Thursday, August 09, 2018

The Midnight Movie Monographers: JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT

As I announced here a few weeks ago, I have a new book coming out soon - a meaty monograph on the 1968 Edgar Allan Poe anthology film SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (Histoires extraordinaires). The book is being published by Electric Dreamhouse Press, through PS Publishing, under the editorship of Neil Snowdon. Writing a book for a series is an unusual undertaking, and as I went about determining my own writing process for my book, I found myself becoming more and more curious about my fellow monographers in the series. I thought it might be fun to address questionaires to each of them and learn something about them and their books in the process.

One of the first books to come out in the series was John Llewellyn Probert's study of Douglas Hickox's THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973), a film that has the curious distinction of having lured me out to the theater where I met my future wife. So the film has a certain significance to me, but I was curious to know what it meant to John. He first came to my attention as a fellow contributor to another Electric Dreamhouse book, last year's WE ARE THE MARTIANS: THE LEGACY OF NIGEL KNEALE, and also in the two WE BELONG DEAD collections, '70s MONSTER MEMORIES and UNSUNG HORRORS. However, writing about films is more of a hobby to John, whose principal writing is macabre short fiction. He's published several such collections, including THE FACULTY OF TERROR, THE CATACOMBS OF FEAR, THE NINE DEATHS OF DR. VALENTINE and THE HOUSE THAT DEATH BUILT. You can actually get a strong jolt of his filmic inspirations from those titles.

So here is my first Midnight Movie Monographs interview, highlighting John Llewellyn Probert's THEATRE OF BLOOD:

I think it takes a very special relationship between film and viewer for someone to commit to writing an entire book about a single movie. Do you agree?

Oh I do indeed! Considering how long it takes to write any book you have to have a very good reason for devoting that much time to such a project.


What is it about THEATRE OF BLOOD that made you choose it?

I was approached, actually, and I think that was for two main reasons. One was that it was widely known that THEATRE OF BLOOD is my favourite film, but also because I had written a British Fantasy Award-winning novella called The Nine Deaths of Dr Valentine in which a rich, resourceful and flamboyant maniac killed people in the style of the deaths in Vincent Price films. Nine Deaths was a book I had intended to write since I first put pen to paper, and when it eventually came out it turned out to be more popular than I was expecting. In fact the third in the series, The Last Temptation of Dr Valentine, is due out in October. So I was already known for writing about (and loving) the style of comedy-horror that typify both the Dr Phibes films and THEATRE OF BLOOD, so for me to write about that film at length seemed natural to others before it even occurred to me. 

What do you think your choice of this particular film tells us about you, personally? 

To people familiar with me it will just serve to reinforce what they already know! Is it a film I'd show to a stranger and say 'if you get on with this you'll get on with me'? Possibly. I remember talking to Reece Shearsmith (THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, INSIDE NO. 9) who said he and Steve Pemberton would judge the friendship potential of schoolmates as to whether or not they were fans of THEATRE OF BLOOD. Actually, I think I did the same thing. 

When did you first see the film? Was your enthusiasm for the film immediate?

Well, I actually go into that in the book so I wouldn't want to repeat myself. Suffice to say, I was very young but fortunately it was shown often enough by the BBC that I grew to love it more and more as I got older.

In the time that has passed since then, have you watched it often? Has it continued to grow, or perhaps evolve for you?

I was one of those kids who would make audio cassette recordings off-air of films I thought I might want to re-experience, so I must have listened to the film's soundtrack at least a hundred times when I was growing up. I could certainly perform the entire thing in front of you if you made the mistake of asking. I still watch it about once year and it doesn't get old. But that's probably because I still find every viewing of this, and other favourite films, to be slightly different each time, often because there's some tiny new snippet of information of which I was previously unaware that then helps reshape the viewing experience.

You happened to write one of the first Midnight Movie Monographs to be published. Therefore, you weren’t working in emulation of an existing earlier model, you were in effect helping to devise one. There are any number of ways that a movie can be written about. Do you recall how you came to decide on the approach that your book finally took?

Above all else, I very much wanted to convey my enthusiasm for this particular movie, and I thought the best way would be to write the DVD commentary track I would never get the opportunity to record. The film itself is split into 'murder vignettes', each based on a different Shakespeare play, so the chapter headings wrote themselves. I also thought including the specific Shakesperean quotations used in the film would be a nice frontispiece to each chapter.

How would you describe the approach you did take? Did you interview any of the film’s personnel directly, or rely on subjective analysis and documentation, or is it a purely personal appreciation and invocation?

I started by going through the film, minute by minute, and writing down my thoughts. By the time I'd finished I had used up more than half my allocated word count so then I started to look at what else could be included. It was my editor, Neil Snowdon, who put me in touch with Michael J Lewis, the composer of THEATRE OF BLOOD's score. It's music I've loved nearly all my life and, like reciting the dialogue, I could probably play the whole thing on the piano for you were you to ask. Because of time pressures I had to come up with all of my questions for Michael late one Monday evening after getting home from work but it was easy because many of them were questions I had wanted to ask for years & I never thought I would get the chance. I had a thorough grounding in music in my youth and Michael and I are both Welsh so with all that in common we got on very well indeed. Hopefully needless to say, our conversations are something I shall always treasure.

Did you find it difficult to write at length about a single film?

With some films it's difficult to drum up the enthusiasm to write a single sentence, and then there are others where you feel you could never stop writing about them. I'm not just talking about 'good' films, either. But to answer your question, no - I didn't find it difficult at all to write about THEATRE OF BLOOD. In fact it felt more like one of those things my life had been leading up to.

Did you learn (in effect, teach yourself) anything surprising about the film as a result of writing at such length about it? 

Well I learned I could hold my own talking musical theory, composition, and orchestral arrangement with one of my personal heroes, which both surprised and delighted me. In fact I jokingly suggested we do THE MEDUSA TOUCH next as I had just been to a screening in Bristol Cathedral where it was filmed. Who knows? That's another of my favourites films, and one of my favourite scores.

Director Douglas Hickox made other films but it generally not thought of as a horror auteur. Did you find otherwise, or did you prefer to focus on the one film alone rather than as one facet of a more collective vision?  

I do think THEATRE OF BLOOD is very much an ensemble piece rather than the result of one particular artist's 'vision'. I therefore also think that in this particular case Douglas Hickox was just the right man for the job. While I adore the work of Robert Fuest I think it was Hickox's grittier approach to the deaths themselves that gives THEATRE OF BLOOD an edge. But his grimmer, more serious approach to the material is greatly tempered by the script, the music, and the performances, especially of course Vincent Price. Hickox doesn't exactly hold his actors back, in fact I believe he went on record as saying he had to offer them very little direction at all and 'just let them go'. What he does so well, I think, is temper those performances with the realistic milieu he established. For example, Robert Morley's character is absurd (and played beautifully so) but you genuinely worry about him, and the others, because the deaths are so horrible. Likewise if the characters weren't such caricatures the film itself would be so grim as to be quite hard going. And of course, the music adds an extra layer by being neither funny nor grim but romantic and melancholy. You're making me want to watch it yet again, you know. 

Your next book in the series has been announced as being about the latter-day Amicus production FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. How did you make this selection?

I was introduced to the works of both Robert Bloch and R Chetwynd-Hayes through the Amicus anthology movies, and the style of both writers has always greatly appealed to me. Their blend of humour and horror remains my favourite kind of fiction and I've tried very hard to follow in their path with my own work. Chetwynd-Hayes perhaps had the edge over Bloch when I was young because most of his stories are set in the UK and thus they felt more 'real'. I would go for walks at night (you were allowed to do that at ten years old back then) and imagine the old lady who was actually a gorgon, the young man who had a coffin upstairs with his dead girlfriend in it, or the family who were actually ghouls, all living in my street. In a way I suppose you could say Chetwynd-Hayes was my Ray Bradbury, with instead of bittersweet. boyhood summers the constant sense that on some impending birthday your parents were going to call you to explain you were part of a family of ghouls, and that the noise in the attic was Great Grandad calling for his supper with his wooden leg. He certainly helped shape (or reinforce) my childhood view of Britain in the 1970s and when I read his work now it's with a great deal of nostalgia.

Is there a relationship between FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE and THEATRE OF BLOOD that makes them similarly durable for you, and tempting to this sort of extended appreciation?

Very much so. Both are superbly filmed and acted examples of films that combine horror with a genuine and very particular kind of wit, one which I adore. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE was another one that little JLP made an audio cassette of so if you're not careful I can act the entirely of that one out, too. It's also a film that benefits from the frequently down to earth direction of Kevin Connor, who got the Chetwynd-Hayes world of bedsits, Surrey cottages and mad old ladies exactly right. I wish he'd been given the opportunity to do another one. I'll be talking a lot more about Chetwynd-Hayes in the book, too, especially as with any luck I'll have a few surprises to include.

John Llewellyn Probert's THEATRE OF BLOOD is available here. 


(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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