Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Theatre of Blood

Oh, the ham of it all!
Theatre of Blood was apparently one of Vincent Price's favorites of his (over 100) movies and i can see why. It's got everything that an actor enjoys: Multiple roles, varied accents, death scenes, murders, vengeance and the opportunity to play eight Shakespearean characters, down to the makeup and the monologues. This literary twist is another factor that sets Theatre of Blood from other hack horror flicks: The use of Shakespeare adds both substance and style and the Bard is handled with wit and dignity, albeit an off-kilter variety.
Theatre of Blood is a tale of murder (and revenge) most foul. Its murders may be based on Shakespeare, but its real theatrical roots are in the Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and the Grand Guignol (Sorry, my time at NYU art school popping up there...). Like the British theatre genre of the 1500s, Theatre of Blood has a taste for bloody violence, complicated Rube Goldberg-like vengeance plots that involve family members and no one left alive onstage. With the French Guignol of the 1900s, it shares a taste for black humor, cultural references, elaborately staged deaths and no one left alive onstage. Highbrow art in a lowbrown format, mixed with comedy, horror and camp: How can we not be entertained?
Price plays Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, a pompous actor who refuses to do anything but Shakespeare.  When he fails to win the Critics' Circle Award for Best Actor of the Season 1970, he commits suicide... or does he?
Lionheart is survived by his daughter, played by Diana Rigg. At the time, she was between The Avengers & On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Hedda Gabler & The Orestia. Why is she slumming here? Well the same reason as Vincent Price: Fun for an actor, disguises, Shakespeare. And, i'm sure it was also an asset to be working with Mr. Price, whom she described as "an absolutely adorable man." He was also known for making his co-stars delicious gourmet meals for on-set lunch. And then they'd go back to hamming it up...
But Edward Lionheart is not dead! He's just crazy! And he decides to inflict his revenge upon those that hath scorned him. One by one, he kills each theatre critic in the manner of  a death from a Shakespeare play: The strangling from Othello, the mass stabbing from Julius Caesar, the cook-your-children-in-a-pie-and-eat-them of Titus Andronicus, and many, many more!

Of course, being an actor, Lionheart cannot function in solitude. So he recruits about a dozen way-far-gone winos -- actually, they seem to be drinking a mixture of grape Faygo and Everclear -- who serve as cheering audience, supporting cast and production assistants, as well as the occasional henchman, factotum or Doppleganger.
He also has a less-incoherent helper, a young man tricked out in Roger Daltrey hair, Robert Redford mustache and Peter Fonda sunglasses. It's still unclear how Lionheart manages to arrange his elaborate plots, which require not only undisturbed use of an abandoned theatre, but the bankroll and connections to arrange for complete film shoots, entire fencing schools, bone-cutting saws, police vehicles and suchlike.
All of the "He's not dead!" and revenge-death-as-literary-tribute in Theatre of Blood may seem reminiscent of Price's The Abominable Dr. Phibes (made two years earlier) and indeed it is. Although this movie kills critics instead of doctors with Shakespeare plays rather than Biblical plagues. Said critics are played by nine British character actors who naturally also fall into the film's spirit of scenery-chewing. (One of them, Coral Browne, married Price after filming ended.)
While considered a bit of schlock in its time, Theatre of Blood has become more appreciated over the years as a great piece of camp and a tour de force for a beloved star.. The movie has been the subject of book and articles, had screenings at the British Film Institute, a stage version and, of course, action figures and coffee mugs. Always with the action figures and coffee mugs...


  1. One could say that "Theatre of Blood" is a consummation of Price's career as a whole. First, one gets the feeling that Lionheart's acting was quite popular with the masses. Second, many of the roles Lionheart played are those that almost require over-the-top scenery-chewing villainy. Third, he didn't get any recognition from the critical establishment. Sounds a lot like Vincent Price himself, doesn't it?

  2. Excellent point. After all, this was on of Prices' favorites of his films....