In London, members of a circle of theatre critics start to be killed in methods inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. Pointers show that the person responsible could be Edward Lionheart, an egotistical actor who had a misguided sense of his own acting ability, but there’s one problem – he’s supposed to be dead! He threw himself off a balcony after being denied an important award by the circle of critics. However it seems that the murders cannot be stopped, especially when Lionheart has his daughter Edwina and a gang of drunken down-and-outs helping him carry out his outlandish schemes………
Despite continuing to be a staple of teaching in schools, the fact is that the plays of William Shakespeare are often extremely violent. From whole families being slaughtered on stage to children being baked in a pie, the guy loved gore and brutality, but it’s probably not the kind of thing that instantly comes to mind whist thinking of the Bard. Theatre Of Blood, which its star Vincent Price claimed was his favourite of his own movies, takes this fact and creates a wonderful black comedy horror movie which should be much better known and to my mind deserves to be up there with films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets. Originally titled Much Ado About Murder, it was also obviously inspired by the success of Price’s Dr Phibes movies, which were basically a series of elaborate but rather funny death sequences. In fact Robert Fuest, the director of those was asked to direct this but didn’t want to do another comic horror so turned it down. Filmed entirely on location in London, most of its limited budget went on hiring its great cast, and indeed it does look very cheap, but that doesn’t really matter. It was a moderate success at the box office, but deserved to be a big hit, because this film is a wonderfully witty and ghoulish blast, as long as, of course, you have a slightly cruel sense of humour!
With only moderate suspense, this movie doesn’t even attempt to be scary, but despite its light tone, it is quite a twisted work. For a great portion of its running time, we are treated to re-enactments of murders in the works of Shakeapeare, or nasty variations of them. For example the famous “pound of flesh” moment in The Merchant Of Venice is enacted literally! The impaling, stabbings, electrocutions and so forth are surprisingly graphic for a British horror film of the time, certainly going a little further than most Hammer films. Six gallons of fake blood were used and the film was slightly cut in its initial cinema release. While undoubtedly gory, it’s all done with a sense of humour throughout and the memorable kill scenes just keep on coming!
My favourite is a version of the scene in Cymboline when Imogen awakes to find her husband Cloten beheaded. The couple are both injected with needles to make them sleep, then Lionheart draws on the neck with lipstick, showing him where he needs to cut. While he saws off the head, the wife wakes up and tells the husband to “stop snoring”, after which she is injected with another needle. Edwina makes a mistake and Lionheart rolls his eyes, then pauses so his brow can be mopped. All this is done to lushly romantic music being played on the soundtrack. Maybe I’m a sick bugger, but the whole scene creases me up. And then there’s a fencing scene where Price and Ian Hendry suddenly start jumping around on trampolines. Come to think of it, there’s quite a bit in this movie that’s quite random, but it mostly fits in very well with everything else. Even the police procedural scenes involving Hendry’s critic Peregrine Devlin, which are initially rather dull, have odd bits of humour which you notice more and more of if you watch this film more than once.
I must say that the odd scene doesn’t work, especially an Othello segment that is just stupid, but for the most part the blackly comic tone is very well sustained through the whole picture. This is largely due to Vincent Price, who is clearly having the time of his life here; it’s easy to understand why he liked the film so much. The script allows him to recite many of Shakespeare’s lines, including some of the most famous passages, and he even wears several disguises. He has a truly side-splitting turn as a gay hairdresser. Often suspected of being gay [despite meeting his third wife on the set of this film], he was very ‘camp’ in a lot of his movies but this was the only time he played someone who was obviously homosexual. Despite all this, Lionheart remains quite a tragic character, and Price cleverly hints at that without overdoing it. I always feel rather sorry for him, and enjoy seeing the snobby critics get their comeuppance. Many critics at the time didn’t like the fact that Lionheat was fairly sympathetic, but, with the odd exception [i.e.Witchfinder General], Price had always seen the human and tragic side of his villains, it was something which he had been doing for many years before this movie came out. However, there are also the ‘Meths Drinkers’, the slightly creepy gang of homeless folk who are at Lionheart’s beck and call. You don’t know much about them, and you don’t need to, because they are more menacing that way.
The direction by Douglas Hickox is just perfunctory – no one would call this a master class in film making – but sometimes a film is so darned enjoyable that it’s far greater than the sum of its parts. As mentioned earlier this movie has a great cast, including Jack Hawkins, Micheal Hordern, Robert Morley and Diana Dors, even if most of these luminaries end up dead. Diana Rigg as Edwina has probably her most memorable film role after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service even if we never really get to know her character. The score by the underused Michael J.Lewis has a great comic/tragic main theme reminiscent of early John Barry and fine percussive underscoring of many scenes. Theatre Of Blood is one of those films I never tire of watching, and though not an artistic masterpiece, I consider it one of the very best combinings of horror and humour, something that is tried constantly but which is hard to get totally right. It was made into a theatre production in 2005 and Rigg’s daughter played her role. How on earth did I miss that?
The Arrow blu-ray release is what you would expect from the cult distributor: sharp, clear and crisp, with clear audio that still evokes the audio recording of the 70’s.
Like most Arrow Video releases, the Blu-Ray contains a collection of must-see extras that any film fan will be chomping at the bit to devour. An interview with Victoria Price, Vincent’s daughter, is insightful to the work of her father and his fondness for Theatre of Blood, whilst an interview with Madeline Smith, who plays Rosemary, highlights the experience of working on the movie directed by Dougie Hickox and working with the other cast members.
Whilst most film audio commentaries are hosted by the filmmakers or cast, Theatre of Blood is treated to an audio commentary by all four members of twisted British comedy, The League Of Gentlemen. Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Jeremy Dyson and Steve Pemberton hold Theatre of Blood dear in their hearts, which comes across really well as they discuss the movie throughout like superfans. Their wit never ceases and you’ll find listening to the commentary akin to watching and debating a great movie with friends.
Other features include interviews with author and film historian David Del Valle and the film’s composer Michael J. Lewis, a trailer for the film, a reversible Sleeve featuring new writing on the film by critic Cleaver Patterson and a reproduction of the original press book material, illustrated with original archive stills.