Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Theater of Blood: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Vincent Price.

It was Shakespeare who wrote "the play's the thing". Theater of Blood is something of an homage to The Bard, part horror film, part comedy that is a personal favorite. Witty enough to be self-aware, though at times more violent than maybe necessary, Theater of Blood allows the chance for actors to have fun at critics' expense.

Theater Critics Guild member George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) is brutally murdered at a warehouse he owns by a group of squatters. His death is eerily reminiscent of how Julius Caesar was murdered in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. At last a headline, instead of a byline, quips fellow critic Hector Snipe (Dennis Price). Snipe, however, himself is offed in a manner not unlike another Hector: the Trojan hero in Troilus and Cressida.

Are the members of the Theater Critics Guild being targeted for death? Who would want to kill these critics, and why? As the murders start piling up, TCG head Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) suspects the killer is a dead man. That would be Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart (Vincent Price), a theatrical actor who jumped off Devlin's balcony after a confrontation with the Guild. He had gone there to collect the Best Actor award Lionheart was convinced he deserved by right. Never mind that his Shakespearean performances were always so broad and hammy. He, in his mind, was a theatrical genius. Despite Lionheart's daughter Edwina's (Diana Rigg) pleas, Edward recites Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy to the mocking critics before plunging to his death.

Or did he? Could Edward Lionheart be alive? Certainly not alive are more critics. Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) finds himself headless like Cymbeline's Cloten. Randy Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) is given a leading role in a revamped Merchant of Venice where Shylock gets his way. More crimes inspired by Richard III, Henry the Sixth Part 1 and Titus Andronicus all leave Inspector Boot (Milo O'Shea) and his loyal aide Detective Dogg (Eric Sykes) flummoxed. It will take a lot of twists and turns until our King Lear meets his end.

Like Edward Lionheart, Vincent Price never got much if any respect from critics. Like Edward Lionheart, Vincent Price was going deep into camp in Theater of Blood. However, unlike Lionheart, Price neatly balanced the grandiosity of the character with an almost gleeful comedic touch. Price manages to be both firmly in on the joke and still deliver surprisingly strong dramatic monologues. The Hamlet monologue is delivered perfectly straight, with a strong, dramatic manner that is surprisingly moving. Yes, Price is far too old to play the part, but he would work wonders in an audio recording.

Moreover, Price has perfectly funny moments by keeping things mostly straight. The Sprout killing is a fine example of this. As he dons medical gear, he at one point calls out "BASIN!" when blood starts spouting uncontrollably. As his assistant procures one quickly, Price gives an eye roll that is true to the character while still being funny. Price has the right amount of hammy and serious, making this an impressive performance.

Part of me suspects that Price was having a ball in Theater of Blood. He could recite Shakespeare and recite it extremely well. He could also indulge in being simply outrageous. One of Theater of Blood's wildest moments is when we see a literally wigged out Vincent Price as flamboyant hairdresser "Butch". While the film does not skimp out completely on the horror of this killing, the whacked-out sight of Price in a hippie-like outfit and Afro has to be tongue-in-cheek. 

Theater of Blood is a horror-comedy based on the trailer, which bills the actors playing critics as "Guest Victims". Each actor gets a little bit as the murders average every ten minutes. Some can be quite horrifying, but they are not graphic. 

A fine standout is Diana Rigg as the loyal daughter. In one sequence, she is a playful sex kitten in order to lure a victim to her father's lair. She too, however, can recite Shakespeare well. Rigg also does mostly balance the at times overdramatic moments with the horror elements. Her confrontation with Devlin early on is a bit broad, but I think that was the role, so I am not too harsh.

The most curious element in Douglas Hickox's film is Michael J. Lewis' score. Theater of Blood has a lush, romantic score that plays counterpoint to the sometimes violent and loopy imagery. Going back to the Cymbeline recreation, Lewis' music is quite romantic and elegant. It is almost bizarre to hear this beautiful music playing as someone is having their head sawed off. 

Theater of Blood is a great way for actors to get their resentments about critics out. What actor has not imagined going after critics or organizations that did not give them acting awards? Price as Lionheart has a long rant about the trials and tribulations of the actor to Devlin, and one wonders if the actors were nodding along. Perhaps at times Anthony Greville-Bell's screenplay (based on an idea by Stanley Mann and John Kohn) is a bit too much on the nose about the Shakespearean connections. The Julius Caesar-inspired murder takes place on March 15, with a wife who has dreamt of a violent death. The swishy characters of Butch and Meredith Merridew probably would be issues today. 

Those are minor points. Theater of Blood is entertaining, amusing and delightfully gruesome. 


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