While I don’t consider myself a Vincent Price aficionado, I’ve enjoyed many of the films he’s starred in, and find him to be a wickedly fun actor. I’m late to the party when it comes to many of his films, and I saw The Abominable Dr. Phibes for the first time just about a year ago. It was a real revelation, a film just as funny as it was sinister. It quickly jumped to the top of my list for the best Vincent Price had to offer as well as became one of my overall favorites of ‘70’s British horror. Little did I realize however that there was something else with nearly all of the same elements out there that was just as good, if not better, than Dr. Phibes. Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood is a perfect storm of a film, where the comedy, horror, writing, and a phenomenal performance from Price all come together to create one of the best films of the genre.
Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) is an actor that loves Shakespeare. So much so, that he only acts in plays based on the man. Because of this, the playhouse critics have consistently given him bad reviews, whether it’s for genuinely disliking his acting abilities or attempting to goad him into exploring other acting areas. When these same critics fail to give him the prestigious “Critic’s Award”, he crashes their after party, and after reciting Macbeth, plunges into the Thames river, seemingly dying. A couple of years later, these same critics begin to die in ways that mirror certain death scenes in some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It seems as if Edward Lionheart is alive and well, and along with a group of vagrants that took him in after his suicide attempt, he’s going to get a good review out of these critics any way he can…their lives depend on it!
There’s really no way that I can say the story is fine art, as it surely isn’t. It’s the writing and the performances that make everything shine. It can be argued that the film is nothing more than a montage of death scenes. And that person wouldn’t be wrong. They would be wrong though if they didn’t also say that these death scenes are wildly inventive and entertaining. Sure, seeing murders acted out through scenes from Shakespeare isn’t that inventive in its own right, but with Price’s gusto, they become great. And let’s not forget that these little killings become more and more outlandish and absurd as the film moves on. How exactly will Lionheart be able to pull off a burning at the stake, a la Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part One? Or how will he be able to re-enact the scene from Titus Andronicus where Tamora is forced to eat her own children baked in a pie when none of these critics seem to have children? Oh, he’ll find a way…
In each of these scenes, Price gets decked to the nines in a new outfit to fit the occasion, as well as moves the proceedings to a suitable location. This lends a constant fresh feeling to the film, where you just never know where you’ll end up next or what Mr. Lionheart will look like. In one of the most amusing scenes, Price completely hams it up as a gay hairdresser named Butch in a full-on afro and gaudy jewelry. If this doesn’t bring a smile to your face, make an appointment with your doctor to check on your funny bone.
In contrast to all of the comedic elements, the death scenes can be quite brutal and gory. Apparently at the time, the “light” side of British horror was on the outs, and the more violent and risqué elements of the genre, used to great effect by directors like Pete Walker and Ken Russell, were becoming more and more commonplace. Director Douglas Hickox does a phenomenal job of juggling both aspects in Theatre of Blood, injecting just enough of both to make any self-respecting horror fan happy. Hickox’s directing style also lends itself well to creating a feeling of unease, with a lot of unconventional camera angles and techniques. Some of the more horror-infused scenes, like the opening where one of the critics is stabbed to death by Lionheart’s group of vagrants have a very industrial-like feel to them, taking place in condemned buildings and deserted streets, giving these scenes a nice seedy atmosphere.
It wouldn’t do this review any justice if I didn’t speak a bit about Vincent Price’s incredible performance. It feels as if Hickox was completely confident in Price’s ability as an actor, as he sets him loose and doesn’t seem to reel him in at all. This results in a performance for the ages, one that unquestionably rivals his performance in Dr. Phibes. He owns every single scene he steps foot in, vigorously chewing up the scenery like an Ethiopian kid does a sandwich (I apologize if any Ethiopian’s find this offensive). It’s too bad no one can ever take horror seriously enough to nominate any of its aspects for any awards that actually matter, because Price’s performance here is one of the all-time best.
What else can be said here? Theatre of Blood pretty much offers something for everyone. There’s gore and mass slayings for the horrorphiles, tons of tongue-in-cheek laughs and dark comedy for the fans of campy cinema, lots of Shakespeare references and dialogue for the playwrights, and an off-the-charts performance from Vincent Price for basically anyone that wants to see someone that’s utterly devoted to his craft. If any of this does sound appealing to you, then by all means, come see the show! Just try not to give it a bad review.