Posted: 3/10/00

Theatre of Blood
by Jon Bastian


Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Murder, Mayhem and Shakespeare. What more could you want in a film?


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In a career that spanned nearly sixty years, Vincent Price appeared in well over hundred and twenty films and guest-starred on countless TV shows. His work ranged from period drama to comedy, but he's best remembered, and most associated with, horror films, thanks to his work with Roger Corman in a series of quickly shot, very loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's works. There was always something bigger than life about Price on the screen, and he managed to be menacing and charming at the same time. He was one of those actors whose voice was instantly recognizable and unique, and it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that he was not born on some British estate, but was a native of St. Louis, Missouri.

But Price was much more than just an actor. He went to Yale, published a cookbook and several volumes of art criticism, and created a gallery and art foundation at East Los Angeles Community College that still exists, almost fifty years later. Sadly, we lost him forever in 1993, but his work will live on, and quite a lot of it is worth many repeat viewings.

One of my favorite Vincent Price films is 1973's Theatre of Blood, one of the funniest and goriest camp horror comedies ever created. Featuring an all-star cast and a great premise, it's the perfect party movie -- or an ideal rental for a dark and stormy night when you want to scare yourself silly and laugh at the same time.

Price plays Edward Lionheart, arrogant Shakespearean actor who lost out on the Inner Critic's Circle Award and, apparently, offed himself by taking a really high dive into the Thames. When the offending critics suddenly start dying in really nasty ways, it becomes obvious that Lionheart isn't as dead as they thought, and when Lionheart's homicides are lifted, in order, from his last season of Shakespeare, we know we're in for a grisly treat. It's always fun to watch folks in the know watch the movie and cringe at the following dialogue: "Which play is next on the list?" "'Titus Andronicus...'"

Of course, the premise brings another treat with it, and that treat is watching Price do Shakespeare and do it well. He covers a huge range of characters here, from Richard III to Shylock and a bit of everything in between. Not only do we get the Shakespeare everyone knows, but more obscure works, like "Cymbeline" and "Troilus & Cressida" pop up. The script is very intelligent, well written and funny.

The serial killer as premise is nothing new in film, but it's rarely done well. Frequently, we're reduced to screaming victims running around in the dark until they get smacked in the head with a pitchfork or somesuch instrument of mayhem. Where's the fun in that? There's a sub-genre of serial killer films that I like to think of as the "know thy victim" school. That is, the killer knows the psychology of their intended victims so well that he or she is able to make them walk blindly into the death trap even when they think they're avoiding it. The advantage to this approach is that we aren't stuck with a bunch of stupid cardboard cutouts getting bumped off. The sheep are shying away from the slaughter, so the villain has to work a lot harder. Consequently, the audience is much more involved. When films like this work, they can be brilliant, and Theatre of Blood is such a film. The critics know a killer is after them. They take steps to avoid becoming the next corpse. It doesn't matter, because they're each lured with the one piece of bait they can't resist. An alcoholic critic is invited to a wine tasting and goes the way of Clarence in "Richard III." A lecherous critic follows a mini-skirted woman to an "experimental" version of "Merchant of Venice" and pays up his pound of flesh. In one of the film's nicest twists, Lionheart turns one of his targets into Othello and lets him do the killing, and by far the funniest and sickest moment is when Robert Morley sits down to dinner, having no idea that he's been cast as Queen Tamora from "Titus Andronicus." Yum, yum.

Be warned, though, that the film is extremely gory, even by today's standards, and the special effects are not for the squeamish. We get stabbings, electrocution, the removal of a heart from a still living body, a leisurely decapitation and all the other things that make the Bard worth watching. (Hated the recent Midsummer Night's Dream. Loved Titus.) All of it is presented in very glossy cinematography, and the film was shot in and around the permanently gray but shiny London of the mid-70's, before they fucked it up with modern ideas about architecture and decimal currency. The cast is excellent. Besides the chameleonic Price, we have the always fabulous Diana Rigg taking on just as many roles. Coral Browne (Mrs. Price at the time) does a memorable turn (and gets done to a turn) as the only female critic. As other victims, Michael Hordern, Robert Morley, Diana Dors, Harry Andrews, Arthur Lowe and Dennis Price, among others, fret and strut their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more, and Milo O'Shea and Ian Hendry are the investigating constable and "nice" critic who manage to miss all of Lionheart's performances.

I briefly entertained the thought, "What if they remade this movie now, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead?" Then I thought, nah. The original Theatre of Blood was a perfect collision of cast, time and place, and I doubt that anyone could do it right again. It's not a classic in the sense of Casablanca or Citizen Kane, but it is a classic popcorn movie that's survived the test of time for a lot of good reasons. The most obvious reason of all is Vincent Price. If Hopkins played Lionheart, the film would just be dark and scary. Vincent Price always managed to bring humanity -- and hence, the audience -- into any film in which he appeared, even when he played a psychotic mass murderer. Such was his personality and his talent, the likes of which we won't soon see again.

Luckily, we have his films, and we have Theatre of Blood.
Jon Bastian, a native and resident of Los Angeles, is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.

Got a problem? Email Jon at filmmonthly@hotmail.com