves to be successful as Cain gives in. He does not want to take the risk of being thrown “out of the profession on moral ground,” even though West and Cain are students “near the bottom” of the school’s hierarchy (Gordon 24:00; Newitz 81). The same night Daniel finds out about Herbert’s secret research in the laboratory set up downstairs. There he discovers West in the middle of a fight with the cat he just reanimated. “All life is a physical and chemical process,” explains West (Gordon 27:31). His serum can reactivate this process on a dead being and hence he is profoundly convinced he “conquered brain death” (Gordon 28:03). West’s theory contradicts Dr. Hill’s statement about the function of the brain because Hill holds the presence of will and desire in the brain responsible for the sustainment of life. Thus, the struggle between the two mad scientists is based on their conflicting theories, namely “biological process and psychological will” (Newitz 79).

Accordingly, both do not team up and work together, but rather than that each of them does his own individual research. However, Dr. Hill’s ideas are allegedly stolen from Dr. Gruber, and later from West when he takes his serum. Yet, his experiments are conducted by himself without the assistance of other scientists. Thereby, both obtain their individuality and oppose William H. Whyte’s concern. Whyte is anxious about scientists who give up their creativity by working in teams subordinated to corporate demands and thus restricting their talents (see Whyte 205). Herbert West not only breaches the guidelines of Miskatonic Medical School, but he also wants to keep the results of his research his secret. Neither is he one of Whyte’s envisioned “well-rounded team players,” nor does he bow to “organization loyalty” (Whyte 205). Even though Herbert West’s experiment puts himself and others in danger, his efforts express a progressive attitude that takes a stand against rigid institutional hierarchies and debatable work ethics. Conforming to the common stereotype of the mad scientist, “West must subordinate personal feelings for scientific good” (Charney 165). Cain, his girlfriend Megan and her father Dr. Alan Halsey consider West odd at best, but “he calls himself a true scientist willing to accept the challenge of overcoming ethics for the common good” (Charney 165).

…TO BE CONTINUED.

Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 1)

An abnormal brain is blamed for the failure of an experiment when it is implanted into a corpse’s skull in James Whale’s classic horror movie Frankenstein. The creature’s violent misconduct is accordingly associated with its brain dysfunction. In Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator from 1985, the brain assumes centre stage again. This time, the focus is on “mad doctors who exist in a world where the mind has become so fetishized that brains are literally leaving their bodies behind” (Newitz 70). Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a medical student who appearantly stops at nothing in order to act out his drive to research. As a result of his reckless efforts to reanimate every corpse he can get hold of, he not only wreaks havoc at the facility he is working for, but also disrupts the hierarchic structure of Miskantonic Medical School. The idea “of returning the dead to life . . . isn’t exactly new territory, but Gordon’s fascination with the flesh and bone mechanics of the process raises the film above the level of a Frankenstein retreat into an area distinctly its own” (Dixon 70). Re-Animator is an adaptation of a short story originally written by American horror novelist Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1922. In his works, Lovecraft often refers to the fictional place of Miskatonic University located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Although the motion picture considerably varies from Lovecraft’s original story, it is still considered to have a “genuine Lovecraftian feel” (Dixon 70). In regard to its impact on the horror genre, Bruce G. Hallenbeck points out that Stuart Gordon made “the first truly successful Lovecraft film, one that influenced a whole sub-genre that is still prevalent today” (Hallenbeck 142).

Herbert West, an arrogant medical student whose experiments explore the reanimation of dead bodies, is the main protagonist of Re-Animator. Linchpin of his research is a fluorescent green liquid which can bring corpses back to life if injected into the subject’s brain. His serum is not quite mature yet and has some side-effects,  e.g. in some cases it makes the revived bodies turn violent against themselves or others. After some bodies are successfully reanimated, it turns out the substance also works on single body parts. In a key scene of the movie, West’s rival Dr. Hill (David Gale) is decapitated by the mad scientist, just to have his headless body and his separated head reanimated again. In a post-mortem act of vengeance, Dr. Hill’s head uses his hypnotic powers to command a band of reanimated corpses against Herbert West, inciting “an all-out war between brains and body parts” (Newitz 79). The graphic depiction of this scene and similar others is exemplary for the film’s “over-the-top Grand Guignol violence” (Dixon 70). Yet, the separation of brain and body in the movie serves another purpose beyond shocking the audience: it is a metaphor for the replacement of mental labour by manual labour because it portrays how a body can still perform certain tasks even without a brain.

In his book The Organization Man, William H. Whyte criticises the American economy of the 1950s for “systematically stamping out individuality . . . and that this loss of individuality would eventually be ruinous to both the individual and the corporation” (Nocera vii). He therein “described how people not only worked for organisations but how they belonged to them as well” (Beder 60). “Organization men and women subordinate their own values to the needs of the institution or system, and sublimate political impotence with harmless personal enrichment activities,” explains Shapiro (Shapiro 104). The book was a major success when it was released in 1956. Whyte believed “that scientific innovation would be greatly diminished if companies stopped hiring scientists who were free-spirits and even renegades” (Nocera vii). As Sharon Beder writes in her article, Whyte revisited his thesis in the 1980s, claiming “little had changed: ‘The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations . . . The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before’” (Beder 60). In consideration of the social ethic of the “organization life,” Whyte theorises about what would happen if the same ethic was applied to the scientific sector:

(1) scientists would now concentrate on the practical application of previously discovered ideas rather than the discovery of new ones; (2) they would rarely work by themselves but rather as units of scientific cells; (3) organization loyalty, getting along with people, etc. would be considered just as important as thinking; (4) well-rounded team players would be more valuable than brilliant men, and a very brilliant man would probably be disruptive. (Whyte 205)

Whyte’s outlook on the scientific sector depicts a dismal scenario assuming that scientists had to subordinate their individuality—and thus their creativity—to corporate interests in case their mental work is undervalued. As a closer look at the plot of Re-Animator reveals, the mad scientist breaking ranks is a metaphor for the struggle against the fears expressed by Whyte. Herbert West’s disrespect for senior scientists is only one aspect of his revolt against subordination.

…TO BE CONTINUED

Theatre of Blood: Shakespearean Allusions in a 20th Century Horror Comedy (Part deux)

In a scene of Theatre of Blood which resembles the murder of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, Edward Lionheart does not commit the crime himself. Instead his daughter, who is dressed like a man, calls Mr. Psaltery, a member of the Critics’ Circle, and tells him in an altered voice that he “might learn something very interesting about [his] wife” if he comes home early enough (Hickox 65:58). Psaltery follows this advice and observes a bearded man wearing a white coat and a white hat entering his house. This scene is largely along the lines of Othello Act III, Scene 3 in which Iago plots a meeting between Desdemona and Cassio in order to raise Othello’s jealousy. In Theatre of Blood it is Edwina Lionheart who plays the role of Iago because she gives Mr. Psaltery a hint to his wife’s alleged unfaithfulness. The fact she is disguised as a man and speaking in a male voice also emphasises this allusion.

Invited to come upstairs by Mr. Psaltery’s wife, the stranger in white starts to give Mrs. Psaltery a massage while she makes ambiguous comments about their previous meetings. The impression of adultery in progress is created not only by Mrs. Psaltery’s lascivious noises, but is already indicated by an old painting in the stairway which depicts a naked woman who is touched by an angel. Mr. Psaltery has meanwhile followed the couple upstairs and witnesses his wife Maisie moaning in the bedroom. In a rage he breaks the door to the room because he assumes that his wife is cheating on him. When he enters the room he is told by the white dressed stranger that Maisie has already had 20 lovers. In a furious irateness Psaltery then chokes his wife to death with a pillow in her bed just like Othello murders Desdemona in Shakespeare’s original play. Shortly after this event the other members of the Critics’ Circle arrive at the crime scene and assert that only Edward Lionheart can be held responsible for the death of Maisie and therefore Mr. Psaltery’s fate. Although Lionheart did not kill the critic, he “destroyed him just as surely as if he’d murdered him” because Psaltery will spend the rest of his life in prison (Hickox 70:09).

Next on Lionheart’s list is Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare. The humiliated actor begins the scene by reading out a review of his performance in Titus Andronicus which was written by Critics’ Circle member Meredith Merridew. He announces the way he is going to carry out his revenge on Merridew by quoting Act V, Scene 3 of the play: “Hark, villain! I will grind your bones to dust, and make two pasties of your shameful head” (Hickox 77:22). In order to illustrate his plan he smashes an egg in a bowl and stirs it like he is preparing a pasty. In Shakespeare’s play Roman general Titus Andronicus seeks revenge for his raped and mutilated daughter. Therefore he kills the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and makes a pasty of them which he then serves their mother. In the film it is the theatre critic who unwittingly has his two dogs for dinner.

When Meredith Merridew enters his house he finds himself in the middle of a TV cooking show which appears to be broadcast from his home. Lionheart dressed up as a chef asks Merridew to take a seat and presents him a dish while his daughter and the group of loafers pretend to be part of the film crew. Merridew does not realise what is actually happening around him and asks where his dogs are because he considers them his children as he explains: “My doggies, you know. I always think of them as my babies” (Hickox 82:44). Lionheart reveals their whereabouts by quoting Act V, Scene 3:

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (Hickox 82:54)

Force-feeding Merridew with a cone stuck in his mouth Lionheart recites another passage of Shakespeare, but this time it is a quote from Romeo and Juliet Act V, Scene 3 in which Romeo is about to open Juliet’s tomb:

Thou detestable maw,
Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food! (Hickox 84:13)

Shakespeare’s original lines are here put into a completely different context. Yet, the quotes match the current action and therefore highlight the movie’s black humour. Lionheart concludes the grotesque image of Merridew choking on a pasty made of his poodles by cynically asserting that the critic “didn’t have the stomach for it” (Hickox 84:50). The representation of Merridew’s bizarre demise is a typical example which defines the film a horror comedy because an actually tragic event is displayed in a humorous manner. Intentional allusions to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus become obvious in Lionheart’s character, who seeks revenge for his damaged reputation like the Roman general does in the original play. Meredith Merridew’s character mimics Tamora. Even though he is male, his appearance features blatant female attributes. He is dressed in a pink suit and wears excessive make-up which makes him look like a drag queen and hence underlines his female traits. He also calls two poodles his babies and therefore puts himself into the role of a mother. Merridew eating his own “children” served by Lionheart in a pasty is thus another reference to Shakespeare’s drama.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Read Part 1 of this article here.

Theatre of Blood: Shakespearean Allusions in a 20th Century Horror Comedy (Part 1)

Most classic Shakespeare movies stick closely to the play they are based on, in Theatre of Blood however, director Douglas Hickox follows a different concept of Shakespearean adaptation. In his film notorious horror icon Vincent Price embodies Edward Lionheart, a theatre actor who seeks deadly revenge on those critics who in the protagonist’s opinion do not recognise his talent as a performer of Shakespeare’s plays. Theatre of Blood focuses on the bloody aspects of Shakespeare’s dramas because Lionheart re-enacts several killings which are key scenes in Shakespeare’s original plays. The comical yet horrific presentation of the murders in the tradition of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Othello, King Lear and others ranks Theatre of Blood among the genre of horror comedy. This article takes a look at these specific scenes of the movie and examines their rendition of the Shakespearean originals.

The plays of William Shakespeare often deal with issues such as betrayal, malevolence and revenge which result in violent outrages. Derek Cohen points out that violence in Shakespeare’s dramas is a product of patriarchal systems. Patriarchal structures are defined by a general rule of men over women and are based on suppression and male dominance. In Shakespeare’s universe violent acts are committed in order to restore social values which predominate patriarchy. Exemplary for this thesis are the tragedies Othello, Titus Andronicus and King Lear because they “are the only plays by Shakespeare in which female protagonists are murdered by men” and thus display the “relations of power and violence within patriarchy” (Cohen, 3). In Othello the male protagonist kills his wife Desdemona because he suspects her of adultery. He considers his status as husband and dominant figure in this relationship in danger and therefore commits a murder not only to punish Desdemona, but also to restore his patriarchal position. This act of violence is hence “produced by a social code which valorizes order as a social value” (Cohen, 1). In Titus Andronicus a Roman general avenges his raped and mutilated daughter. To restore his damaged reputation, however, he needs to kill his child before going after the perpetrators.

In Theatre of Blood it is Edward Lionheart who feels betrayed by the theatre critics who did not grant him the award as best Shakespearean actor. His status as a respected and talented actor is therefore put into question. In order to seek revenge, he stages the murder scenes of several Shakespeare plays in which the critics themselves involuntarily adopt the victim’s role. In the final scene of the movie, for example, Lionheart lures his victim into an old theatre where he threatens to blind him just like the Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. During this scene and in his other appearances Lionheart quotes passages from Shakespeare’s works. Hickox’s film thus “draws attention to the violence of Shakespeare on the one hand, and ultimately, resists re-creating Shakespeare’s violence altogether” (Cartmell, 11).

When the pioneers of cinema brought Shakespeare from stage to screen, they paved the way for generations of film makers to follow. Director Douglas Hickox reverses this concept to a certain extent in his horror comedy Theatre of Blood. His movie “is a meeting of high and low cultures, but the incrementally horrific scenes . . . bring to mind the violence so often swept under the carpet in discussions of Shakespeare” (Cartmell, 10). The order in which Lionheart chooses his victims follows his last season of Shakespeare. This concept is typical for the slasher film sub-genre in which the villain stalks and kills his victims one by one. In 1971, only two years before Theatre of Blood was shot, Italian director Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood became the blueprint for modern day slasher movies like the Friday the 13th franchise, which started in 1980, or John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978. Yet influences of Bava’s work can already be recognised in Theatre of Blood. The detailed display of violent killing scenes in Bay of Blood is a stylistic device which is also prominent in Hickox’s horror comedy. Although Theatre of Blood exhibits bloody murders, a comic relief diverts the viewer from the actual atrocity of such a scene.

Edward Lionheart considers himself the best Shakespearean performer who has ever entered a theatre stage. The British Critics’ Circle however has a different opinion and denies Lionheart the 1970 Critics’ Circle Award. In a flashback scene Lionheart enters the conference room of the critics committee and grabs the award statue. While reciting the famous “to be or not to be” passage of Hamlet Act III, Scene 1 he makes his way onto the balcony and finally dives into the Thames River in a suicide attempt still clenching the award statue. The critics watch his performance from inside the conference room separated by a window from the balcony which functions as Lionheart’s stage. The window’s curtain is drawn aside in order to enable the view on the balcony and completes the impression of a stage performance. Shortly after this scene it is revealed that Lionheart actually survived the fall from the balcony when he is pulled out of the river bed by a gang of down-and-out drunks. Lionheart has as a result descended from the level of high culture, represented by the theatre critics, to the level of low culture which is epitomised by the group of loafers.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

Works Cited

Cartmell, Deborah. Interpreting Shakespeare on Film. London: Macmillian, 2000.

Cohen, Derek. Shakespeare’s Culture of Violence. London: Macmillian, 1993.

Theatre of Blood. Dir. Douglas Hickox. Perfs. Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Diana Dors and Robert Morley. 1973. DVD. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2004.

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