Four Films That Dared To Kill The Critic
Sometimes The Sword is Mightier Than The Pen
Bob Balaban in ‘Lady in the Water’ (Warner Bros.)
Film Twitter – the phrase affectionately used to refer to film and culture critics who tweet prodigously about movies – has not had a great July. In the past month, we’ve seen the death of The Dissolve, dustups between fans of Heroic Hollywood and other news sites, endless shots fired regarding the BBC Top 100 film lists, and an exaggerated feud between ourselves and the Alamo Drafthouse-owned blog Birth.Movies.Death. And that does not even include the almost hourly slights plaguing an industry that frequently blurs the line between amateur and professional (and not always known for its strong sense of professionalism).
Fighting among film critics is certainly no new thing. Flip through any film theory reader and you’ll find page after page of sneering commentary; if anything, some of the field’s best work has resulted from a couple of mean-spirited and brilliant individuals doing their best to tear each other to shreds. There’s only one problem, though. No fight between film critics – no matter how eloquent or entertaining the argument may get – can match the sheer creative madness of a filmmaker who decides he or she has had enough. Every now and then, filmmakers get so fed up with negative reviews or hurtful comments that they strike back the only way they can: they write a critic into their movie and kill them as mercilessly as possible.
Why scroll Twitter, waiting for a critic to be put in his place, when you enjoy a slew of graphic and hilarious murder scenes with familiar faces? Remember, we dish it out, so we should be able to take it, too.
House of Horrors (1946)
After a bad review in Manhattan Magazine sabotages the sale of his most recent piece, sculptor Marcel De Lange plans to drown himself in the Hudson River. Instead, De Lange fishes the Creeper (Rondo Hatton, who Universal hoped to turn into the next great movie monster actor) out of the water, using him as the subject for his next sculpture and persuading the Creeper to put his brute strength and murderous tendencies to good use. F. Holmes Harmon, played by future Batman butler Alan Napier, is the stereotypical venomous arts critic, painted as someone who destroys because he can neither create nor enjoy what life has to offer. In one scene between himself and fellow critic Joan Medford, Harmon explains that he is really “a very happy fellow,” never more so than when he is “deflating the egos of artistic pretenders.”
When Harmon is killed, police suspect another artist – the much more popular Steven Morrow – and enlist the help of critic Hal Ormiston to pan Morrow in a review and draw him out. Ormiston is happy to help and cheerfully offers to compare Morrow to the universally-reviled Marcel De Lange, which, of course, inspires the sculptor to send the Creeper out on another murderous rampage. The only critic to survive the Creeper is Medford, girlfriend to Morrow and the plucky Hildy Johnson-type who inadvertently breaks the case wide open (though she fails to recognize the infamous Creeper in De Lange’s work).
One of the charming tendencies of films featuring critics is how often they bend the fourth wall to defend themselves to their own fictitious characters. In one scene, Medford pays a late night visit to Harmon with the intention of convincing him to go easy in his review of Morrow’s one-man show. “I only hoped you’d review his show for what it is,” Medford reasons, “solid commercial art.” SOLID COMMERCIAL ART, you say? Why, you could almost be talking about a B-level Universal horror film starring a gimmicky non-actor as the killer! This was not lost on New York Times critic Bosley Crowther; he wrote in his review that the moral of the film appeared to be “that art critics had better be careful whom they criticize,” though Crowther did note that “film critics, happily, were not mentioned.”
Theatre of Blood (1973)
Edward Lionheart (Price) is a much-maligned stage actor who refuses any work outside of Shakespeare. When the British critics’ guild denies Lionheart a prestigious award he believed to have won, he throws himself to his apparent death, only to return years later and seek revenge against the critics who wronged him. In response to the negative notices he received for each of his performances, Lionheart chooses to murderer each of the nine critics in keeping with a death from a different Shakespearean play. One-by-one, the critics find themselves stabbed (Julius Caesar), decapitated (Cymbeline), drowned in wine (Richard III), and more, all during the measured delivery of the play’s most famous soliloquies.
There are many reasons to love Theatre of Blood. It serves as a late-career love letter to Vincent Price in much the same way that Bogdanovich honored Karloff in Targets; in a recent interview with the AV Club, Theatre of Blood star (and Game of Thrones matriarch) Diana Rigg referred to it as a “brill film” and used it as an opportunity to gush about Vincent Price’s talent as an actor. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Theatre of Blood, however, is how it secretly seems to be setting Edward Lionheart up as the greatest Batman villain of all time. Consider the themed murders, the overly-theatrical settings, and the army of homicidal (and homeless) henchmen. Price’s character serves as a nice bridge between the cartoonish villainy of golden era comics and the graphic violence of Alan Moore and Tim Burton’s visions of Batman.
Sadly, though, there is no Batman, and no one to stop Lionheart from his intricate revenge plot. A few of the critics have the good taste to be disappointed by the constant negative reviews of Lionheart. One critic in particular explains to the police the sad fact that “you begin to resent an actor if you keep having to give him bad notices.” The controversial award, which Lionheart felt went to a young, mumbling actor, speaks more to a generational divide than malicious intent; Lionheart’s stylized sense of performance has been replaced by the realistic details of the method actor. While the critics’ guild may be an insufferable gaggle of bourgeoisie – like House of Horrors, depicting an era when the critic was apparently the one with the fancy lifestyle – their real sin is recanting in the final moment, offering to trade Lionheart a good review for the chance to keep on living.
Phantom of the Opera (1989)
In this oh-so-eighties retelling of the Phantom of the Opera story, Erik Destler (an unhinged Robert Englund) prepares Christine Day for the opportunity to play Marguerite in his company’s version of Faust. This means threatening or killing her competition, careless stage hands, and yes, a pompous theatre critic who dares to give her a bad review.
When the house manager announces that Carlotta is ill and cannot perform, we watch the critic get up and threaten to leave his box. He stays only out of curiosity, and then grudging respect, as Christine Day brings the audience to their feet. A good review is sure to follow; however, the critic owes a favor to the theater manager (Bill Nighy why) and agrees to pan her performance to ensure the return of Carlotta to the show. Destler confronts the critic in disguise and offers him the chance to recant, even promising him the use of his private box for another viewing. “I think I’d rather die,” the critic sneers, “than submit myself to that shrieking child for another evening.”
So die he does.
Here is the flipside of Theatre of Blood, a critic who doubles down on his fictitious opinion when telling the truth would have saved his life. While Phantom is more interested in running through its knock-off Freddy paces with Robert Englund, it does pause long enough to appreciate the lack of integrity of the theatre critic. Destler, who decapitates and flays more often than he speaks, is uncharacteristically reserved in his approach. Did the critic see the wrong version of the play? Could he have struggled with the acoustics? Would he prefer to watch from Destler’s private box? The critic’s unwillingness to give Day a fair shake signs his death warrant and puts the movie back on course for goofy gore.
Lady in the Water (2006)
“What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?” Why, the film critic, of course. The same person who nearly got Story (“Story”) killed.
Lady in the Water is such a colossal misfire of a screenplay that it seems almost destined to become a cult classic (if it isn’t one alrady). The narrative loosely resembles a game of Calvinball without the childish charm. So let’s focus primarily on the movie’s film and literature critic, Harry Farber. A lot of familiar themes are regurgitated by Shyamalan in Farber. He’s a misanthrope. He hasn’t written anything – anything original, anything creative – in a very long time. He assumes he knows everything there is to know about story and plot, even telling Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep that “there is no originality left in the world.” And then, in his final moments, he is incapable of engaging with the real world, earning the distinction as the only character in Lady in the Water to die. If anything, we must credit Shyamalan with restraint in not graphically showing the critic torn apart, in slow motion, as the next twenty minutes of the film.
The funny thing is, this all could have been avoided. Michael Bamberger’s book, “The Man Who Heard Voices,” outlines the development process of Lady in the Water from concept to completion, often from the perspective that Shyamalan is a genius struggling within a system that wants to beat him down. This is all well and good, but many of the criticisms levied against Lady in the Water — in particular, the death of the film critic and the role of Shyamalan as god in his own universe – were specifically addressed in a development meeting with the executives at Disney. As Bamberger recounts, that meeting ended with Shyamalan crying in the elevator, confused at the way his friends had seemingly betrayed him. It’s important to remember that sometimes the best criticism comes before the film has ever been released.
Related Topics: Horror