Calling 1973’s sardonic horror-comedy THEATRE OF BLOOD (now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios) a slap in the face at critics is a gross understatement (accent on “gross”). A slit throat from ear-to-ear is more appropriate. The fact that it’s able to do this with buckets of blood and still remain all in fun is part of this nasty delight’s endearing charm.
The plot chronicles the vengeful retribution of one Edward Lionheart, Shakespearean actor extraordinaire (at least to his way of thinking), shunned by his critics from a prestigious award (given to one of those “mumbling” kitchen-sink undeserving crotch-scratchers; again, to his way of thinking). Truth be told, the only trophy Lionheart’s critics are likely to upon him is the lead in a Dr. Seuss production of “A Ham I Am.”
When an irate Lionheart invades their round table, his megalomania goes ka-boing and he gives his final performance – a death leap into the Thames. That’ll show ’em! Critics being critics, they review their deceased’s swan song with disdain (three out of five stars), and after a proper mourning period (say, 90 seconds) proceed to more pressing issues.
But have they seen the last of Edward Lionheart?
If they had, this would be shortest horror appearance since Bela Lugosi uttered his immortal “You have booped your last boop.”
Rescued by Britain’s homeless, Lionheart offers his gratitude by ensconcing them in a deserted theatre he has purchased and entertaining them with a full roster of Willie Shakespeare’s best. The added incentive of unlimited Ripple (dare we say) juices the applause meter and all are happy.
Well, except there’s one more thing to do: extract lethal payback on the nine waspish reviewers who dogged Lionheart’s entire career. To do this, the demented thesp plots to gruesomely liquidate each critic in the order of murders corresponding to his final Shakespearean schedule. And let’s face it, when it came to gaining sanguine audience approval, Shakespeare was in many ways the Herschell Gordon Lewis of the Elizabethan Era.
It doesn’t help the poor critics that Edward Lionheart is portrayed by Vincent Price, who knows a thing or two about torture, dissection, garroting, drowning and other jewels in the crown that for centuries defined the British Empire.
In rapidly decreasing fashion, the nine poison-quill culprits are dispatched quicker than pounds at an Agatha Christie liposuction clinic. And (like the possibilities of the previous comment) it ain’t pretty.
The nine in question, all shining examples of the acting profession themselves (Ian Hendry, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Coral Browne, Robert Morley, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, Robert Coote, Harry Andrews), quickly demand an end to this bloody nuisance before it’s too late. Hendry, the most reasonable of the bunch, teams up with Lionheart’s concerned daughter (herself a member of the entertainment biz, excelling in makeup and hair), the formidable Diana Rigg. With the additional aid of stunned Inspector Milo O’Shea and his befuddled assistant Eric Sykes, the game, as they say, is on.
As one might imagine, THEATRE OF BLOOD is the ultimate bash at those who purport to be the enlighteners of the acting profession with tongue very firmly in cheek (and, often, later, on a platter). That all involved seem to be having the time of their lives makes their deaths scrumptiously more delicious (the picture is rife with in-jokes, nicely meshed with the entrails). The stellar cast is (obviously) terrific, and even extends to the minor supporting players (critics’ Hordern’s and Lowe’s spouses are portrayed by Renee Asheron and Joan Hickson; the crème de la crème, however is the partner chosen for jealous “Othello” Hawkins – Diana Dors).
The script, by Anthony Greville-Bell (from an idea by coproducers John Kohn and Stanley Mann), is full of macabre twists, turns and literally gut-wrenching visual puns. When Merchant of Venice victim Harry Andrews’s heart is shockingly delivered to Hendry, his terror is almost immediately supplanted by outrage: “Only Lionheart would have the temerity to re-write Shakespeare!”
THEATRE IS BLOOD is the logical progression of the great Vincent’s Dr. Phibes character (which resulted in two very successful and gory comedies for AIP). BLOOD is the Phibes pics on a far more elaborate and erudite scale. The repellent violence and hemoglobin splatter throughout becomes acceptable to non-genre fans due to the witty script and celestial cast (even Hendry’s personal assistant is no less than Hammer’s beauteous Maddie Smith).
Like the Phibes pictures, BLOOD was originally slated to be directed by Robert Fuest. But by the time the picture was ready to roll for UA, he had been replaced by Douglas Hickox. Hickox, at first, may be a weird choice for the ghoulishly hilarious proceedings, but, then again, maybe not. Hickox was an excellent a.d. turned fast-paced director, whose output defined “no-nonsense.” He also doesn’t seem to have had a particularly great sense of humor, which, ironically, also works toward BLOOD‘s Grand Guignol appeal (he had previously directed a Sitting Target, a violent crime drama with Oliver Reed and Ian McShane that I like a lot); to this day, Morley’s fate still makes me squirm, but with lip-biting “ewwww” glee.
Curiously enough, critics adored THEATRE OF BLOOD when it was originally released in 1973, many citing it as Vincent Price’s crowning achievement. The actor thought so too, proclaiming it the personal favorite of all his movies. Rigg went one better: she called it the best picture she ever made.
Rigg also played a key factor in another aspect of the production. Seeing the obvious growing attraction between Price and Browne, she stealthily maneuvered them accidentally-on-purpose together whenever the op arose. By the time the movie wrapped, the pair was inseparable, marrying soon afterward and spliced together till the end of their days.
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray is a much-desirable addition to any horror/comedy fan’s collection. The picture quality (as rendered by Wolfgang Suschitsky’s cinematography) is quite excellent, as the format demands; the mono audio is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the lines are occasionally muffled and the Foley person seems to have misinterpreted the term for “folly.” By that I mean that sometimes a snippet of dialog is so low that one must boost the volume, only to be blasted by another actor’s response, which is at normal (and suitable) level. Don’t know if this is a problem due to the picture’s deteriorating sound elements, or perhaps something that always existed in the mix. In any event, it’s not constant, and shouldn’t prevent Price fans from a purchase (for further incentive, there’s a running commentary with film historians Nick Redman and David Del Valle). And like all Twilight Time titles, the soundtrack, featuring a wonderful score by Michael J. Lewis, can be accessed as an IST. Even without that option, I’ve already played that main credits theme over and over (another in-gag, the titles being displayed over a montage of silent Shakespeare films, the dig being that, unlike Lionheart, you can’t hear anyone).
For those looking for perhaps the grisliest show-business movie ever made (but nevertheless one with a scholarly, cerebral kick), you can’t do better than this deranged offering (remember, however, that this is a limited edition, and once they’re gone, they’re gone). But be forewarned, the picture lives up to its title and the blood flows like Malmsey.
THEATRE OF BLOOD. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HA MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # 11956-02134. SRP: $29.95.