Theatre of Blood Review
In a list of the most enjoyable movies ever made, Theatre of Blood would be somewhere near the top. As a piece of filmmaking, it's perfectly competent in a workmanlike sort of way but as a full-blooded Gothic horror vehicle for Vincent Price and some revered English character actors, it's simply wonderful. It never makes the mistake of being remotely realistic or credible, relying instead on outrageous hamming, genuinely witty dialogue and deliciously bloody murders to keep the critical faculties at bay.
Vincent Price, in his own favourite film, plays Edward Lionheart, an actor who has devoted his life to Shakespeare, refusing to appear in anything else. This has not endeared him to the national newspaper critics who have spent years ridiculing and belittling him in public. He thus decides to get his own back in typically baroque style by slaughtering each of his tormentors in ways derived from Shakespeare plays. George Maxwell (Hordern) is the first to go, hacked to pieces by the squatters on his Bermondsey housing development while Price stands watching, quoting from Julius Caesar. Appropriately enough, Maxwell dies on March 15th. Hector Snipe (Price) has an unfortunate encounter with a spear, fashioned after his namesake's fate in Troilus And Cressida, and makes a subsequent appearance at Maxwell's funeral, dragged behind a horse. As the police, led by Inspector Boot (O'Shea), remain baffled and the head of the Critics' Circle, Peregrine Devlin (Hendry) attempts to find and stop Lionheart, the murders continue in ever more gleeful ways which it would be unfair to reveal. Suffice to say that gorehounds will not be disappointed by the rewrite to The Merchant Of Venice or the interesting modernisation of a key moment from Henry VI Part I
Each murder allows Price to have fun with various disguises, notably Richard III complete with hump, a French chef and a camp hairdresser called Butch. He also gets to deliver plenty of Shakespeare, some of it rather creditably and probably too well for the old ham actor he is portraying. I particularly liked his delivery of Shylock's denunciation of Antonio and a lovely extract from Cymbeline - his "To be or not to be" isn't bad either. But what he captures beautifully is the combination of desperation and dignity that defines old actors, their tenacious clinging onto the wreckage of their careers while younger talents supercede them. Lionheart does terrible things but we can't help thinking that, perhaps, the critics deserve what's coming to them. The film manages to say some penetrating things about the power of the critic to destroy as well as praise and Price is surprisingly touching when responding to the slights he reads – “My reputation…” he sighs after quoting another derogatory review.
But for many viewers, the main pleasure of the film will be the set-piece murders. Certainly, I saw the film for the first time as part of a BBC 2 Horror Double Bill in 1981 and it made an indelible impression – though to be fair, I was so hooked on horror as an adolescent that I even liked I Don’t Want to Be Born. The first murder, set in the squalor of an abandoned building, is genuinely unnerving as Hordern’s bluster crumbles in the face of a group of itinerants armed to the teeth with broken bottles and meat cleavers. The tone lightens from then on but there’s still a lot of tension when, for example, Dennis Price is alone in the bowels of the theatre reading Lionheart’s scrapbook and everyone familiar with Shakespeare is wondering what horrors could be in store for him. That is the beauty of the concept of course – Shakespeare understood both the value of horror and the importance of the build-up so he’s an inexhaustible source for this kind of thing.
The visual effects, credited to Hammer veteran John Stears, are excellent considering the low budget of the film – give or take a dodgy papier mache head - and the vast quantities of blood are used to inspired effect. The film is relatively gory for its period – on a par with Scars of Dracula in the British horror vein - and in some respects it seems to point forward to the bloody slasher films of a few years later where the raison d’etre is as much the methods of killing as the killings themselves. Few of those films had the benefit of a cast like this though. All the familiar faces are on top form, although it's slightly sad to see the once so elegant Dennis Price in his cups at the end of his career and Jack Hawkins ravaged by throat cancer and dubbed by either Robert Rietty or Charles Gray. Special mentions must go to the amusingly lascivious Harry Andrews, Coral Browne - who only did the film for the money but ended up marrying Vincent Price - Arthur Lowe, trapped in a marriage from hell with Joan Hickson, Parenthetically, it’s always amused me that in this film, Miss Marple is married to Captain Mainwaring and in her next, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, she’s married to Sergeant Wilson. But the greatest moment of the film is the hamming contest between Price and Robert Morley. Morley, bigger than ever and a vision in pink, is a joy to watch and his demise is the most sadistically inventive in the film. Dog lovers, however, may well want to skip it.
The film is perhaps a little too long and the scenes with Hendry and Diana Rigg, playing Lionheart's daughter, tend to drift. One could also complain that the Othello scene is a bit of cheat in the terms laid down by the story. The ending is also something of a rushed disappointment, as if the ingenuity of Morley’s demise had taxed the screenwriters to their limit. Vincent Price saves the day though and turns Lionheart into a marvellously Shakespearean tragic hero in the final moments. Douglas Hickox, a useful journeyman known for Brannigan and Zulu Dawn, generally keeps the pace going and makes the most of his cast and the bountifully witty script. This is his best film, a gruesome treat that will delight both fans of pulp horror and lovers of Shakespeare.
Theatre of Blood was not particularly well served on DVD as the MGM disc featured a mediocre transfer. Arrow’s Blu-Ray is, consequently, something of a revelation.
The film is presented at a ratio of 1.66:1 which is certainly a matter for debate as most cinemas would have shown it in either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1, but it’s perfectly acceptable to my eyes. The quality of the transfer is quite excellent, coming from a high quality master and demonstrating superb colours and detail throughout. The textures are particularly splendid – you can see every inch of make-up on Vincent Price’s face during the murder scenes and the colours and materials of the clothes are unusually vivid. The fine layer of grain gives a film-like appearance throughout . There is still a small amount of very minor damage on display but nothing to spoil the overall effect.
As usual, Arrow respect the intentions of the filmmakers by providing a faithful audio track. The lossless dual mono presentation is clear and clean, albeit with dialogue that seems a little low in the mix at times. Michael J. Lewis’ brilliant music score comes across particularly well along with some suitably icky sound effects.
The extras are plentiful and definitely add value to the release. The main bonus is a commentary track from the League of Gentlemen – Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson – which is very typical of the style which first delighted me on the release of Blood on Satan’s Claw. If you’re looking for plenty of solid information about the film then you’ll probably be disappointed but if you’re in the mood for excellent chat, some gossip and a lot of good natured laughter then this will prove a delight. One thing though - Brannigan was not filming up the road at the same time as this was being made, for a reason so obvious I won’t spell it out.
We also get a selection of interview features. The best by far is a 17 minute piece with Michael J. Lewis – this was afflicted by a glitch on my review copy but this has been fixed for the final release. Mr Lewis dresses a little bit like Robert Morley in the film and has more than a little of the theatrically camp about him. He says he didn’t have any great interest in the project until he discovered it was a dark comedy whereupon he gave it his all. He is seated at the piano and plays excerpts from the score for us. I’d like to see more of him on another release sometime as I’m rather fond of his scores for films like The Man Who Haunted Himself and North Sea Hijack. We also hear from Victoria Price, the great man’s daughter, Madeleine Smith who plays a secretary in the film and doesn’t seem to have greatly enjoyed the experience, and David Del Valle, a horror historian with a special interest in Price. We also get the original trailer, severely cropped.
As usual, the release is accompanied by a booklet, not provided for review, and a reversible sleeve.