6. Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula
In the '70s and '80s, Theodore made appearances in a number of pretty skeevy low-rent movies, like Massage Parlor Hookers (1973) and the hilarious 1976 martial-arts/blaxploitation/horror hybrid Gang Wars. He also played Captain Carl Clitoris, a Nazi (!) equivalent of Quint, in Gums, the demented 1976 porn spoof of Jaws, which replaced the shark with an opportunistic, fellatio-minded mermaid.
Theodore is said to have wished he could become a fixture in horror movies. He does indeed seem like a natural fit, but maybe the closest he ever came to the genre in its traditional form was playing the toadying servant to Dracula (John Carradine) in the good-natured disco-horror spoof Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula, featuring the ravishing, if not terribly frightening, Nai Bonet in the title role.
He seems to have borrowed some of his dialogue from his own short story "The Possession of Emmanuel Wolf," but some of his lines may have been improvised. Rather understandably, poor Theodore - it's both the character's name and the actor's - suffers terribly from unrequited love for Nocturna. At one dramatic high point he laments "Am I never going to be her little yum-yum?"
7. The House by the Cemetery trailer
For some reason or other, the distributors of this 1981 Lucio Fulci horror effort (originally Quella Villa Accanto al Cimitero) thought it worth their while to hire Theodore to provide the voice-over for the American trailers and TV commercials. And in the case of at least one audience member, they were right, it paid off - I went to see, and indeed dragged my poor then-girlfriend to, this routine, unpleasant shocker strictly because I heard Theodore's unmistakable delivery in the ad. The few sentences he speaks pack in all his skill at verbal atmospherics - doom-laden and angry on one level; wearily above-it-all on another.
I was an experienced enough moviegoer by then that I had no illusions that the great man would be in the film, or have anything else to do with it - although I held out the hope that he might be among the English dubbing voices (he wasn't). But somehow his having lent his voice to its marketing conferred an extra measure of dignity upon the disreputable product.
He similarly lent an uncanny touch to the opening minutes of 1970's Horror of the Blood Monsters (known by at least seven other titles in English alone), Al Adamson's mashup of a lurid Filipino horror flick with some cheesy stateside footage. Theodore delivers a voice-over commentary on the subject of vampires.
It would have been a better movie if he'd just kept talking over the whole thing.
8. Who's on First? With "Sammy Davis, Jr."
Along with the theatre geeks and the Goth/horror fans, stand-up comedy was another community which claimed Theodore. He was, for instance, in Elayne Boosler's 1985 TV special Elayne Boosler: Party of One, in which he romantically rhapsodized to the star "Elayne...you are lovely! Lovely beyond repair!"
He also appeared in a number of Billy Crystal's TV shows, never more memorably than when he is teamed with Crystal's Sammy Davis, Jr. on the classic wordplay routine "Who's On First?" directed by Christopher Guest, in a prototype of his Corky St. Clair character from Waiting for Guffman. It's a case of miscasting - Theodore's short-fused frustration over his inability to elicit from his scene partner the name of the guy on first eventually explodes in violence, and leaves him stalking away, grumbling "Never a moment's peace...never a moment's peace..."
9. The 'Burbs
Joe Dante's cul-de-sac-bound comedy of 1989 chickens out in the end. If you recall, Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun are suspicious of the macabre-looking activities of their creepy neighbors the Klopeks, played by Henry Gibson, Theodore and Courtney Gaines (of Children of the Corn), and the movie seems to be making the point that nosy suburbanites can leap to conclusions and project all sorts of unsavory notions onto the folks next door simply for behaving differently.
But then ("spoiler alert!") in the end, the movie does what satire should never do - it lets us off the hook. Turns out the weirdo neighbors aren't red herrings, they really are murderous ghouls; the 'burb-dwellers were justified in their paranoia. Despite this disappointment, though, The 'Burbs is really quite funny, and it offered Theodore his largest and juiciest onscreen role in a big-studio feature. As the dour "Uncle Ruben," he gets to deliver a number of lines in his trademark barks and abruptly-rising snarls. There's a dream scene in which, dressed as some sort of high priest, he wails what should have been the movie's moral: "Mind your own BUSINESS! Mind your own BUSINESS!" at Hanks, and there's a blissful moment near the end, when he addresses Corey Feldman and friends, obviously using the most contemporary term he can come up with for cool kids, with "OK, hepcats, get off my car!"
10. To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore
This documentary is almost all Theodore. It's a collage of clips of his performance material, often showing the same pieces dissolving from one vintage to another. There's also off-the-cuff interview footage, some of it delivered through an eerily accurate-looking Brother Theodore puppet.
It's not necessarily the ideal introduction to Theodore for the novice. The multi-source presentational technique, though fascinating, interferes with the rising rhythm of the performances. There are also admiring interviews, some by real big-shots like Woody Allen and Penn Jillette and Eric Bogosion and Joe Dante, but they're only heard as unidentified voice-overs, not seen as talking heads, so you don't always know who's speaking.
That said, To My Great Chagrin, directed by Jeff Sumerel, is a must for Theodorians. It's a strong, atmospheric dose of Theodore as a performer, and a fairly comprehensive biography of him, too, from his youth as a playboy in Germany, his imprisonment by and eventual escape from the Nazis, through the obscure ups and downs of his showbiz career to the near-suicidal depression of his later years to the exalted spiritual visions of his last days.
It's informative, too - until I saw this film I didn't know that Theodore was a celebrated ladies' man, or that he even had a brief tenure on Broadway, in the cast of Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water. There are even glimpses of Holy Relics, like Theodore's datebook and shopping lists, or the surprisingly detailed scripts he wrote for his talk-show appearances.
The DVD has nice extras, too - some oddball early short films, including his free adaptation of Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," and fuller, better versions of the celebrity interviews.
OK, Happy Halloween, everybody. Always remember Theodore's cheery words of encouragement: "As long as there is death, there is hope!"
Previous articles by M.V. Moorhead: