Theatre of Blood is almost the last horror film Vincent Price made in the 1970s. Price was famous for a rather broad style of acting, and his last few 70s horror roles reflect that – the Dr Phibes films are high camp, and Madhouse (1974) casts him as a hammy old horror star. Theatre of Blood, Price’s favourite of his horror roles, has him play a Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart, out for revenge on the critics who gave him bad reviews. He murders them using methods taken from the Shakespeare plays he performed in his final season (although it’s unclear who Lionheart would have played in Cymbeline, a play without a lead male role).
Price’s star turn walks the line between humour and pathos extremely well. Like most of Price’s best parts, Lionheart is all flawed nobility, and gives the actor plenty of scope for his well-practised head-tilting, eye-rolling mannerisms. It is the culmination of the onscreen persona he had cultivated since at least The House on Haunted Hill (1959). Price is backed by a peerless supporting cast of British character actors, which includes his future wife Coral Browne, with Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews and Robert Coote particularly good. Diana Rigg plays Lionheart’s adoring daughter (a rather under-written part) and the reliably unlikable Ian Hendry is the leader of the critics.
Comedy horror is difficult to pull off, and Theatre of Blood plays the horror mostly straight. The early murders are authentically nasty, especially the first, in which Michael Hordern is stabbed by meths drinkers. The later killings become more elaborate and outlandish, most famously in the Titus Andronicus sequence, but the gory effects still pack a visceral punch that is absent from most Vincent Price films.
The comedy is rather underplayed, and is best when it isn’t obtrusive. The funniest moment comes when the stunt doubles for Price and Hendry indulge in some preposterously athletic fencing. There are also nice little character moments among the critics, played to perfection by comedy veterans like Robert Morley and Arthur Lowe. Price’s disguises are funny, especially the Olivier-baiting false nose he wears as Richard III. Other attempts at humour, such as the slightly jarring presence of Eric Sykes as a detective, are less successful.
The director, Douglas Hickox, had done comedy before (Entertaining Mr Sloane, 1970, a film that isn’t screamingly funny), but made Theatre of Blood just after the depressing crime thriller Sitting Target (1972). His next film was Brannigan (1975), a John Wayne action movie. Theatre of Blood certainly feels like a film made by a director happier with violence than comedy.
In spite of its advantages, though, the film doesn’t quite work. The unrealistic elements – comical names, plodding detectives – don’t fit with the brutality of the killings. While deaths plucked from Shakespeare’s plays are a worthy follow-up to Phibes’s Biblical killings, the derelict, grimy London of Theatre of Blood is light years away from Phibes’s art deco dreamland. The film also feels a bit too long – one or two of the critics could have been jettisoned. Shaving 15 minutes from the run time would have made this much stronger.
Still, it’s interestingly positioned at the end of an era. The film makes it clear that Lionheart isn’t a bad actor; he’s just an unfashionable one. At the Critics’ Circle awards, his old-school barnstorming is ignored in favour of a younger method actor (‘a twitching, mumbling boy’). 1973, the year of Theatre of Blood, saw the National Theatre move from the traditional Old Vic to Denys Lasdun’s modernist South Bank complex, just downriver from where the critics meet in the film. Director and businessman Peter Hall took over from actor-manager Laurence Olivier as its artistic director that same year, cementing a general shift in influence from star performers to directors. It’s hard to imagine Edward Lionheart taking too kindly to modern-dress Shakespeare or social realist readings of Hamlet.
And, of course, the same thing was happening in horror films at the same time. Star-vehicle horror of the kind that had kept Price in art and cookery books died out in the 1970s. We tend to think of 1960s horror in terms of its actors; 70s horror belongs to directors like George Romero and Wes Craven. 1973 saw the release of classic new-style horrors like Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist alongside some of the last Hammer Gothics and Amicus portmanteau films. The writing was on the wall.
It’s tempting to see Lionheart’s refusal to bow to changing times as reflecting Price’s own attitude. Better to go out howling defiance than to go on like Hammer and Amicus did, churning out the same old stuff and hoping the audiences would come back. But perhaps that’s reading too much into a film in which a man is forced to eat his own poodles.
Arrow’s Blu-ray release upgrades the film’s image in impressive fashion without losing its grimy ambience. The extras are a bit light compared to some of their releases. The best is a commentary by the League of Gentlemen, who know a thing or two about mixing horror and comedy (although Mark Gatiss should note that Tutte Lemkow was, in fact, a man). If it isn’t quite the classic it could have been, there are still pleasures enough to make Theatre of Blood well worth watching.