Director: Douglas Hickox
Screenplay: Anthony Greville-Bell
Cast: Vincent Price (as Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart); Diana Rigg (as Edwina Lionheart); Ian Hendry (as Peregrine Devlin); Harry Andrews (as Trevor Dickman); Coral Browne (as Miss Chloe Moon)
Synopsis: A circle of theatre critics led by Peregrine Devlin (Hendry) is being picked off one-by-one through a series of bizarre murders. Fears rests upon the idea that actor Edward Lionheart (Price), presumed to be dead, is the culprit getting revenge on the critics who trashed his performances of William Shakespeare and deprived him of a critics' award years earlier. Will Devlin be on the list of deaths inspired by the Bard's plays?
Vincent Price is as much a pop culture figure separated from his filmography as much as he was a popular actor. I'd have first encountered him as a young child through his narration in Michael Jackson's Thriller, both menacing yet having too much fun describing ghoulish horrors for the words to get too serious. His figure in horror films like House on Haunted Hill (1959) suggests someone who presided over high camp and relishes his evil villainy while about to twirl his slickly combed moustache. But watching even a small sample of his films paints additional layers onto him as an actor. The heavy in a film like Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), the seriousness of Witchfinder General (1968), or the lurid yet baroque Poe films by Roger Corman. With Theatre of Blood you see the mix of the absurd in Price's acting style with moments of elegance and seriousness, the high and low brow melding together. A strange double bill, strange because they were so close together, appeared in Price's career in the early seventies with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood, all about people being picked off by his character in bizarre ways. The film being covered today had the inspiration, truly mixing the high and low brow, of taking Shakespeare as its central text.
Here, this rather brilliant idea of using the deaths from Shakespeare's plays in a black comedy horror film works out for multiple reasons. First it enforces that, as much as his work was great poetry and life enhancing, William Shakespeare was doing so in populist plays which could be violent and bawdy. Titus Andronicus alone has plenty of gristly events that are still shocking centuries later, and it's not surprising the most infamous part of that play is the most memorable scene here in its reinterpretation, with Price hamming it up as a French chef as the moment plays out. But in having this premise as well, Price was allow while still in the type of film he was typecast through to play something different, able to show a dynamic range through being allowed to monologue actual Shakespearian soliloquies and dialogue between the ridiculous plot twists. He's exceptionally good at all of them, Theatre of Blood itself an incredibly silly genre film which realises this and has Price balance between playing a theatrical ham and also perform these extracts with full sincerity. It's rare for an actor to be able to do this in the same film where he has to play, in one of Lionheart's various disguises, a camp hairdresser with a giant, white guy afro but Theatre of Blood completes the cinematic bucket list for that sort of cinematic image.
A huge part of the film's appeal is that, even in small roles, there're actors here I'm becoming more and more knowable of from British cinema - Michael Hordern, Dennis Price and Diana Dors amongst others - their various and diverse catalogues of roles adding to this film a web between the type of movies made in this era. This could be seen as indifferent to the best virtues of Theatre of Blood - that it's playful, funny, and never drags its feet in pointless plotting but gets to the gruel quickly - but at the same time the acting is a significant part to why the film actually works. Casting Diana Rigg as Lionheart's daughter is not a bad thing in itself at all, but also for the critics being picked off you need actors who stand out in their roles even playing stereotypes. My only disappointment in this area is that Arthur Lowe - most well know for Dad's Army but appearing in films like from Lindsay Anderson's to The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) - only gets a short time onscreen, a shame because in the films I've seen he's managed to steal scenes for titans like Peter Cook and Malcolm McDowell effortlessly despite looking like a middle age banker. The actors' various roles in other films - the most surprising for me that Dennis Price went from Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to Jesus Franco's Vampyros Lesbos (1971) - adds to this.
The other factor is that, while no way near as violent as modern films or even the horror films being made in the early seventies and earlier around it, Theatre of Blood is still incredibly sadistic and more so because it's played for laughs. As you forget how barbarous Shakespeare could be, you forget how vicious British cinema could be in the humour or the murders that take place in our movies. An American like Price fits the grand eloquence and cheekiness of this film with ease, but even at its most high minded, this is still a film where he gloats as a man is drowned in a giant barrel of wine and he suits that perfectly as well. Even if it seems like part of the older horror films from before - the seventies when companies like Hammer or Amicus were going to go from their glory days to dying legs by the end of the decade - it matches the grim tone of the era even if its laughing at the same time.
One thing I've had to adapt to with my country's cinema is that, while there're plenty of auteurs, the backbone especially of sixties and seventies cinema in the country was made of working directors, incredibly talented and experienced but who didn't put personal trademarks into the films, instead filming them as faithfully to their material as possible. I've grown to love these films, after originally dismissing the genre films especially, and if anything now the really fascinating aspects of these sorts of films is the period detail. All shot in London, you have both elaborate, deserted theatres in their aged beauty and the grimy realism of an urban street; as much a history lesson of what life was like before I was born, accepting the grubbiness of the locations means there's as much fun soaking in said aesthetic too.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Not abstract all but I have to step back and think how odd some of the content actually is. A fully realised theatrical stage, with multiple levels, with Price in full costume and makeup for The Merchant of Venice...all in favour for only killing one person and populated with homeless meth drinkers who had their own choreographer for the film. Price as the aforementioned camp hairdresser flirting with a policeman, even if it might be un-PC today, a fencing battle were the fighters partially brawl doing flips on separate trampolines, and Devlin decrying Lionheart rewriting the Bard are all strange and utterly entertaining things even if they don't make the film abstract. Compared to genre films made in Britain now, few have anything like in this one.
A film that's just entertaining, and that's more than enough to say.