Witty, savage and tragic – Vincent Price as a tormented Shakespearian actor in possibly the finest British horror film of the 1970s.
Caution: if, for some reason, you haven’t seen Theatre of Blood, this review might contain spoilers – though quite honestly, so does the film itself, which is why we are discussing them to begin with. In any case, proceed accordingly.
In 1971, Vincent Price starred in The Abominable Dr Phibes, a deliciously camp horror movie where the titular character took extravagant revenge against the doctors who he blamed for his wife’s death. Chased by police inspectors who always managed to arrive just after the nick of time, Phibes killed off his enemies one at a time in the most outrageous ways imaginable, inspired – however loosely – by the Biblical plagues visited on the Egyptian Pharoah. It was a film of almost perfect construction and extraordinary visual style, and if there is one flaw in the film, it might be that Price is not given as much florid dialogue as you might like – while Phibes is given to endless soliloquies throughout the film, his stilted delivery – as a result of having to talk through a microphone in his throat after a disfiguring accident – perhaps doesn’t allow Price to really cut loose.
The sequel to The Abominable Dr Phibes tweaked the format somewhat – while it still features eccentric and elaborate death scenes, they don’t feel as focused this time around. Dr Phibes Rises Again certainly doesn’t set out to simply recreate the first film and can be admired for that; indeed, it’s a shame that none of the many, many ideas for additional adventures for Phibes was ever filmed because the character seemed to offer endless possibilities for ghoulish fun. In their absence, though, another film feels as though it is the spiritual successor to the first Phibes movie.
Made in 1973, Theatre of Blood is very much in the Dr Phibes tradition, with Vincent Price gleefully hamming it up as the mad man taking his inventive and gory revenge on those who have wronged him, while an incompetent police force tries to track him down, failing miserably to stop him from killing his victims even when they are under police protection. However, great as the Phibes movies are, this is a much, much better affair, one that takes the central idea of the earlier movie and perfects it. It’s one of the great British horror movies, up there with the best of Hammer, The Wicker Man and other masterpieces. It might well be the best of the lot.
Price plays Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearean actor long thought dead, who returns to take revenge on the snobby theatre critics who deliberately humiliated him at an awards ceremony and drove him to attempted suicide. He does this in classic style, inventively recreating the bloody deaths found in the Shakespeare plays that featured in his final season, assisted by an army of meths drinking tramps, a hairy biker and his devoted daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg). These killings, as elaborately staged and inventively twisted as anything you’ll ever see, are sometimes comedic – albeit in a very nasty way – and sometimes straight-faced and brutal, the latter no more so than the opening scene and Michael Hordern’s demise at the knife-wielding hands of the tramps – this savage moment lets you know immediately that this is not a film that will be showing restraint on any level. Even now, this scene is shockingly violent. It’s the scene that, when the film was first shown on TV and I sat down to watch it with my parents, made them decide that maybe this one was a bit too much for my tender sensibilities. To my chagrin, I was packed off to bed and would have to wait several years for another chance to see the movie.
Other deaths include Arthur Lowe being decapitated – quite a shock for fans of the much-loved comedy actor, I imagine! – and his head left jammed onto a milk bottle; Coral Browne being electrocuted while having her hair down; Robert Morley force-fed his two pet poodles, and Dennis Price impaled through the chest and tied to the back of a horse. These extravagant killings are neatly set up, always protracted and remarkably gory. While Hammer and their rivals would increasingly splash gore across the screen, there was still a sense of restraint at work (and any attempts to lower that restraint would be stamped on by the British censors) but there is no holding back here. I’m not sure if Theatre of Blood is definitely the bloodiest British film of the early 1970s – but it’s a strong contender. The graphic violence is all the more unexpected because the starry cast gives the film a sense of respectability – perhaps why it somehow avoided being hacked up by the BBFC when less gory films were heavily censored at the time. Or perhaps it is the black humour at work, as these violent set-pieces are delivered with such glee and gusto by Price that they are often as funny as they are grotesque.
Certainly, the actor is on top form here, as he goes through a variety of Shakespeare characters. It was probably an actor’s dream to play so many of the Bard’s creations in one film, and Price smartly runs the gamut – at times wildly hamming it up, at others showing that he really was a great actor when he wanted to be. The film smartly keeps a central mystery to itself – we never quite know if Lionheart really was the talentless hack his critics have suggested, or if their criticism was simply spiteful sniping by a bunch of unpleasant and self-important bullies – though the film does tend to suggest the latter. Certainly, this is a story that should make all but the smuggest of critics (in other words, most of those working in the mainstream) pause for thought, and when Lionheart rages about their smug dismissals of his work, their lack of understanding about the art of acting and their sense of superiority, you suspect that Price – all too often dismissed because of the kind of films he made and his sense of humour that was often mistaken for bad acting – is in complete sympathy with him. In fact, the critics in the film are such a collection of pompous, spoiled stuffed-shirts and petty snobs (clearly, criticism used to pay rather more handsomely than it does now) that Lionheart becomes almost heroic – certainly, chances are you’ll find yourself willing him to get away at the end.
Price, of course, had to up his game, given the cast he is a part of. Alongside the names mentioned earlier, the cast includes Ian Hendry, Robert Coote, Harry Andrews, Diana Dors, Jack Hawkins, Joan Hickson, Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, and while these might not have been top box office draws, they were generally considered to be amongst the cream of British acting talent. As you might expect, everyone seems to be having a great time – no doubt each actor had their own feelings towards critics – but no one goes so wildly over the top as to become ridiculous. The exception to this, perhaps, is Price’s jaw-dropping appearance as hairdresser Butch, as camp a portrayal as you could ever imagine. But it’s so ridiculous – his introductory line “Hi, I’m Butch” is sure to bring the house down at public screenings – that it curiously works. While Price was clearly having a lot of fun with this part, he also smartly knows when to dial it back and allow us to see the very human tragedy that underpins the story.
Also in the cast is Hammer Horror and Carry On starlet Madeline Smith, who was often treated as little more than half-naked sex symbolism by producers and so rarely got a chance to shine in film roles (TV tended to treat her better, allowing her natural comedy talent to blossom). She’s perhaps underused here – in the end, there is little for her to do beyond delivering exposition to other characters, but nevertheless, she holds her own amongst the heavyweight cast. Hendry, as the ‘hero’ character, has a look of perpetual disdain throughout – perhaps an affectation created by the actor’s alcoholism, but somehow fitting for his character. The film, of course, sells us out at the end with a traditional warp-up where Lionheart is killed (at least that’s what is implied, though of course we never see his body) and Devlin escapes his fate – perhaps it might have been more fitting to allow Lionheart to complete his revenge before plunging to his death, but that might have been a subversion too far. In my own imaginary sequel to the movie, he escapes to track Devlin down and complete his mission. Certainly, Devlin seems as appalling as the rest of his deceased colleagues and there’s no reason other than tradition for him to get away with it and escape (relatively) unscathed.
The film isn’t without its faults. These are mainly continuity problems, where the film seems a bit rushed and you are left scratching your head about what has just happened. The biggest of these is the revelation at the end that the sheepskin clad biker is, in fact, Edwina in disguise. Her complicity in her father’s crimes is played like it is a revelation, but not only have we seen her earlier as a barely disguised sex poppet picking up horny Trevor Dickman (Andrews) to take him to his death, but the film also includes a scene where the biker speaks with Rigg’s voice – so we already know that it is her under the disguise. It’s a pity because the scene that gives this away is not even one that moves the narrative forward. I’m amazed that no one involved thought to question its inclusion. Perhaps the audience is supposed to know that Edwina is in cahoots with her father all along and we are simply allowed to be one step ahead of the police and Devlin – the big reveal of her identity is certainly as much for his benefit as for ours and the Dickman death needs her involvement I guess (though perhaps could’ve been rewritten to make him less of a dirty old man – perhaps today, he could even be gay and so be seduced to his doom by the biker).
However, it’s unlikely that these moments will spoil the film unless you are a real stickler for realism (and if you are, this is probably not the film for you). In any case, when it comes to repeated viewing, any surprises are long gone – and this is a film that demands repeated viewing, allowing you to look for neat little touches happening in the background with the tramps, relish sharp moments of dialogue and enjoy the remarkable ingenuity of the set pieces. Plot holes aside, the movie moves at a fast pace, and Douglas Hickox (who made several impressive films in a short career but never did anything that even comes close to this) directs with flair and a sense of the dramatic, helped enormously of course by Anthony Greville-Bell’s screenplay (Greville-Bell only wrote a few films but they are all quite interesting, including The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie and the underrated heist film Perfect Friday). Credit should also go to Michael J. Lewis’ fantastic, emotive and sweeping score, which gives the film a sense of being a grand tragedy on a par with anything that Shakespeare might have written. One of the pleasures in re-watching the film is to see just how dark and painful it really is, hidden away under the flamboyant excess. It’s the little moments – like when Edwina hisses “butchers” at the assembled critics as they take advantage of Lionheart’s humiliation to humiliate him some more – that make the film more than just a Phibesian body-count romp. There’s heart and soul in this film and that, more than the horror, the humour and the ostentatious death scenes, is what makes it such an enduring classic.
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