Robin’s Underrated Gems: Theater of Blood (1973)

If you’re a filmmaker and you’re worried that bad reviews from critics will negatively affect your career, there’s a solution to that: make a movie about a madman who brutally murders critics as revenge for their negative reviews! Such is the case with a delightful 1973 British horror film/black comedy entitled Theater of Blood, which mostly did garner positive reviews when it was originally released, though there were some reviewers who were none-too-pleased with the fact that the murderous villain in the film was a far more likable character than the critics he killed. Theater of Blood is considered by many to be the greatest film in the long and storied career of horror icon Vincent Price, and Price himself has named it as his personal favourite of all the movies he made. Yet, in spite of this, Theater of Blood does not seem to be as well known as some of Price’s more famous works, such as House of Wax and The House on Haunted Hill. It’s almost impossible to find a horror fan out there who doesn’t like this film, but it hasn’t been seen as nearly as much it deserves to be. The whole storyline is built upon a one-joke premise, but it’s a really good joke and none of Vincent Price’s other horror films come close to utilizing the actor’s immense talents as much as this one.

Prior to this, Vincent Price had made another fun horror film called The Abominable Dr. Phibes, where he played a mad scientist whose wife’s life had ended on the operating table at the hands of some incompetent surgeons. In retaliation, he concocts an elaborate revenge scheme where each of the surgeons winds up being murdered in a manner that is patterned after the ten deadly biblical plagues. Two years later, Theater of Blood would find a very unique and clever variation on this formula. Vincent Price plays a Shakespearean stage actor named Edward Lionheart, who truly believes he is the greatest actor in history, but is constantly torn apart in reviews by the local theater critics. When a group of nine critics refuse to give him the “Critic’s Circle Award for Best Actor”, Lionheart supposedly commits suicide over it, but surprises everyone by returning years later and plotting a deadly revenge. Lionheart was an actor who refused to perform anything but Shakespeare, so he decides that each critic should die in a reenactment of a scene taken directly from one of Shakespeare’s plays. Lionheart enlists the help of his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) and a group of insane alcoholic transients called “The Meth Drinkers”, who seem to be patterned after the groundlings from Shakespeare’s time. Together, they lure each critic into a situation where Lionheart acts out a scene from one of Shakespeare’s plays that ends with the critic’s gruesome death. In this sequence, Lionheart plays Shylock as he reenacts the “pound of flesh” scene from The Merchant of Venice, but this time, it actually ends with the victim losing a pound of flesh!

Now, you shouldn’t expect any deep characterization or social significance to be found in Theater of Blood. The narrative is really nothing more than a series of set pieces where Lionheart lures each critic to a grisly Shakespearean death, and the whole thing is made possible by some of the most incompetent policemen ever seen in a film, who vow to protect the critics once they’ve figured out Lionheart’s scheme, but let them fall into his traps rather easily. Though the lead critic in this film, the wonderfully named Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), is somewhat sympathetic, the other critics (played by some terrific British character actors such as Harry Andrews, Robert Morley and Jack Hawkins) are portrayed as completely unlikable snobs, so watching them suffer horrible, darkly funny deaths at the hands of Lionheart is the main appeal of the film. However, these scenes are so much fun to watch that Theater of Blood never feels like its just spinning its wheels and repeating itself. The movie is intended to be the ultimate star vehicle for Vincent Price and it more than succeeds on that level. If there was downside to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it’s that the villain had a disfigurement that prevented him from speaking most of the time, depriving the audience from hearing Price’s iconic voice. Theater of Blood holds nothing back and gives Vincent Price the chance to act out every wacky scene imaginable. The most infamous sequence from this film is NOT recommended viewing for dog lovers, but all others should find it hysterical. Lionheart apes the climax from Titus Andronicus, where Queen Tamora was tricked into eating her own children, by feeding a critic a pie that has been baked with his beloved poodles! Oh, and where else are going to get the opportunity to see Vincent Price act like this?

I’ve always maintained that some of our biggest horror icons, such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, never got the credit they deserved for being great actors because they were worked within the horror genre, and the same statement definitely applies to Vincent Price. It’s easy to see why Price considered Theater of Blood to be such a delight to make because he always wanted to act in Shakespeare productions, but since he was so typecast from being a horror star, no one ever gave him the opportunity. Shakespeare fanatics will probably have a field day seeing Price recite passages from so many of the Bard’s different plays, but he treads the line carefully and never makes his readings of the material TOO good. After all, the reason Lionheart faced so many negative reviews from critics in the first place is because they thought he was a hammy and melodramatic actor, so Price has to find the right tone for portraying a character who’s really not as great an actor as he thinks he is. Believe it or not, Theater of Blood was eventually adapted into a stage play that ran in London for a few months in 2005 and starred Jim Broadbent as Lionheart. The production received mostly mixed reviews, but as far as I know, no critics wound up dying horrible deaths at the hands of Jim Broadbent. Anyway, as a horror film and as a black comedy, Theater of Blood is nothing but tremendous, demented fun, and any fans of the genre who’ve never seen it are advised to give it a look. Most importantly, you’ll find no film that’s a better tribute to the legacy of Vincent Price.

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