Theatre of Blood (1973) – A Retrospective

This is generally regarded as one of the highlight’s of Vincent Price’s later career, a film that fused his reputation as a horror star with his penchant for self-parody, casting him as Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearean actor killing off the critics who denied him a prestigious award. Besides being wickedly inventive in terms of concocting a series of imaginative demises, the screenplay is unorthodox in structure. The victims walk on like a series of targets in a shooting gallery, doing little to elicit sympathy. The police are on hand to investigate, but they achieve little (except for interrogating an alcoholic who finally breaks under pressure and spills the beans just in time for a climactic race to save the final victim). The nominal protagonist, Peregrine Devlin (played by Ian Hendry), has little to recommend him; motivated mostly by self-interest (in his own survival), he engenders audience identification mostly by virtue of being onscreen long enough to become a familiar presence. The leading lady, instead of a love interest, turns out to be complicit in the crimes. And the villain of the piece, who is the real focus of the story’s attention, remains mostly an enigma.

Lionheart appears at regular intervals throughout the film but always in the guise of a Shakespearean character (or in some cases, a modern variation thereof). He seldom speaks in his own voice, preferring to quote from the Immortal Bard; and, unlike Phibes, we see little if any of his home life – almost nothing that would provide a sense of him as a person. The portrait of him that emerges is a sort of Theatrical Boogeyman. Instead of an Every Man character, he is Every Actor who ever wanted to turn the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism back upon the critics and hoist them on their own petard.


Somehow, this mysterious figure earns our sympathy far more than Devlin, and Price’s performance actively invites the audience to cheer him on as he goes about his bloody business with enthusiastic relish. Although relatively mild by today’s standards, the film is most graphically bloody of Price’s career, serving up a series of deaths at regular intervals (Lionheart impales one victim with a pike and surgically severs head of another) with all the enthusiasm of Jason Voorhees. Unlike the later (and much cruder) FRIDAY THE 13TH films, the graphic effects in THEATRE OF BLOOD are used to elicit sardonic laughter as much as screams of fear; in fact, the broad swings from humor to horror are among the most extreme ever put on film up to that time.

The result is a completely enjoyable if not conventionally frightening horror film. The suspense comes not from concern over the victims but from curiosity about how they will meet their fate. Thanks to Price, who always knew when to keep his tongue in his cheek, film is leavened with black humor as tasty as hot pepper, serving up its butchered victims with the gusto of a gourmet chef crafting a fine meal; the audience may wince at the sight of a few broken, bloody eggs, but the resulting omelet remains a delightful appetizer, not a nauseating over-baked mess.

RETROSPECTIVE

Unlike Price other horror films from this time, THEATRE OF BLOOD was a United Artists production, not an American International Picture. In spite of this, the script by Anthony Greville-Bell (from a story by producers Stanley Mann and John Kohn) was clearly derived from the two PHIBES films that Price had made at AIP: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN. The actor was again cast as a vengeful madman who kills his victims in a variety of gruesome ways (this time based on Shakespeare’s plays, instead of the Ten Plagues in the Old Testament book of EXODUS), often to comic effect. In fact, the script was offered to PHIBES director Robert Fuest, who turned it down for fear of being typecast. “They all get frightened that they’re going to get stuck in it,” said Price of Fuest’s decision. “Bob has never done anything that was nearly as good as DR PHIBES, though.”

Douglas Hickox (father of Anthony Hickox, who would later direct low-budget horror films like WAXWORKS and SUNDOWN) stepped into the director’s chair. “I tried to bring a balance between the humor and the horror,” Hickox said. “I tried to bring mood. It was such a good screenplay I didn’t have to waste my time worrying about how to save it, which is usually the way you work. I had the freedom to concentrate on the creative aspects of staging.”

The balance Hickox struck between humor and horror was not quite balanced enough for squeamish tastes: though undeniably funny, the film earned an R-rating for its bloodshed (the only one in Price’s career). Somehow, the gore works for rather than against the film, actually increasing the laughter. In fact, the only real flaw in the movie is a throwback to the first PHIBES film: inexplicably, though all audience sympathy is with anti-hero Lionheart, instead the nominal protagonist (played by Ian Hendry) triumphs in the end. (He’s even given the film’s closing bon mot: after seeing the Shakespearian actor perish when a burning rooftop collapses beneath him, the critic says, “He was overacting as usual, but he knew how to make an exit.”) It’s a somewhat conventional, even trite conclusion, to a film otherwise filled with gleefully ghoulish ingenuity.

Murderous actor Richard Lionheart (Vincent Price) in one of his Shakespearian guises.Price enjoyed the script because it let him dabble with Shakespeare for a change. “I got to play eight Shakespearian characters,” he said. “Very few actors get to do that in their whole lifetimes, if they’re American. I’m the Shakespearian actor who thinks he should be given the critics award, and instead they give it to someone who mumbles like Marlon Brando. I set out to kill all the critics, and all the murders are done according to Shakespeare’s plays.”

The film benefits from some memorable location shooting in London, such as the Putney Hippodrome, a theatre scheduled for demolition. “That’s the theatre where I have my company, where I lure all the critics and murder them,” said Price. “It was a great place that had fallen into decay. It was a very dangerous place to work. We really should not have been in it. Another scene had probably the most spectacular set I’ve seen. I’m doing ‘Richard III’ and about to drown Bobby Coote in a vat of wine. It’s the part I played in TOWER OF LONDON [1939, opposite Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff]. We shot it in a place that is now a wax museum in London. It was an abandoned wine warehouse then, almost under the Thames. It had been abandoned for a long time and had these great drips of water that made stalactites. It was pitch black inside and was lit with a thousand candles, which made for a spectacular scene. You could never build a set to look like that in a hundred years!”

Fearful for his life, a critic (Ian Hendry) seeks help from Richard Lionheart's daughter (Diana Rigg).THEATRE OF BLOOD featured an impressive supporting cast of talented British thespians: including two alumnib from THE AVENGERS television series, alumni Diana Rigg and Ian Hendry, along with Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, and Michael Hordern. According to director Hickox, these respectable stage actors signed on to do a horror film “largely because of Vincent. Everybody was a fan, and they wanted to work with him. I mean, Diana Rigg was a hot actress. They all did it as a little homage to him.”

Price was grateful to be surrounded by such talented co-stars. “They were all great actors in England,” he said. “It was really kind of embarrassing. I discovered that between them all, they had done every single play of Shakespeare’s on the stage. Shooting of the picture was worked around their schedules because a lot of them were doing plays at the time in the West End.”

In a 1989 interview, Hickox recalled his time working with Price on the film like this: “He was very happy because he was surrounded by first class actors who gave him the respect he deserved. He’s a very fussy man. He’s like a pussycat as long as he’s allowed to do his best, but he can be like a tiger if not. It was a great pleasure working with him. I respected his abilities. I’d seen virtually everything he had ever done. He’s a creative, perfectly prepared master craftsman. I’m genuinely fond of him. We still keep in touch.” (Both Price and Hickox died in the 1990s.)

Another person from the film with whom Price kept in touch for many years was Coral Browne, who played a critic electrocuted (in a hair dryer) by Lionheart (disguised as a very fruity hair dresser). After filming the scene, Price sent Browne a bottle of champagne. Shortly afterward, he divorced his second wife Mary (with whom he had co-authored a cookbook), so that he could marry Browne. “That’s a way to meet your wife!” Price would laugh, recalling the electrocution scene.

REACTIONS

THEATRE OF BLOOD earned Price some good critical notices; some even suggested that his performance was Oscar-worthy. Although no nomination was forthcoming, Price ranked the film very highly. The actor occasionally spoke of the film and the two PHIBES efforts as a trilogy, and called THEATRE the “best of the lot.” It is not hard to see why. Playing a hammy Shakespearian stage star allowed Price to assume a variety of roles without the constraint of having to appear realistic or even believable. The film is designed to show him off doing his familiar self-parody routine to fullest advantage, and he played it to the hilt—always enjoyably over-the-top.

Over a decade later, he marveled, “It’s become a cult film, which is sort of fun, except you begin to feel like a cult yourself.”

Despite the predominantly favorable critical reaction, not to mention Price’s own high opinion of the movie, not everyone loved THEATRE OF BLOOD.

Robert Bloch, author of PSYCHO, praised Price’s performance but dismissed the film as “just downright nasty” in John Brosnan’s book THE HORROR PEOPLE. “It reminded me of boy scouts sitting around a campfire telling stories to see which one can out nauseate the others,” Bloch said. “And this seemed to win appreciation from a certain segment of the audience, but it made me shudder a little. When I was watching it in the theatre and I heard this ghoulish, sadistic laughter when someone’s heart was torn out from his living body—‘Oh no, this is sick,’ I said to myself.”

Phil Hardy’s Overlook Film Encyclopedia—Horror gave the film a moderately favorable review: “Replaying motifs from THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, the film is notable chiefly for offering Price a role which enables him to give full reign to his particularly gothic style of acting. In fact, Prices virtuosity lends the demented actor a dignity missing from the Phibes character… The direction skillfully exploits the possibilities of the mobile camera to avoid theatricality… The Gore is suitably grotesque…”

SEEN TODAY

Although THEATRE OF BLOOD stands the test of time, it does not age quite as well as the two PHIBES films, mostly because the visual quality is not as impressive. Director Hickox does a good job staging the action, and he executes the murders with considerable gruesome glee, but the modern setting mitigates the creation of a truly memorable feast of horrors for the eyes. Instead of the Art Deco stylishness that Robert Fuest brought to PHIBES – of the Gothic grandeur of Price’s Poe films (at least, the ones directed by Roger Corman) – we get a somewhat drab vision of modern England, with adequate lighting and wide-angle lenses that suggest the tight strictures of location shooting instead of the artistic freedom of Price’s more highly stylized period pieces.

This flaw mar the appearance of an otherwise splendid gem that gleams with a glint of ghoulish fun. The R-rated violence (although relatively tame by later standards) seems to pre-figure the gory extremes of the SAW franchise, which also featured a brilliant madman creating fiendishly clever ways of dispatching his victims. As always, Price exudes an aura of upper-crust aestheticism; Lionheart is a connoisseur of crime, not totally unlike the later Hannibal Lecter,a nd Price’s regal decorum not so subtly suggests we should identify with him as a perpetrates his bloody vendetta. Audience identification with the monster has always been a part of the horror genre but usually on a covert level; THEATRE OF BLOOD brings to full fruition that anti-hero approach that flowered and bloomed in the PHIBES films, planting seeds for a later generation of demented madmen.

THEATRE OF BLOOD(1973). Directed by Douglas Hickox. Written by Anthony Greville-Bell from an idea by Stanley Mann & John Kohn. Cast: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, Milo O’Shea, Eric Sykes, Madeline Smith, Diana Dors

About Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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