Theatre of Blood, directed by Douglas Hickox, is one of those films I can just watch and watch again, it was the first film to introduce me to Vincent Price and for that I am eternally grateful, as Price has long since been one of my favourite horror actors of all time. On that note my review is obviously going to be a bit biased but for that I make no apologies. I first saw it at a very tender age and it was one of those movies that just stayed with me over the years and every time I return to it again I find my enthusiasm for it has just grown even more, a true British classic. Price himself was especially pleased with it, given that he finally got the chance to play Shakespeare, albeit in a completely tongue in cheek manner designed solely for laughs. An actor who found he was typecast in his work which kept him away from more serious roles (apart from his epic depiction of the evil Matthew in Witchfinder General) Price embraced this situation by using it to his advantage and developing his own inimitable style.
Theatre of Blood provides the perfect podium for Price to demonstrate his ability for combining both the horrific and campy melodrama which he was so brilliant at portraying. Review site Rotten Tomatoes currently rates the movie at 96% making it one of their highest rated horror films. While the film has obvious connections to one of Price’s earlier roles cult favourite The Abominable Dr Phibes, another one of my all time favourite horror movies I might add, it manages to reinvent the similar aspects completely on its own terms. So while the comparison is there it does nothing to take away from the fact that Theatre of Blood can stand up on its own two feet and be counted as a genre classic.
Tired of scathing reviews Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart a failed Shakespearean actor takes out his revenge on the critics who he blames for his failed career. When he is overlooked in favour of a blue eyed boy newcomer for a prestigious critics award he sees this as the last straw. In an elaborate plan fakes his own death and then rises from beyond his fictional grave to kill off all those he sees as responsible. With the help of his doting daughter Edwina, and a group of friendly meth drinking tramps he has picked up on the way this vengeance comes in the form of murders which revolve around scenes from famous Shakespeare plays. Each execution is delivered by Lionheart with the accompaniment of a gloriously hammy recital of the words of Shakespeare as each of the critics meet a dastardly demise.
In terms of cast aside from Price this film plays out as a who’s who of British 70’s talent. Price plays Lionheart in the most splendidly over the top, camp and hilarious way possible, and some of the one liners he delivers are just spectacular. He really goes to town in rolling out famous scenes from Shakespeare, Julius Ceaser, Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and for anyone who thinks Shakespeare is for wimps think again, there was some serious messed up stuff in those plays (check out Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth for a perfect example). Price quite obviously relished this role which is evident in the enthusiasm he puts into it, making it in my opinion one of his best. One of the delightful scenes in the film is when attempting to lure one of his potential victims Price goes into camp overdrive as hairdresser Butch while sporting the most epic afro wig known to man and declaring when presented with a police officer guard ‘Who’s this great big beautiful thing with you? Is he yours?’. This was an actor who certainly did not take himself too seriously.
Standing beside him and equally as brilliant is the lovely Diana Rigg as Edwina. Rigg is well known as a 60’s sex symbol and girl power icon from her role as Emma Peel in The Avengers and can also add being a Bond Girl to her accolades. Here she plays Lionheart’s dutiful and very misguided daughter whom without which he could not carry out his complex catalogue of revenge. For the critics we have the uptight keep calm and carry on Arthur Lowe as Horace Sprout, pompous and revolting glutton Robert Morley as Meredith Merridew, with his equally obnoxious spoiled pooches in tow, Merridew manages to enrage Lionheart by quoting in his review ‘Mr. Lionheart’s rendering of the role can only be described as villainous. Placed between the delicately underplayed performances of Tamora and Lavinia; one is irresistibly reminded of a ham sandwich.’ a mistake for which he pays terribly. Corale Brown features as female critic Chloe Moon (Brown later married Price after they met on set), Jack Hawkins as fellow critic and jealous husband to another 60s and 70s Brit screen icon Diana Dors. Dors while only onscreen for a very short period of time still manages to make her performance memorable. Harry Andrews as Trevor Dickman, Robert Coote playing Oliver Larding, along with the rest of the aforementioned critics, are so decidedly snobby and filled with their sense of their own self importance you cannot feel sorry for any of them one bit. Perhaps the most likeable of all the critics is Ian Hendry as Peregrine Devlin, who suspecting Lionheart is not dead tries to implore that the police take his concerns seriously, stating ‘It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!’. Eric Sykes is also among the cast brilliantly placed as the bumbling Sergeant Dogge, sidekick to the equally useless Inspector Boot played by Milo O’Shea.
Filmed entirely on location in London this film is about as British as it gets. The use of a real run down theatre Putney Hippodrome, now sadly no more, as Lionheart’s lair adds to the appeal and gives Price the perfect stage to pound out some of his glorious recitals. The movie carries with it that obvious retro Brit charm that can only be associated with films of that era, in the sets, locations and costume design. As for the deaths, without spoiling them there are some absolute corkers, and using the Shakespearean angle makes for an extremely interesting premise. The film is decidedly gory for its time we have decapitations, stabbings, and other grizzly slayings which are shown in graphic style. My favourite murder without giving details away still makes me want to vomit all these years later at the thought. By using comedy as a basis for the script when the deaths do come they have a lot more resonance in comparison to the light hearted nature of the rest of the film which works amazingly well.
If you have not seen this film I urge you to do so immediately! A splendid delight of macabre comedy at its best, this movie stands as testament to why Vincent Price was truly one of the greatest artists of his time. Funny, shocking, innovative, dark, Theatre of Blood truly is a genre classic.