Obsessive Shakespearean actor-manager Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart (Vincent Price) feels himself grievously robbed when a coveted ‘Critics Circle Award for Best Actor’ is given to a young up-and-coming rival instead of him. Humiliated in front of his peers, Lionheart gate-crashes the annual after-ceremony get-together held by the ten top theatre critics responsible for cheating him of his birth-right, as they assemble in their plush, Thames-side luxury pad -- and, after delivering an impassioned soliloquy from "Macbeth", throws him-self from the balcony to his apparent death in the murky river below. Two years later those same critics start getting gruesomely murdered one by one, in a manner that recalls the bloodiest deaths from Lionheart's former repertoire of Shakespearean productions. It turns out that the fearsome thespian is very much alive after all, having been nursed back to health by the army of homeless, meths-drinking derelicts who live among the slurry of London’s docklands. With their help, Lionheart is now out for the ten critics’ blood!
Ostensibly Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s response to the revenge-themed set-piece opulence of Robert Fuest’s recent tongue-in-cheek Vincent Price horror vehicles “The Abominable Dr Phibes” and its follow-up, “Dr Phibes Rises Again!”, the delightful “Theatre of Blood” discards the stylised art deco sets of its two distinguished AIP forbears but retains their jet black sense of humour for what later came to be viewed by Price as his favourite film role. Partly this was because the sixty-two-year-old met the woman who was to become his third wife, the actress Coral Browne, while making it, and because this was a film that afforded him an opportunity to work alongside so many great veteran British character actors of the day, including the likes of Jack Warner and Harry Andrews, in what was for many of them a last hurrah; but also, ironically enough, thanks to the cleverness of Anthony Greville-Bell's especially witty screenplay, the role actually allowed Price to send up his own image as a ham actor and take a few pots shots to boot at the critical establishment that had saddled him with this undeserved reputation. It also, of course, gave him the chance to actually get to play some of the Shakespearean parts he’d always been denied as a film actor, while being also a career summery of sorts -- harking back to one of Price’s first horror roles: the 1939 Universal horror historical “The Tower of London”, in which Price had played the Plantagenet nobleman the Duke of Clarence, and its 1963 Roger Corman remake in which he’d essayed the role of the Duke’s murderer, Richard the III. Both films played on the gruesome Tudor demonization of King Richard III in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, and Price returns to the role here to dispose of his courtly rival in the traditional way -- by drowning him in a barrel of malmsey wine … only this time he’s using the performance to pay back a wine-imbibing lush called Oliver Larding (Robert Coote), who angers Price’s back-from-the-dead thespian fear-monger because of a dismissive review he once gave to one of his productions despite the fact that Lionheart knows that Larding didn’t really see too much of it because he had been ‘guzzling so much wine beforehand that you slept like a drunken hog through one of my finest performances!’
But “Theatre of Blood” is also a favourite for horror fans of a certain age. With its real-life, down-at-heel 1970s London locations (beautifully rendered by Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography) and its recognisable cast of great British stars of stage & screen, and drama & comedy, it’s also a fine tribute to a passing era of thespian talent which has now become a nostalgic throwback in its own right, pushing a great many buttons for those of us who grew up in the decade of its making, and becoming a banquet of faces and names that formed a large part of our childhoods: ex-Avengers such as the then-still-in-her-prime Diana Rigg, playing Lionheart’s devoted daughter Edwina, and Ian Hendry as the chief architect of Lionheart’s downfall Peregrine Devlin; as well as comedy legends Arthur Lowe and Eric Sykes, and well-loved personalities such as Robert Morley and Diana Dors, today inspire nothing but fond memories. It’s also interesting to note just how gory and gruesome this film is allowed to get. Dennis Price, for instance, is offed with a particularly memorable geyser of blood erupting from his chest after being violently impaled on a spear, then is dragged along a gravel path at Kensal Green Cemetery, tied to the back of a horse!
It seems the Grand Guignol nastiness becomes that much more potent when the source of each of the murder set-piece is a literary masterpiece … something which allows the film tacitly to make the point that the subject matter of what is habitually considered prestigious high culture material is often not that much different from the lowliest, most despised forms of genre fare. The gore, grisliness, madness and mutilation housed within the revered pages of “Cymbeline”, “Troilus and Cressida” and “King Lear” puts much of the content of most ‘60s and early-70s horror pictures to shame, as Inspector Boot (Milo O'Shea) acknowledges when he and Sergeant Dogge (Eric Sykes) are faced with the task of working out what form of murder Lionheart plans on staging based on his production of "Titus Andronicus": ‘a couple of chaps are mutilated and beheaded, another is stabbed and thrown in a pit. And to cap it all, some queen is made to eat her children baked in a pie … it’s hardly a comedy Sergeant!’ The story here is simplicity itself, and consists basically of nothing more than a series of sometimes brutal, sometimes comic, but always inventive comic-horror set-pieces which involve 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 constabulary to protect each of the threatened scribes repeatedly come to nothing thanks to their charges’ complacent stupidity.
As mentioned, each killing imaginatively refers in some way to one of Shakespeare's plays, but Lionheart is also resourceful in his ability to repeatedly find elements of his repertoire that can be used to exploit the individual character weaknesses of his enemies -- most of whom are fairly unsympathetic: Michael Hordern (the voice of Paddington Bear to a generation), as the first of Lionheart’s victims, is cut to ribbons with hatchets, knives and broken bottles by a group of squatters in a warehouse he’s trying to have cleared for redevelopment, and who turn out to be Lionheart’s dispossessed vagrants in disguise -- an incident recalling the mob killing from "Julius Caesar". But his pompous, bullying character, George Maxwell, strides foolishly towards his own doom because his overweening self-regard won’t allow him to clock the strangeness of the situation he’s stumbled into until it’s too late, a fact duly noted by Lionheart (disguised as a helmeted police bobby) when he gloats how this is but ‘another critical miscalculation on your part, dear boy!’
Most of the fun of the film comes from watching some of Britain's finest actors getting offed in some wonderfully gruesome, and frequently outlandish, ways. Writer Anthony Greville-Bell resorts to Dickensian short-hand methods for conveying unpleasant character traits through the semi-comical names he gives to many of the prospective victims. Some are bluntly obvious: for instance Harry Andrews’ ageing philanderer is saddled with the name Trevor Dickman, and is induced to take part in a ‘Living Theatre’ production of Lionheart’s “The Merchant of Venice” after being tempted by the beguiling image of Diana Rigg as a flirtatious Portia in knee-high go-go boots -- only to find that ‘several alterations have been made to the script … along with one rather large cut!’ Dickman’s heart is duly delivered to his colleagues in a gift box as Shylock’s requested pound of flesh extracted from Antonio (‘sorry I can’t be there, but my heart is with you’, reads the accompanying note), prompting head critic Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) to note that it must be Lionheart who is responsible for all the carnage because ‘only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare!’ The propensity for Dennis Price’s critic to pepper his reviews with cruel, facetious put-downs is ably relayed to the viewer through his name – that of Hector Snipe; and the brilliant Arthur Low’s bumbling, henpecked husband is graced with the delightful moniker of Horace Sprout, and referred to as ‘old sprouty’ by his colleagues throughout.
Of course, the Shakespeare connection allows Lionheart to indulge himself in encore "performances" of each of the plays that made up his final season of Shakespearean classics, as well as exacting revenge for all the bad reviews foisted on him by his foes in the past. The film mercilessly lampoons stereotypes of theatrical critics but also Price makes fun of the self-involved ‘luvvies’ of the stage too, in scenes layered with pathos such as those which show Lionheart delivering impassioned performances in his abandoned derelict theatre hideout, while entirely oblivious to the insensibility of his audience of homeless drunkards and mad people. Even at the end of the film, when facing his own death, Lionheart uses the occasion to quote extensively from his final performance of "King Lear" ("He was overacting as usual but he knows how to make an exit!" quips Ian Hendry) and his original plunge from Devlin’s apartment balcony is cunningly presented in flashback by director Douglas Hickox as though it were an impromptu staging of “Macbeth”, with the curtains of the apartment’s main window looking out over the Thames, and also framing the suicide as though it were taking place under the proscenium arch of a theatre stage.
Price’s dressing up box of theatrical disguises allows the film to indulge in some terrific parodies of film & TV genres and conventions of the period, at the same time as turning the works of the Bard into the staging ground of a bloody body count picture, worthy of being considered a proto-slasher. Poor old Horace Sprout has his head surgically removed in his sleep (after having his throat cut with a scalpel!), his wife waking to blood-stained sheets and a headless body a la Imogen in “Cymbeline”, who awakes in that play to find the headless body of Cloten. The set-piece is performed as a parody of medical procedures seen in countless soaps and hospital dramas, with Price kitted out in surgical smock, his forehead being dabbed as he performs the difficult operation, with composer Michael J. Lewis counterpointing the macabre imagery and the gore (Horace’s wife mistakes the sound of Lionheart’s hacksaw grinding at her husband’s neck bone for his snoring) with slushy romantic strings in the style of the theme music from “Dr Kildare”.
When Lionheart sets out to recreate a plot point from “Othello” in which Iago dupes Othello into believing his wife Desdemona has cheated on him, the subsequent set-piece turns into a “Carry On” escapade in which Jack Hawkins’ jealous critic Solomon Psaltery (voiced by actor Charles Gray) arrives home to find his wife, played by Diana Dors, apparently enjoying a tryst with a lover, when it is actually Lionheart in disguise as her personal Scottish Masseuse. (This must be one of the most outlandish Scottish accents in film history, by the way)
Perhaps the most outrageous sequence features camp, poodle-loving critic Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) – a portly, purple-rinsed and pink-suited queen, and surly the actor’s most over-the-top performance – who has such a greed for haute cuisine that he’s too flattered to suspect a thing when he’s made the latest celebrity guest of a TV cookery show called ‘This is Your Dish’ -- and finds himself being force-fed his two beloved pet poodles baked in a pie: a reference to Queen Tamora in “Titus Andronicus” being fed her two murdered sons in a similar fashion! This goes from being one of the campest scenes of Price and Morley’s joint careers, to one the ghastliest as, having been made aware of the content of the delicious meal he’s previously been quite merrily consuming, after a strand of dog hair is disinterred from the thick paste of meat and sauce, Merridew is pinioned to the dinner table and choked to death on the rest of the poodle filling -- which is poured down a funnel inserted into his mouth then rammed down his throat with a sink plunger!
Price’s marriage to Coral Browne was forged under similar circumstances of jovial camp mixed with grand guignol excess from a scene in which the vain critic Chloe Moon gets electrocuted beneath a hairdryer in a grim recreation of Joan of Arch's death scene from "Henry VI Part 1" … which comes about after she’s been enticed to try out the skills of Lionheart’s trendy afro-haired salon stylist persona (‘Hello – I’m Butch,’ intones Price in his best Liberace drawl).
This is a classic romp which is as amusing as it is grisly, with Price supported by a wonderful Diana Rigg, both glamorous and bizarre when acting out the cross-gender role of Lionheart’s hippy stage manager – and a wittily urbane Ian Hendry as the actor-manager’s arch nemesis Devlin. The new Blu-ray release from Arrow Video features an excellent transfer that comes from an American print (with ‘theatre’ spelled ‘theater’ in the titles) and comes with a reversible sleeve with the choice of original artwork or a new piece by Sam Smith; and there is a booklet that features an essay by Cleaver Patterson, as well as a reproduction of original press book material, illustrated with original archive stills. There are over 50 minutes’ worth of video featurettes produced by High Rising Studios included as extras, headed up by an interview with Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria (“A Priceless Potboiler” 11:46), who was about eleven at the time she accompanied her father to England while he shot the film. She talks about what the film meant to her father, who relished the chance to play alongside such fine British actors, and what it meant to her at the time since this was really the moment that Price’s marriage to her mother came to an end, as her father fell in love with his co-star Coral Browne while making this movie.
Critic David Del Valle fills in the background on the making of the movie and its place in Price’s career (“A Fearful Thespian” 10:42) and actress Madeline Smith, who plays Devlin’s secretary in a minor role in the finished film, provides most of the insight into the working conditions behind the scenes (“Staged Reaction” 9:21), remembering being cast in the role after director Douglas Hickox had seen her as a blonde in a “Two Ronnies” sketch. Smith recalls the budget cuts and ‘the appalling locations’ the cast and crew were forced to work in. The theatre seen in flames at the end of the film wasn’t a set, but actually was a real dilapidated theatre -- the Putney Hippodrome, a one-time Edwardian music hall built in 1906 -- scheduled for demolition and burned down by the crew for real as part of the film! Smith remembers Douglas Hickox being a hard task-master, curt and prone to shouting due to the stress of the rushed shooting schedule. Most of the elderly veteran actors in the cast found the working conditions difficult and Price spent most of his time asleep when not in front of the camera according to Smith! Finally, flamboyant composer Michael J Lewis runs through the thinking behind the writing of the film’s score, in his inimitable extroverted way, for the featurette “A Harmony for Horror” (17:37).
Well … I say finally, but that is not quite all that is on offer here. Also included is a joyful audio commentary by the re-assembled British comedy troupe “The League of Gentlemen”, otherwise known as Jeremy Dyson, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss. It’s not altogether surprising to learn that this film, with its mix of whimsy, dark humour, pathos and outright horror is one of their favourites from childhood. The commentary is a lovely mix of remembered nostalgia and gentle micky-taking, with Gatiss seemingly the most informed about the production history of the film; although all four agree that there seems to be a peculiar lack of background information on this film, despite its perennial popularity. “Theatre of Blood” also turns out to have been a frequently-referenced influence in the work of both “The League of Gentlemen” (the delivery of Michael Hordren’s line “let’s have no trouble here!” is an obvious case in point) and that of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s “Psychoville. This is a commentary that makes for a delightful crown on an already exemplary release of this dearly loved classic of British horror-comedy.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!