Review Date: July 30, 2000
Released by: MGM
Release date: 10/23/2001
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
What's better than a horror movie starring Christopher Lee? The answer is, nothing. Now, while it was his roles as Dracula in several Hammer films that made him famous, he made several other good horror films during that time period. Some, like 1967's Theatre of Death, even spoofed Lee's more storied roles. And Theatre of Death is a very good film on it's own, but it's Lee's presence that really makes it worthwhile. It's a sold-out show, but Anchor Bay still has some great seats available.
Christopher Lee plays Philippe Darvas, the director of the Theatre de Mort, or the Theatre of Death for the non-Francophiles. The stage show consists of short sketches, all about death (though you probably could have guessed that from the title). Darvas is a maniacal director with an iron fist. He even uses the Hypno-Ring he got from his Superman comic to put his actors under his spell.
While Darvas is putting the final touches on some new sketches, the police are investigating a baffling series of crimes: Random citizens are getting murdered with a bizarre implement, and then drained of their blood. Retired investigator Marquis (Julian Glover), who's attempting a romance with one of the actresses, Dani (Lelia Goldoni), wonders if the killer just may be involved with the Theatre.
Of course, when people begin to show up minus their blood, any character played by Christopher Lee becomes the prime suspect. Only problem is, Darvas disappears, leaving behind nothing but a bloodstained coat. So who's really responsible for the murders? Considering how Darvas treats his actors, the potential suspect list is a mile long. Is it the recently fired Dani? Her unstable roommate Nicole (Jenny Till)? Or even Darvas himself? (After all, no one's found his body yet)
Theatre of Death falls into that category of films I hate upon first viewing, but develop a much greater appreciation the more I see it. It's a bit slow and talky, not to mention that it's really a mystery film more than a horror film. I was expecting another film like the ones Christopher Lee made portraying Dracula for Hammer Studios. At the beginning, that's exactly what it is, but it takes a far different turn once Darvas disappears.
The presentations of the Theatre de Mort are quite gruesome, but rather tangential to the plot (another reason I was underwhelmed the first time through). There are guillotinings and witch trials, which alone makes for an interesting premise. But this gets pushed to the background as the investigation pushes further. I was a bit disappointed by this, but I now realize it's a great misdirection tactic. And yet, Darvas' plans for the direction of the stage production is part of the motivation for the events of the latter half of the film.
Theatre of Death carries a rather interesting look, which is consistent throughout the entire movie. It's very dark (and I'm not talking about the subject matter), with stark lighting and contrast. I believe there's only two or three scenes that take place in daylight. Often, the only lit items on screen are the characters. There's very little background. And what does this look like? You guessed it, a stage production. I frequently noticed that the characters often seemed to be on a darkened stage, lit only by spotlights. It's an interesting technique for sure, creating a most unique overall feel to the movie.
Theatre of Death is not exactly the most fast-paced film ever produced, so it's not for everyone. Many of the most violent scenes are really only staged for Darvas' shows. The appeal of the film is more in the look, as well as the mystery angle. I wouldn't give it a blanket recommendation, but it's definitely worth checking out, especially for those looking for something different in their horror film library. Also, while Lee is only in the film for 45 minutes, he simply dominates every single scene he's in, showing just what an amazing actor he truly is.
Towards the end of the film, there's a voodoo dance that is extremely suggestive and revealing, especially considering the time it was made. This sequence was removed from some U.S. prints, so it's great to see this uncut. Also on a trivial note, both Christopher Lee and Julian Glover went on to play villains in James Bond films. Lee was Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, and Glover played Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only.
As mentioned above, Theatre of Death has a unique look to it, and this look is magnified by yet another amazing Anchor Bay transfer. The presentation is in full Scope, 2.35:1, and enhanced for widescreen TVs. Blacks are very true and solid, and that's an absolute necessity for this film. The bright lighting of the characters against the dead solid black of the background provides a noticeable contrast, and anything less than an exemplary transfer would cause the film to suffer seriously. Luckily, Anchor Bay realized this and once again provided us with a reference quality version of an overlooked film.
Also to be expected, Theatre of Death was recorded in mono, and here we have a standard 2.0 digital transfer. It seemed a little dull, then around 15 minutes in, there's an odd jump to a much brighter sound. I'm not sure if that's due to original materials, or perhaps a bad pressing of the DVD. Luckily, it's early on, and the sound from that point forward is much better, but it is the only real gaffe I discovered with the disc.
Anchor Bay kept this one fairly simple. There are the standard trailers, TV spots, and posters. But the highlight here is an 11-minute feature with Christopher Lee. It's entirely too short. I shouldn't complain, but it was so fascinating, the 11 minutes seemingly went by in moments. Lee makes some rather scathing comments about his work for Hammer studios, which I found quite surprising. I now have got to check out the full audio commentaries he did for the Hammer films also released by Anchor Bay. The man is clearly one of the all-time greats.
Don't expect the typical Christopher Lee film here. Of course, his performance is top-notch, but not the main focus of the movie. Instead, it's a rather odd mystery film, with a rather unique overall look and feel. Violence is kept to a bare minimum. Definitely recommended to all of Lee's fans, as well as those who enjoy the Italian Giallo genre, of which Theatre of Death is very closely related.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - A
Sound - B-
Supplements - B+
- Running time - 1 hour 30 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter stops
- Dolby Digital Mono
- "Sinister Theatrics", an 11-minute conversation with Christopher Lee
- Theatrical Trailer
- Radio Spots
- Poster and Stills Gallery
- Christopher Lee Bio