It's a delight to see this cult classic again after so many years; "Theatre of Blood" used to crop up now and then on late-night BBC television, usually as one half of a horror double-bill. It quickly became one of my favourites, particularly as it offered a rare opportunity to get to see some decent gore -- quite exciting for a young lad furtively watching on a small, black & white portable TV, and peering out from beneath the bed covers! Besides the nostalgia trip it offers, the movie still stands up today; the script is sharp and witty and the cast is packed with some of Britain's finest screen actors, headed of course by Vincent Price, who gets to ham it up to his heart's content in one of his most memorable roles.
Obsessive Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart feels himself grievously robbed when a coveted Critic's Award is given to somebody else. Humiliated in front of his peers, Lionheart gatecrashes a get-together by the eight critics responsible for cheating him of his birthright and, after delivering an impassioned soliloquy from "Macbeth", throws himself from a balcony into the Thames. Two years later those same critics start getting murdered one by one, in a manner that recalls the deaths from Lionheart's productions of Shakespeare's plays. It turns out the fearsome thespian is very much alive and out for his critic's blood!
The story is simplicity its self, and basically consists of nothing more than a series of comic/horror set-pieces involving Price dressing up in a variety of disguises while, one by one, each hapless critic blindly wanders into his elaborately conceived traps. All the while, the attempts of the blundering London Police Force to protect each of them (in the form of Milo O' Shea and Eric Sykes) repeatedly come to nothing. Each killing imaginatively refers, in some way, to one of Shakespeare's plays: Michael Hordon is cut to ribbons by a group of squatters in a warehouse, recalling the mob killing from "Julius Caesar"; while Robert Morley's beloved pet poodles are cooked in a pie which he is tricked into eating -- a reference to "Titus Andronicus", where a woman's babies are baked in a pie! Of course, the Shakespeare connection allows Lionheart to indulge himself in one of his "performances", as well as exacting revenge for all the bad reviews his critic foes have given him in the past. Even at the end of the film, when facing his own death, Lionheart uses the occasion to quote "King Lear" ("He was overacting as usual but he knows how to make an exit!" quips Ian Hendry). Lionheart is not above adapting his source material to suit his own ends either: since there is no death in "The Merchant of Venice" Lionheart simply alters the script ("Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!").
But most of the fun of the film is watching some of Britain's finest actors getting offed in some wonderfully gruesome ways. The brilliant Arthur Low has rather a minor role in the film, but one of the funniest and most macabre death scenes: decapitated in his own bed while his wife mistakes the sound of the saw for his snoring (the head ends up perched on a milk bottle)! Robert Morley dies by being force fed his poodle pie ("He just didn't have the stomach for it!"), while Coral Browne gets electrocuted beneath a hairdryer (supposedly a recreation of Joan of Arch's death in "Henry VI Part 1"). The whole thing is helped along by some mordantly witty one-liners from Anthony Greville-Bell's script, while Michael J Lewis's soundtrack adds just the right level of poignancy to the proceedings.
A shame then to cast a shadow over things by mentioning the less than impressive transfer on MGM's DVD presentation of the movie. True, it's not likely we've seen the film look better for some time, but the transfer seems too dark and there is a noticeable lack of detail to the image; plus a lot of the daylight scenes look slightly grainy. It's not the worst transfer in the world but it could have been better; the film isn't even given anamorphic enhancement. Also the mono audio track is quite muffled and quiet in some of the dialogue scenes while the music seems very loud and prone to distortion. Don't expect too many extras for this release either. You get (yes, you guessed it!) a trailer, and ... that's you're lot! Still, the film is worth seeing and so, on that basis, I recommend this disc.