Starring: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry
Director: Douglas Hickox
As his daughter Victoria explains in one of the extras on this Blu-ray, Theatre of Blood (1973) marked the end of an era for Vincent Price in several significant ways: it saw his marriage fall apart and the beginning of his relationship with British actress Coral Browne (whom he fries to death with a hair dryer in the movie) and also concluded a twenty-year period in which Price was the undisputed face of American horror – he was never again to be so employable.
It’s one of the earliest and best examples of a horror film made for people knowledgeable about horror and cinema. Price is cast as Edward Lionheart, a vengeful actor working his way through a bunch of critics who have tormented him with bad reviews, slaying them in fittingly theatrical ways drawn from the works of his beloved Bard. (“Only he could have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,” one of them bitterly complains after receiving a Merchant of Venice-style pound of flesh in a box.) It’s a role that plays knowingly upon Price’s public persona and a certain kind of audience ambivalence towards him – the fondness touched with condescension of fans who had grown up with and were on the verge of growing out of this horror icon of yesteryear. (There are sly hints that the critics might have a point about Lionheart: even the fair-minded police inspector investigating the case can only manage a lukewarm “a very vigorous actor” by way of qualified praise.) And all this is amplified by the fact the critics hounding Lionheart are played by well-regarded British thesps (Michael Hordern, Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Lowe, etc) who enjoyed a sort of standing that eluded the B-movie star.
With its plethora of over-the-top disguises, its bitchy, tongue-in-cheek dialogue and its highly contrived deaths, Theatre of Blood might seem like just another piece of fluff, but it’s animated by deadly serious forces. The unsung Douglas Hickox (who spent most of his career working in TV) directs with a keen feeling for the eerie and nightmarish, evoking a milieu of oppressive ’70s seediness and decay enlivened with touches of psychedelia. The art direction is also a triumph – there’s an especially good jump scare where Price comes shooting down through a trapdoor in a mask and primitive face paint as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, and Diana Rigg sporting a moustache as Lionheart’s cross-dressing stage manager adds a note of unique oddness. And one shouldn’t overlook the extremely literate script by war hero and former SAS officer Anthony Greville-Bell, which not only mines Shakespeare for apt quotations and suitably grisly deaths (highlight, Robert Morley being force-fed poodle pie in an homage to Titus Andronicus), but also heightens the drama with Shakespearean motifs of a more subtle kind. So Lionheart washing up among the tramps of the Isle of Dogs recalls Prospero’s fate in The Tempest, and his relationship with his devoted daughter has touching echoes of Lear and Cordelia.
And then there’s Price, who shows that he can do Shakespeare, most memorably in a scene where he recites Julius Caesar to his gang of admiring dossers in a burnt-out theatre. We also learn that he can’t do a Scottish accent, and we get to see him dolled up with a perm and glammy threads. And somewhere in this dizzying array of masks a sense of the real man emerges. Maybe it’s something to do with seeing him on gritty ’70s film stock as opposed to lush ’50s and ’60s Cinemascope, but it’s hard to think of another movie where you’re quite so aware of Price’s remarkable physical presence: his daunting size, his huge vitality, his saurian features offset by the charming sparkle in his eye. It’s a performance not only of great gusto, but also of great conviction and a kind of battered dignity, one brimming over with a sense of pathos and regret.
It doesn’t matter, then, that the plotting of some of the deaths is a bit slipshod, or that some of the supporting roles seem decidedly underwritten, or that Price couldn’t do a Scottish accent. Theatre of Blood belongs to a special category of movie where criticism is irrelevant and you just want to treasure it and watch it again and again.
The HD transfer retains a bit of grain in the darker scenes, but it’s nicely detailed, with rich shadows, natural colours, and only a few tiny scratches – and the fiery conclusion looks glorious. The only slight niggle is that the sound is a little boxy.
As well as the interview with Victoria Price already mentioned, the extras include an entertaining audio commentary with the League of Gentlemen and several other featurettes. There are personal reminiscences from film historian David Del Valle, who talks about what an all round gent Price was (a view echoed by everyone). No rose-tinted spectacles, however, in the recollections of actress Madeline Smith, who paints a dismal picture of Ian Hendry drinking too much, Douglas Hickox being curt and shouty and a hard taskmasker, and all the elderly actors getting tired and grouchy, and also complains indignantly about how they actually burned down a real theatre for the grand finale – it’s mind-boggling to think that such a sharp and intelligent woman was stuck with a career playing totty in stuff such as Up Pompeii and Anyone for Sex?
And don’t skip the 15-minute chat with extrovert music maestro Michael J. Lewis, who dresses for the occasion in a ten gallon hat with a hot-pink rosette and a matching silk shirt. He explains that the composer is the “tail-end Charlie” who has to fix the film and supply what’s missing, and goes on to reveal that the slushy tune playing while Arthur Lowe has his head cut off was a Dr Kildare parody. He also tells an intriguing anecdote about how he persuaded his pal, the novelist Anthony Burgess, to write lyrics for the film’s two themes and then got Diana Rigg (who surprised him by turning up in a Range Rover) to record them, but they were never released. Let’s hope they turn up on YouTube some day.