Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) – a prideful classical actor who refuses to act in anything but the works of The Bard – is professionally and personally destroyed by a scornful group of theatre critics who refuse to award him the Critic’s Circle Award he covets. Never knowingly prone to underselling a performance Lionheart apparently commits suicide in the wake of this humiliation. Unbeknown to the critics who savaged his reputation with glee in newsprint, Lionheart survives and plots elaborate revenge, murdering the Critic’s Circle members in gruesome and baroque scenarios derived the work of Shakespeare.
Along with Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man, 1973’s Theatre of Blood is one of the finest British horror films of the period. Those who approach it expecting a camp classic in the mode of the two Dr. Phibes films (which Price starred in right before this) are in for a rude shock. Theatre of Blood is a very grim and grotesque picture. The opening murder is genuinely upsetting, as an elderly critic (Michael Hordern) is lured into a derelict building where he is trapped inside and hacked to death by a group of meths quaffing vagrants in a re-enactment of the death of Julius Caesar. Subsequent killings often attain a level of Grand Guignol gallows humour, but they are also extremely painful: it isn’t a huge stretch to see Douglas Hickox’ film as an influence on Se7en.
Hickox was a jobbing director who had risen up the ranks as a second unit and assistant director, moving on to direct some notable films such as Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Brannigan with John Wayne, and Zulu Dawn. This is by far the best movie on his carried CV, unlike the more comic book stylings of the Dr. Phibes films, Hickox and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who also shot Get Carter) ground the film in a London that feels real and grimy. This and the stygian humour of the piece make Theatre of Blood a great double bill with Hitchcock’s Frenzy.
The excellent screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell (a former SAS officer who served colourfully in World War 2) is literate and cunning, hiding a sharp satirical edge that draws blood. The film’s unjust reputation as a campy throwaway may rest in part in the glee with which it tramples on the British establishment. The authorities are bumbling fools, the critics’ vice-ridden upper class twits (with the exception of Ian Hendry’s pseudo-hero Peregrine Devlin); the agents of Lionheart’s devilish plans are a proletariat audience whose senses are sozzled on cheap tonic wine. Against these grotesqueries the vainglorious Lionheart attains a kind of monstrous dignity.
As the members of comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen note on a blu ray commentary track (included in last year’s Arrow reissue of the film), Lionheart is often described in reviews as a ham actor, but this isn’t at all accurate. The film is clear, he is a serious Shakespearian thespian, but his rigid adherence to classical traditions of drama and high-minded dismissal of anything modern make him the butt of critical scorn (Lionheart memorably describes the method actor who wins his coveted critic’s prize as “a twitching, mumbling boy, who can barely grunt his way through an incomprehensible performance!”) Price is great fun in the role, seizing on the opportunity to deliver Shakespeare with clear relish. The rest of the cast is top notch, made up of great British actors all giving their all (considering the state of the British film industry at the time, they were most likely glad of the work). Diana Rigg is also excellent as Lionheart’s daughter, and their relationship adds a few drops of tragedy to the comedy and horror.
Alongside functioning as a grand guignol horror film Theatre of Blood is a surprisingly provocative meditation on the role of the critic and an exposé of cultural hypocrisy worth of Hogarth.
This review originally appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/