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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Theater of Blood (1973) review


Vincent Price (Edward Lionheart), Diana Rigg (Edwina Lionheart), Ian Hendry (Peregrine Devlin), Coral Brown (Chloe Moon), Dennis Price (Hector Snipe), Madeline Smith (Rosemary)

Directed by Douglas Hickox

Members of the Critics Circle are killed one by one in gruesome fashion modeled after those found in the plays of William Shakespeare. As the critics numbers dwindle, the murderer is thought to be Edward Lionheart, an unhealthily faithful follower of the Bard's work. Having been ridiculed and embarrassed over not receiving his due recognition for his performances, Lionheart jumped to his death into the Thames river three years earlier. Having been saved by a motley clutch of homeless vagrants, Lionheart meticulously plots his grisly revenge. This sets the stage for a macabre ceremony in which the deranged Lionheart will finally be given his Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.

Douglas Hickox deftly handles this sadistically funny horror comedy of the blackest kind. Originally called, MUCH ADO ABOUT MURDER, the ingenious script is a reworking of Vincent Price's previous Dr. Phibes movies. This time substituting nine murders from Shakespeare's plays for the nine plagues of the Pharaoh's, THEATER OF BLOOD (1973) also deals with Price's character having suffered a wrong and revenging himself in an elaborately staged fashion. The methods by which Price gains this retribution are as they were in the previous two PHIBES pictures; very ornate yet exaggerated to the extreme. This is one of the funniest aspects of the movie. Lionheart is constantly one step ahead of everybody including the authorities, another conceit "borrowed" from the PHIBES films. No matter what the police do, they either arrive too soon, too late, or fall prey to a decoy from the devious Lionheart.

Vincent Price gets to "ham it up", going all out in his sinister role as Edward Lionheart. So many critics and fans alike had accused Price of grossly overacting in his movies and here, he gets to play a characterization that is somewhat autobiographical of that charge. He relished this role lending him the opportunity to lash out at those same critics that lambasted him throughout his career in film. Price also was excited to perform Shakespeare, being a huge fan of the man's work. Vincent was a theatrical and Broadway performer before he got roles in Hollywood productions. Prior to the filming of THEATER OF BLOOD (1973), Price was to have went back to the theater in Missouri for the summer, but the schedule for the United Artists film prevented that. Price had become increasingly disenchanted with AIP, and at first, he saw this production as more of the same.

Getting to work with so many big names of the time as well as the juicy character he would be playing encouraged Price that this production might not be so bad after all. Not only did the role of Lionheart become one of Price's most endearing, but he would also meet the love of his life-- actress, Coral Brown, who played one of the critics in the film. Not only does Price get to show a great deal of range, he gets to don numerous costumes for each of the elaborately repulsive, but tongue in cheek murders. From an androgynous hairdresser, to a gravedigger and a devilish chef for a television program entitled 'This Is Your Dish', Vincent Price indulges his spirited and bubbly personality giving life to one of the best horror films of all time.

Diana Rigg, a British born theater, television and movie actress, was famous for her role as Emma Peel on the British spy tv show, THE AVENGERS. She is also remembered for her role as James Bond's wife in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969). In THEATER OF BLOOD (1973), Rigg plays Lionheart's daughter, Edwina. She, too, gets to slip into various costume changes. It becomes apparent just what capacity her character is playing early on although I must admit, when I first saw this movie years ago on the Late Show, I was oblivious to what her true purpose was. Rigg has nothing but fond memories of working with Price on the set of the film.

One of the most interesting plot devices in the picture is that when Lionheart kills off the self serving critics, each of the nine individuals shares character traits with the victims from the Bard's plays. What's especially interesting, is that the selection of Shakespeare's works were personally selected by Lionheart during his crusade for the Best Actor Award prior to his death. As fate would have it, each of the nine plays contained roles concurrent with his nine victims to be. What's even more complex is the multifaceted way in which Lionheart goes about his revenge. Several victims are seemingly set up at once building to the eventual payoff.

Such is the case with critic, Solomon Psaltery. Lionheart disguises himself as a masseuse and enjoys the company of his wife delivering chiropractical care. A message is delivered to the jealous Solomon that his wife is being unfaithful, and like the play, OTHELLO, Solomon smothers the life out of her with a pillow. For this murder, Lionheart didn't carry out the actual murder, but imposed it on his victim, playing off of his distrustful tendencies.

Easily the most memorable and wholly offensive murder is the "justice" meted out on the gay critic, Meredith Merridew. Here, Lionheart uses the grim and disturbing play, TITUS ANDRONICUS as his bloody template. In the play, one of the many nasty murders features a mother who is force fed her children baked in pies. For the film, Merridew has two poodles that he dotes over like children. Lionheart and crew invade his home under the guise of 'This Is Your Dish' (a fictitious cooking show) whereby Merridew is forced to consume the bodies of his two beloved poodles baked within a huge pie; the heads of the dogs adorning a second pie.

The first murder is also representative of Lionheart's tolerance to make sure his revenge reaches fruition regardless of the time involved. Taken from JULIUS CAESAR, the first doomed critic is cut down by the gang of alcoholic vagrants manipulated by Lionheart to carry out his revenge. Like the play, the murder is carried out on the 'ides of March', the 23rd of March. Lionheart even alters one of Shakespeare's plays without a murder to make sure death takes its intended victim.

Another critic meets his fate taken from a story device found in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. However, the murder never actually takes place. Shylock is denied his pound of flesh by some cunning last minute word play by Antonio. Lustful critic, Trevor Dickman isn't so lucky as Lionheart makes sure to impart the chunk of viscera from his body. Delivering a package to head critic, Perigrine Devlin, he opens it to find Dickman's heart within the box. He then states the murderer is indeed Lionheart as "Only he would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare." At the end, Lionheart is trapped within the confines of his 'theater of blood'. After delivering a final speech then falling to his death amidst the burning and crumbling playhouse, Devlin reviews Lionheart's death much in the same manner as he did while he was alive-- "But of course he was madly overacting as usual...but you must admit, he did know how to make an exit."

The music by Michael J. Lewis is at times melancholic and verbose when required. The main theme is especially melodic containing harmonious passages that captures the sorrow and pain of Lionheart's character. One that despite being an unhinged man, is not without sympathy. The gore is also plentiful and graphic in tone. Considering Price Abhorred the use of graphic bloodletting in films (especially detesting his participation in the nasty gorefest, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM 1988), what is seen in THEATER OF BLOOD (1973) is carried out in a darkly humorous fashion relieving some of the horrific tension the scenes of gruesome violence may have possessed otherwise. Director Hickox had two sons that followed in his footsteps and directed far more entries in the horror and fantasy genre-- James and Anthony Hickox.

MGM has released this title several times over the years on both VHS and DVD. Astonishingly, the VHS tape is of better quality than either of the DVD releases. Both DVD releases (one is paired with Price's MADHOUSE 1974) have lots of grain and some print damage evident throughout. The bold, sharp colors from the VHS version are largely absent in both incarnations on disc. MGM should restore this film to a much better state as it truly deserves it. One of Price's best roles and the horror genres best pictures, THEATER OF BLOOD (1973) is one Midnight Movie experience horror fans are likely to return to again and again and a movie that is justifiably worthy of its cult film admiration.

This review is representative of the MGM Midnite Movies Double Feature DVD.


Sean M said...

One of the true classic British horror films,superior to PHIBES and for me makes Shakespeare palatable.
Possibly Price's best performance.

venoms5 said...

I agree, Sean. I think this is Price's best performance. I've not seen much of his work outside the horror genre, but of those, THEATER OF BLOOD is his best work.

Unknown said...

A better tribute to Shakespeare than Shakespeare in love.

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