Theater of Blood (1973)
Although I have not seen every film of Vincent’s career I have seen the majority of them and all of his so called “horrors.” Of the ones I’ve seen, there are two films that always seem to stand out for me where he is deliciously over the top and just has to be loving the entire acting experience. If he isn’t then he’s a far better actor than anyone gives him credit for.
I refer to his 1951 role in His Kind of Woman where he takes charge having life imitate art in his Errol Flynn(ish) role and this 1973 release. It’s here as Edward Lionheart that he enacts various Shakespeare plays with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek delivering one grotesque killing after another. This is black comedy at it’s bloodiest in crimson red.
The plot is a simple one and rather fun in it’s delivery. Price is a long supposed dead actor of the English theater who specialized in the roles and plays of Shakespeare. When he is overlooked for the coveted Critic’s Circle Award he loses his sanity and while delivering the “To be or not to be” speech plummets to his apparent death into the Thames below.
Our circle of critics led by Ian Hendry are composed of some pretty well known faces of film. They include Robert Morley and his two miniature poodles, Harry Andrews who has a keen eye for young talent in skirts. Then there is snooty Coral Brown (more trivia on her to come), Jack Hawkins playing the jealous type towards wife Diana Dors. Michael Hordern, Dennis Price and Arthur Lowe are also members of a rather tough critical crowd.
It’s a good thing they know their Shakespeare because things are about to take a nasty turn for the worse as they are called upon to re-enact certain scenes of the famed playwright.
It seems the body of Vincent was never found and now these same critics who cut our leading man deeply with pen and ink are turning up slaughtered in the tradition of Shakespeare’s plays. One is cut to ribbons, another beheaded and a certain animal lover forced to eat a meal he isn’t exactly enjoying. As stomach turning as many of these deaths are there’s a certain amount of fun in each one thanks to our friend Mr. Price.
Local police officer Milo O’Shea has teamed up with the head critic Ian Hendry in piecing the mystery together and come to believe that Vincent somehow survived the river and is committing the over the top killings. Hendry will be drawn to Diana Rigg who appears here as Price’s daughter. She’s blames Hendry for her father’s death and seems to be hoping for a happy outcome though perhaps not in the same vein as Hendry and Milo.
I won’t spoil all the fun with lurid descriptions of the many murders on bloody display from director Douglas Hickox (Sitting Target and Zulu Dawn) but there are a few bits of trivia that are fun to point at.
Casting himself as Richard the Third, Price sees to it that one of his harshest critics is drowned in a vat of wine. Price himself faced the same death back in 1939 at the hands of Basil Rathbone as Richard and a bald headed torture artist essayed by Boris Karloff in The Tower of London. He would even assume the role as Richard in the 1962 remake for Roger Corman.
Coral Browne as our only female critic gets the opportunity to have her done by Butch at the salon. “Hullo, I’m Butch. Hey, dishy, dishy hair. Can’t wait to get my hands on it. “
Price under a huge frizzy wig and a hint of gaiety about him is hilarious and sadly puts Coral subbing in for Joan of Arc through a nasty ordeal. “Oh, I wish you’d let me do something camp with the colour, darling. Like flame with ash highlights. “ On the sidelines Vincent and Coral would marry in 1974 after meeting on the set of this production.
Jack Hawkins was sadly in the last year of his life as the cancer that took his voice previously would finally catch up with him. It’s painfully obvious that he wasn’t looking well here and his voice is dubbed. For more on Jack please click here.
Sexy Diana Riggs adds a fun spontaneity to the proceedings and holds a surprise that will come out in the end when Hendry facing certain death still refuses to award Vincent the coveted prize he longs for! Hendry has a great line when confronted with a pound of flesh cut from one of his late fellow critics in reference to Price, “It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare! ” The dark humor never lets up.
As an actor Vincent surely had a field day here enacting various Shakespeare scenes and reciting many of the famed soliloquies. The majority of his screen time is performed under stage make up ranging from the famed roles to that of a local policeman, a grave digger, a masseuse and a hilarious though bloody skit as a surgeon.
Freely admitting I love this film it does pose an interesting transition in horror and for the classical presence of Vincent. The film is far bloodier than anything he had done previously which is thankfully offset by the undeniable humor of it all. Played straight it would be more exploitation for the sake of blood and guts. This along with the Phibes titles are a trio of entertaining latter day starring roles in the horror genre for Price and though a few other films lay ahead these really wrapped up his contribution to the genre on a high.
Theater of Blood has been posted as part of the Why Horror? Why Not? celebrations.