Theatre Of Blood Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of Theatre Of Blood.

If I were making a list of the most sheerly enjoyable movies ever made, Theatre of Blood would be somewhere near the top. As a film, it’s average at best but as a full-blooded Gothic horror vehicle for Vincent Price and some wonderful 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 23rd. 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 “Cymbeline”.

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 from “The Merchant of Venice”, and 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 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.

But such serious concerns are incidental to the main pleasure of the film, namely the set-piece murders. The visual effects, by John Stears, are excellent considering the low budget of the film and the vast quantities of blood are used to inspired effect. I am always slightly surprised at how gory this film is for its period and in some respects it seems to point forward to the bloody slasher films of a few years later. 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 another actor. Special mentions must go to Arthur Lowe, trapped in a marriage from hell with Joan Hickson, the amusingly lascivious Harry Andrews, and Coral Browne who only did the film for the money but ended up marrying Vincent Price. 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.

Admittedly, the film is a little too long and the scenes with Hendry and Diana Rigg, playing Lionheart’s daughter, are dispensible. But Douglas Hickox generally keeps the pace going and makes the most of his cast and his script without producing many memorable visual moments. The main weakness is the ending. It’s almost as though, following Morley’s death, the screenwriter has run out of ideas and is simple trying to wrap things up as quickly as possible. Price works hard and generates some genuine sympathy in the final moments, but it has to be said that the climax is a let-down. Otherwise, this is a gruesome treat that will delight both fans of pulp horror and lovers of Shakespeare.

The Disc

This is a bare bones release from MGM in their “Midnite Movie” range. Luckily, this is reflected in the price and all things considered, it’s not bad at all.

The picture is presented in letterbox 1.66:1 format. It looks to me like this film was open matte, comparing this to my fullscreen video copy, but the presentation is adequate. There are no major problems with artifacting and the image is reasonably detailed if not always as sharp as I would have liked. There is some texturing visible throughout the film, but this is largely due to the age and condition of the film.

The soundtrack is English Mono, reflecting the original recording of the film. This is perfectly acceptable. The music sounds sharp and clear and the dialogue is usually audible. Some lines sound a little muddy but otherwise there is little to complain about.

The only extra on the disc is the original trailer. Now this is rather odd. The film looks fine at 1.66:1 but the trailer is fullscreen and looks as if it has been cropped from a 1.85:1 original, cutting off the names of the cast. It’s also worth pointing out that the trailer gives away many key moments of the film and should not be watched if you want to see the film unspoiled.

A thoroughly enjoyable film has received a perfunctory but acceptably priced DVD release. Horror fans will lap this up but there is enough intelligence and amusement to appeal to a wider audience as well.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Oct 30, 2001

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