The enjoyably nasty Theatre of Blood is one of Vincent Price’s best shockers, not only because of the droll storyline—an actor murders his critics—but because Price gets to demonstrate so many colors in his dramatic spectrum. Although once again consigned to incarnating a homicidal madman, the horror-cinema legend also “plays” several key characters from the Shakespearean canon, because each of his crimes is themed to a particular work by the Bard. Thus, rather than merely speechifying about how he’s been wronged by the world—the usual mode for Price’s villains—the character of Edward Lionheart performs snippets from Hamlet (“To be or not to be”), Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen”), and so on. It’s apparent that Price is having a blast, and his good cheer makes up for the overall gruesomeness of the movie.
Plus, while director Douglas Hickock can’t match the high style of other ’70s filmmakers who worked with Price (notably Robert Fuest, who made the gonzo Dr. Phibes movies, to which the storyline of Theatre of Blood owes a considerable debt), Hickock benefits from an exemplary supporting cast. Diana Rigg plays Lionheart’s daughter/accomplice, and actors portraying Lionheart’s “guest victims” (as they’re billed in the trailer) include such venerable Brits as Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, and Robert Morley.
The story begins with Lionheart suffering the final humiliation of an unsatisfying career: Critics deny him the award he longed to win for his farewell season. Lionheart tries to kill himself but survives, then finds a hiding place and schemes, along with various murderous helpers, to kill each of his detractors in spectacular fashion. The bloody deaths involve cannibalism, decapitation, dismemberment, and other such horrors; as a result, Theatre of Blood lives up to its title with a fair amount of stomach-churning gore. Thankfully, the grimy stuff is complemented with a measure of wit. However, the storyline is quite episodic, so depending on one’s taste for bloodshed or Shakespeare (or both), the pattern of outlandish murders might seem repetitious after a while.
What keeps the movie watchable, therefore, is Price’s giddy flamboyance. Masterfully employing his singular voice and rearranging his elastic features into masks of artistic anguish or sadistic glee, as the scene demands, Price plays for the cheap seats in every scene, somehow managing to simultaneously deliver a credible performance and spoof his reputation for hammy showboating. Although Theatre of Blood never quite rises above its fright-cinema constraints, the way the Dr. Phibes movies did with their perverse campiness, the movie is a treat for fans of offbeat horror films and, of course, for devotees of Price’s unique screen persona.
Theatre of Blood: GROOVY