Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on The New Portable.
Despite his massive impact on the film industry, Vincent Price was never even nominated for an Oscar nor did he ever win an honorary one. That’s a damn shame, because there are decades of movies that would be so much less without his presence. Sure, the sorts of movies that Price made didn’t really warrant Oscar nominations, and there are plenty of them where he is really the only bit of class in the proceedings. In a movie like Theater of Blood (sometimes spelled Theatre of Blood), that sort of “Vincent Price has class” idea is played to the hilt.
Put bluntly, Theater of Blood is the story of the awesomely-named Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Price), spurned by a nonet of critics from winning a theatrical award that he thought he deserved. Distraught, Lionheart committed suicide, or so it was thought. The body, of course, was never recovered, and as we learn over the course of the film, Lionheart was recovered and nursed back to health by a collection of vagrants. Now, two years out, Lionheart is back and planning the deaths of those critics who, he believes, destroyed his career.
That would be good enough for a basic plot, but there’s more to this that puts it in mind of a film like Se7en or, more appropriately, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Lionheart’s last reparatory season was a collection of Shakespearean plays—it is revealed through the course of the film that Lionheart refused to do anything other than Shakespeare. He thus decides to kill off his critics by murdering each one in a manner coming directly from one of the plays in his final season. This means we’ll have a critic stabbed by a mob a la Julius Caesar (on the Ides of March, no less), one beheaded in his own bed as in Cymbeline, another drowned in a barrel of wine as in Richard III, and more. Standing against Lionheart is Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea) and Sgt. Dogge (Eric Sykes) and the most influential of the nine critics, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry). Also in the mix is Edwina Lionheart (Diana Rigg), Lionheart’s daughter.
Theater of Blood walks a very thin line between drama and comedy. There is some comedy here. A few of the deaths, for instance, have comedic moments in them, but many of these are there because the actual methods of death are truly horrifying. There’s some truly nasty stuff happening here, and the comedy attempts to lighten that a bit and doesn’t entirely succeed. I also appreciate the fact that the characters in general have a sort of Shakespearean comedy edge to them. It wouldn’t be out of bounds in a Shakespearean comedy to have people named something like Meredith Merridew, Solomon Psaltery, or Horace Sprout.
Price is having the time of his life with this film. While the crimes that happen are, upon reflection, really nasty, Price is playing this up as if his every moment is truly on a Shakespearean stage. As Lionheart committing these murders with the help of his vagrant pals, Price gets into full costume and makeup, playing out the scene of the murder as if the play was truly being acted out. Seeing a man have his heart cut out to give up his pound of flesh (as in Merchant of Venice) is grisly; seeing it happen while Vincent Price in full Shylock regalia gloats over his prize is a hell of a lot of fun.
What his means is that Theater of Blood has exactly the same upside and exactly the same issues as pretty much every Vincent Price film from between about 1960 and 1980. The upside is that Vincent Price is who he is. He is completely charismatic as a scenery-chewing thespian and right at home in the role of a homicidal maniac. He’s having a grand time in this role—as much fun as he did in things like House of Wax or The Masque of the Red Death. The downside is that beyond Price, there’s not a lot here.
Actually, in this case, that’s not quite true. The supporting cast for this is pretty good, including such veteran actors as Robert Morley, Diana Dors, and Jack Hawkins. That it also contains the wonderful Diana Rigg is purely a bonus. Rigg is having about as much fun as Price is with this role, and while there’s a moment at the end that is supposed to be a shocking reveal, it definitely isn’t. That’s all a part of the same fun.
If you’re of a mind to like kooky Vincent Price films, you could do a lot worse than Theater of Blood. You could do better (The Fly, House on Haunted Hill…), but this is one you likely will not regret.
Why to watch Theater of Blood: Vincent Price in full-blown scenery chewing mode.
Why not to watch: It’s really ghoulish when you think about it.