Theatre of Blood (1973)
By: Michael McQueen on May 11, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
MRA (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 4:3. English DD 1.0. 104 minutes
The Movie
Director: Douglas Hickox
Starring: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Coral Browne, Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews
Screenplay: Anthony Greville-Bell Music: Michael J. Lewis
Tagline: It's curtains for his critics!
Country: UK
AKA: Much Ado About Murder
There's nothing quite like the guaranteed cheese that is a Vincent Price movie; a rich tapestry of schlock, shtick, and B-grade grotesque only redeemable by Price's creepy over-cooked performances. The Merchant of Menace is going through something of a revival right now, which makes the arrival of some of his best - and worst – efforts on DVD all the more welcome. Theatre of Blood comes courtesy of the folks at MRA Entertainment whose Silver Screams series also includes Price's The Last Man on Earth and House on Haunted Hill.

By and large, Price's movies always stuck to a well-established formula: a low budget mish-mash of black comedy and schlock horror that could turn a movie studio into a cheddar factory. Price himself was aware of just how bad most of these efforts were, and delivered all of his performances with such camp irreverence that anyone with a sense of humour (and a well-developed sense of irony) could withstand a truly dreadful film for the sake of a good laugh, which Price rarely failed to deliver. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Price's films quickly became cult hits that influenced generations of B-movie buffs, from the titan of trash, John Waters, to master of macabre, Tim Burton, who was lucky enough to cast Price in his own suburban-horror caper, Edward Scissorhands. That said, for all their old-school-exploitation anti-glamour and contemporary critical currency, the vast majority of Price's movies were notoriously bad – and not in an 'it's-so-bad-it's-good' kind of way, but genuine, cringe-worthy, 'why, oh, why am I wasting my life watching this piss-poor torrent of filth?' BAD. The renewed interest in Price's career has meant that many of these trashy tomes pollute DVD throw-out bins, and what appears to be an under-loved, over-looked classic is really just another crappy movie that deserves the price it gets. My copy of Theatre of Blood is an ex-Blockbuster rental that cost me $3 – I believe I got my money's worth.

The plot of Theatre of Blood is downright ludicrous: Edward Lionheart (Price), an uber-hammy Shakespearean actor of the Kenneth Branagh variety, supposedly commits suicide after a season of Bard Best-Ofs is critically savaged and he is denied the Critics Circle Award. Sticking to the tried-and-true formula of Vincent Price films, Lionheart is resurrected and embarks on a campaign of revenge, killing off his most severe critics in a variety of Shakespeare-themed deaths. It's not exactly Saw or Seven material, but there's clearly some ironic intention at play so best take the biggest grain of salt you can find and try to bear with me.

Armed with an uncanny memory for monologue, a dizzying array of costume changes, an army of drunken hobos, and some of the cheesiest one-liners rarely seen out of a Connery-era Bond flick, Lionheart's vendetta has such a comical overtone to it, you'd be hard-pressed not to crack a smile during this garbage onslaught. Some of the death scenes are so ridiculous they border on slapstick: one critic is decapitated during a hilarious bedroom surgery scene; another is drowned in a barrel of wine; another is force-fed a pie made of his own poodles until he chokes to death ("Pity, he didn't have the stomach for it"). The best execution by far is that of a particularly haughty, up-tight theatre snob who's electrocuted by her own hair curlers…shocking! (sorry, couldn't resist).

Price is perfectly cast as a murderous ham-actor and clearly relishes the opportunity to display his often over-looked acting chops; taking on multiple personas and costume changes, he transforms at will from King Lear into super-camp hairdresser, 'Butch', resplendent in afro-wig, handlebar moustache and aviator sunglasses. Other amusing Price personas include Shylock, the Jew from the Merchant of Venice, literally extracting a pound of flesh from a hapless victim, and at one point he's decked out in a red velvet pimp suit replete with fedora and cravat (it was a turbulent decade for everybody). The effect is schizophrenic but, to Price's credit, all his Shakespeare monologues are delivered with such ham-fisted gusto and melodrama, it's impossible not to find him compellingly charismatic. It's also cheerfully ironic that the witless critics Lionheart preys upon - who are totally taken in by his character ruses, only finally catching on at the moment of their grisly deaths – are the same stuffy culture vultures that humiliated and belittled him for his 'unconvincing' performances. At one point, Lionheart is so believable as an adulterous masseur that he plays Iago; convincing his victim that his blonde hussy wife has been screwing around. With a cry of "Damned adulterous bitch!" and "Down, strumpet!" the duped critic suffocates his own wife…like I said, it's not Saw or Seven, but it's definitely a laugh.

It's not all cheap laughs and hip irony, though. Behind the diet-exploitation and Price's nudge-nudge, wink-wink tomfoolery there is precious little to recommend this unadulterated brie-fest. Price may be the godfather of camp, but Theatre of Blood over-does it to such an extent that it's almost unwatchable. What passes for a narrative is a sad joke that isn't even told properly; the camera work is rarely inspired, the script sounds like it was written on beer matts and bar napkins, and every other actor plays a stereotype-of-a-stereotype, and poorly at that. Theatre of Blood my have been a shameless vehicle for Price – one that played too obviously to his strengths – but the rest of the film is so lacking in nuance, subtlety and technical skill that it feels malnourished. And while slick production, nuance and subtlety have never, under any circumstance, been considered the founding pillars of exploitation cinema, Theatre of Blood lacks all the requisite gore and boobs it needs to redeem itself.
A shitty 4:3 transfer for a shitty film that emphasises just how little time and effort was spent on restoring it to DVD; in a word: lousy.
It's in mono; bad mono. the mixing isn't crash hot and some of the dialogue is a little fuzzy. Although it adds to the overall low-budget appeal, a little extra effort to fix some of the glitches is sorely missed.
Extra Features
Nothing remotely interesting. Vincent Price biography and filmography, Diana Riggs biography (like anyone cares) and a pointless essay that analyses the film; like it's that hard to understand!
The Verdict
There's no doubt that Theatre of Blood is Vincent Price's most power-house performance, and if you simply must own one of his movies this is probably the pick of the bunch. It's funny, but will you watch it again? Not likely. And with no interesting special features to recommend it, Theatre of Blood is hardly a must-buy proposition. If you pay more than $3 for this movie, you are being ripped off.
Movie Score
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