Vincent Price had a very successful career in the wilderness of genre. As such the most variety he had was as a young man, long before he became the icon he was in later life and long before he collaborated with Roger Corman. The apex of his early career came in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Typecast as he was, he eventually became one of the grand old men of horror besides Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – legendary, sure, but none of them enjoyed the most varied of careers. With such a limited range imposed upon him, it surely comes as no great surprise that Theatre of Blood was Vincent Price’s favourite role, with its Shakespearian monologuing and a beguiling stream of costume and character, I’d also count it as my favourite Price performance.
Price stars as Edward Lionheart, a theatre actor who performed in a series of career-defining Shakespeare productions. Bursting with pride, Lionheart believes himself to be deserving of the critic’s circle’s Actor of the Year award. Cruelly shunned in a series of reviews that sees him described as a ‘ham sandwich’, Lionheart fakes his own death in a meticulous plot to have his revenge. A plan that sees him brutally murdering the members of the circle in methods described in the writing of the Immortal Bard.
Revenge as a motif has been played out, but to introduce something as theatrical as avenging one’s career through something this idiosyncratic completely alleviates the tedium from the tired convention. The concept alone is evidence enough that Director Douglas Hickox and writer Anthony Greville-Bell are enjoying themselves amidst the bloody violence. Fun is everything that Theatre of Blood stands for; look no further at the films anarchic sense of humour and the absolute freedom of star, Vincent Price. Lionheart provides Price the most audaciously different role of his career, where one of the murder sequences sees him adorned with an afro speaking in the patois of the 70s fashionista. It is a fun sequence in a role rife with wild irreverence; one can only imagine how liberating that was for Price.
The Afro identifies one of the two types of scenario constructed by Hickox and Greville-Bell. The first is founded in the modern-day (the 1970s) and sees contemporary life manipulated to murderous ends, the second is much more theatrical with the murderous set-pieces from Shakespeare’s plays being executed with zest. The production design employed in Shakespearian situations is the perfect contrast to the consistently graphic acts of violence. Price and Ian Hendry (Devlin) boast the honour of sharing one of the great fencing scenes in cinema; elsewhere the modification of Cookery TV language is exquisitely warped thanks to two Dogs.
None of this would resonate if it wasn’t for the prodigious ensemble and their performances. Vincent Price rises to the task of Edward Lionheart in one of his ultimate performances; beside him, there is a cast that boasts Eric Sykes, Diana Rigg, Arthur Lowe, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, Milo O’ Shea, Harry Andrews and the aforesaid Ian Hendry – a true embarrassment of British riches. That cast not only establishes the Critics circle as something more than a collective of avatars fated to meet grisly ends, they also play up the comedy chops of Douglas Hickox’s film with a transcendent subtlety.
The sense of humour isn’t that of your typical comedy. Instead, hearty parody is given prominence; with the film’s targets being the acting establishment, police and the critical fraternity. Of the three, those who bring the most obvious comedy are the police. The London constabulary in Theatre of Blood is the very image of hopeless, something articulated effortlessly in a scene where they try to chase Lionheart only to be unable to get past each other in a driveway. Comedy doesn’t always have to be complicated, three police cars struggling to get out of a driveway is no less valid or funny than the satire on critics and actors. As amazingly good fun as it all is, that which holds it back from classic status is the ease at which Lionheart gets away with his plot, habitually asking too much of suspension of disbelief.
With a career-high from Vincent Price and a legendary supporting cast, Theatre of Blood is a joyous horror plucked from obscurity. If the mere fact that Arrow releasing this title wasn’t enough, it also boasts a wonderful mastering and a class of extras that has seen Arrow rise to the top of the home video game.