An Actor’s Revenge: Theatre of Blood (1973)

THEATRE OF BLOOD

To view Theatre of Blood click here.

“It was a marvelous role because I got to play eight Shakespearean parts in it, which is a feast for any actor. And I got to knock off eight critics. It was a story dear to the heart of any old actor. It was a dream to make and very real to me. I really understand the man who is doing his very best and yet is unrecognized.” – Vincent Price, discussing his starring role in Theatre of Blood (1973) from The Price of Fear: The Film Career of Vincent Price, In His Own Words by Joel Eisner

In 1970 Vincent Price became discouraged by the state of his career. He was acting regularly, writing cookbooks, appearing on stage and in a variety of television programs while generously supporting the arts as a member of the Royal Society of Arts, the Arts Council of UCLA and the Fine Arts Committee of the White House, but he agonized over his reputation. According to his daughter Victoria Price and author of Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, her father worried that he wasn’t taken seriously by his fellow actors due to his career choices. The lack of respect from his peers encouraged the 60-year-old actor to embrace the monstrous roles he had made famous. From mad doctors to witch hunters and a plethora of Poe villains and antiheroes, Price had perfected the role of a sympathetic scoundrel.

To nurture his waning pride, Price embarked on an impressive college lecture tour titled “The Villains Still Pursue Me” where he discussed the various literary villains of Shakespeare, Poe and Shaw along with his film roles. He approached the subject as a Yale scholar (Price graduated from Yale with a degree in art history in 1933) and a fan, praising the type of characters that had made him a household name while analyzing their appeal. Price hoped his lecture would cultivate critical admiration for his unsung talents, particularly among youth who were more generous in their attitudes towards horror cinema. It might seem gratuitous for an aging actor to launch what was basically a self-promotional tour as he reluctantly marches into his twilight years but it illustrates how significant and influential criticism can be. If critics had lavished praise as well as awards on the Grand Guignol films made by Universal Studios and creatives like William Castle, Roger Corman and Michael Reeves, would Vincent Price have felt the need to go on tour to salvage his reputation? Probably not. For better or worse, critics wield power and they’ve never been particularly fond of horror movies. In turn, many of our best filmmakers, as well as the actors they work with, have had to fight for respect in an industry that too often neglects them.

A few years after his lecture tour, Price challenged critics in a much more direct and amusing way while making Theatre of Blood (1973). In this pitch black British horror comedy currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of “The Lives of Actors “ theme, Price plays a Shakespearean actor named Edward Lionheart. When a critic’s group refuses to acknowledge Lionheart’s talents, the aggrieved thespian seeks revenge with help from his daughter (Diana Rigg) and a band of vagrants called “Meths Drinkers.” Together they dispatch of the critics by enacting gruesome scenes inspired by the Bard’s plays.

THEATRE OF BLOOD

Theatre of Blood is aided by a razor-sharp script written by Anthony Greville-Bell (Perfect Friday [1970], The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie [1972], The God King [1974]) packed full of puns and innuendoes. The jokes allow Price’s jovial personality to shine and he hams things up quite a bit but there is a pathos at play accentuated by the film’s melancholy theme composed by Michael J. Lewis (The Man Who Haunted Himself [1970], Julius Caesar [1970], Unman, Wittering and Zigo [1971]). The neo-Elizabethan soundtrack, with its weeping mandolin chords and sweeping orchestration, keeps viewers mindful of the tragedy underscoring the gallows humor. We laugh with Edward Lionheart while being appalled by his behavior but he demands our empathy as well. Who among us hasn’t been hurt by criticism and wanted to lash out at the offending party? Thankfully most of us don’t end up committing murder, but many viewers will be able to sympathize with Lionheart’s desire for revenge and the creative execution of his crimes.

The film was directed by Douglas Hickox, an underrated talent who helmed a batch of quirky, smart and entertaining films between 1960 and 1980 including The Giant Behemoth (1959), Les bicyclettes de Belsize (1969), Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970), Sitting Target (1972) and Sky Riders (1976). Theatre of Blood benefits from Hickox’s ability to tackle dark comedy mixed with biting social commentary. I hope FilmStruck will make more of his films available in the future because the director deserves to be better known outside of Britain and many of his best films are not available on video or DVD in the US. A double feature of Theatre of Blood paired with Entertaining Mr. Sloane would be very welcome. Both films are unapologetically campy and loaded with edgy barbs.

THEATRE OF BLOOD

Although there is plenty of talent behind the camera, Theatre of Blood is particularly noteworthy for the talent on screen. The cast is made up of great British stage actors including Jack Hawkins and Robert Coote who appeared in The League of Gentlemen (1960), which I spotlighted a few weeks ago along with Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [1965], Anne of the Thousand Days [1969], Barry Lyndon (1975]), Robert Morley (Major Barbara {1941], The African Queen [1951], Oscar Wilde [1960]), Harry Andrews (Moby Dick [1956], The Agony and the Ecstasy [1965], Entertaining Mr. Sloane [1970]), Ian Hendry (Room at the Top [1959], Repulsion [1965], Get Carter [1971]), Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets [1949], School for Scoundrels [1960], Victim (1961]), Milo O’Shea (Ulysses [1967], Romeo and Juliet [1968], Barbarella [1968]) and Coral Browne (Auntie Mame [1958], Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone [1961], The Ruling Class [1972]). In an interesting turn of events, Vincent Price and Coral Browne reportedly fell in love on the set of Theatre of Blood after being formally introduced by their young costar, Diana Rigg (The Avengers [1965-1968], A Midsummer Night’s Dream [1968], On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [1969]). At the time, Price was married to costume designer Mary Grant but the two were divorced after Theatre of Blood was released. Price married Coral Browne soon afterward and the two remained together until her death in 1991.

While watching Theatre of Blood it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining the career Vincent Price could have had on stage. He delivers Shakespeare’s eloquent lines with ease and his appreciation for the language is undeniable. I am always moved by his interpretation of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy and Price makes an impressive Shylock but why focus on what ‘could have been’ when there’s so much to enjoy in this 104-minute feature? The film may not have earned Price much critical praise when it was released and it never won any awards but it does contain one of the actor’s finest and most robust performances. He occasionally referred to it as his favorite role and it’s easy to understand why. In a career that lasted more than 50-years, Price had many memorable parts but Theatre of Blood gave him the opportunity to directly address his critics while having fun at their (and his) expense.

Kimberly Lindbergs

6 Responses An Actor’s Revenge: Theatre of Blood (1973)
Posted By EricJ : April 27, 2017 6:37 am

Although it’s a little less pretentious if (as Price fans do) you count it as the unofficial “third” movie in Price’s trilogy following 1971′s The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a classic mod/tongue-in-cheek horror movie with Price also as a scheming villain out for revenge with a string of themed murders against his collective enemies in a stylized retro-20′s London. (Dr. Phibes Rises Again wasn’t as fortunate, lacking the unique plot of the first movie and the style and humor Robert Fuest had brought to the Avengers ’67 series.) Phibes’s sidekick was a sexy silent femme-fatale in the spirit of Fu Manchu’s daughter, and in Theatre, it’s Diana Rigg who carries on the tradition as Price’s deadlier-than-the-male partner in crime.
Theatre is set in contemporary London, but still follows the Phibes formula of a Price madman too sympathetic and ingeniously artistic to hate, to the point that we’re almost rooting for him to avenge his grudge. Taken out of context, it’s a nice “actor statement”, but put together with the first movie, it’s a clever updating, even if director Hickox isn’t quite as tongue-in-cheek as Fuest was about the gruesome.

Posted By Denise Holland : April 27, 2017 10:03 am

I first saw this movie when I was approximately twelve years old that would make the year 1980. I think, if memory serves me, the title sequence was what first drew me in. The music and silent film footage is supremely moving and haunting. I have been a film buff for almost as long as I can remember and once I was drawn in by the introduction of this fantastic film I was hooked. The more it went on the faster I fell in love with Vincent Price and was smitten with him from that time. This man, this genius in multiple endeavors, in my opinion was never given his do. I made a point to see and have now collected most of his films. Mister Price could ham it up when he felt the need or could act with great reserve when it was called for. He could do anything and the production would be all the better for it. Theater of Blood still remains my favorite but there are so many that I love.I’m happy to see this article and I will now go pull this movie from my shelf and watch it again. Thank you for bringing attention to this wonderfully dark, witty and under-appreciated gem!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 27, 2017 2:10 pm

EricJ – I avoided mentioning the Phibes films only because they’ve been written about ad nauseum on this blog, including a piece I wrote last year about director Robert Fuest that you might find interesting (a search will bring up much more): http://streamline.filmstruck.com/2016/05/26/robert-fuest-his-abominable-creations/

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 27, 2017 2:17 pm

Denise – Glad you enjoyed the post. I first saw the film when I was a kid too and fell in love with it. On a related side note, I visited Kensal Green cemetery where THEATRE OF BLOOD was shot when I was in London in 2001 and it was an incredible place. Very eerie and you can still see the beautiful grave stone that inspired the Edward Lionheart & Edwina monument in the film. If you’re a fan of BLOOD and find yourself in the area, I highly recommend a visit there!

Posted By Emgee : April 27, 2017 3:15 pm

“Vincent Price and Coral Browne reportedly fell in love on the set of Theatre of Blood.”

Diana Rigg told a nice anecdote about this. Browne had told her that she thought Price was extremely handsome. Shorly afterwards Price asked Rigg what she thought he could buy Coral Browne for her birthday. “Well”, Rigg told him “i’ve got an idea what you could give her, and it won’t cost you a cent.” Priceless! (sorry)

Posted By EricJ : April 27, 2017 8:37 pm

@Kimberly – Ah. The Fuest column was probably before I got here.
Still, gotta admit, the first Phibes and Theatre ARE great films to talk about, for similar reasons.. :)

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