Running time: 104 min.
Release date: April 5, 1973
If you're a B-movie horror film buff, then you're widely aware of the body of work left by the great Vincent Price. From characters such as Dr. Phibes and his various interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe, Price made himself synonymous with the horror genre. Some of these even bordered on comedy, although of the dark variety. If you have watched a horror film that contained Price in the cast, and you laughed at something you know that you shouldn't, then you just experienced a black comedy. Theatre of Blood falls in that category, and provides the viewer with what may be Vincent Price's most definitive performance.
Price plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean stage actor who had been thought to be dead. He is very much alive, however, and plots revenge on the snooty circle of critics who maligned his various performances. One by one, each critic meets their fate through elaborately-staged machinations that are based on deaths found in the works of William Shakespeare. Lionheart is assisted in his scheme by a horde of homeless derelicts who stand by to applaud their master's soliloquies. The plot is very similar to the plots found in the films The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, with the difference here being that the campiness of Phibes is slightly reined in and leaves room for some gore.
Director Douglas Hickox provides Theatre of Blood with wit and style while simultaneously providing each intricate murder scene with a sense of madness. The story is told logically, as it progresses through each critic's demise, then providing us with a backstory in the middle portion, told through flashback. The screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell is filled with intelligent dialogue, dry humor, and of course, the best of Shakespeare. Adding another element to the filming was the fact that it was completely shot on location rather than in a studio, providing a natural atmosphere throughout.
The highlight, however, is the casting, With Vincent Price in the lead, he gets to intentionally overact and chew the scenery, as he recites passages from Shakespeare while simultaneously committing heinous acts of unspeakable torture and murder. Price plays a madman with aplomb while at the same time providing the necessary dignity required of a true Shakespearean actor. Diana Rigg, as Lionheart's daughter Edwina, should get credit for providing a decidedly secretive turn. The circle of critic are played by some of the best actors in England at the time, who were probably attracted to the project thanks to the literate screenplay. They all give appropriately witty and snobby performances and are quite up to the task when it comes to the fates of their characters.
A couple of the elaborate murder scenes are played for some pretty dark laughs, such as Lionheart posing as a flamboyant hairdresser named "Butch" and a scene where he poses as a television chef. The elaborate murder scenes in the latter half of the film certainly do not lack in creativity, and veer more toward comedy than they do horror, which is a bit of a detriment to the overall work. The final scene of the film is a most appropriate and satisfying climax, as we watch Price giving it his all right up to the very end.
Both Price and Rigg have gone on record as saying Theatre of Blood is their favorite film they have worked on. It's not hard to see why; intelligent and witty, humorous and horrifying, the cast all appear to be enjoying themselves. Price seems in his element in various disguises, and based on one scene, he would have made a fine surgeon. Theatre of Blood should go down as Vincent Price's best work and is highly recommended.
Theatre of Blood: A screenplay that is literate and witty, with surprising amounts of gore, and a brilliant Vincent Price at the top of his game. Some near-campy scenes may take some viewers out of it, but they are played for black comedy and fall in line with the tone of the film. ****