31 DAYS OF HORROR #6: Rebecca McCallum on THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973)

Spoilers

Rebecca McCallum – assistant editor of Ghouls Magazine and writer of our very own Hitchcock’s Women series – settles down for a night at the theatre…

Hubble bubble boil and trouble! Following the announcement of the prestigious Critic’s Circle Award, a series of murders relating to the last repertory season of Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) start to occur. Although Lionheart is thought to be dead and cold in the ground, this damned spot refuses to be put out. One-by-one the posse of critics are picked off through a range of vengeful deaths based on the works of the immortal bard. Poodle’s will be baked, trampolines will be bounced upon and a horror legend will bring you a catwalk of costumed delights.

This film holds a particularly fond place in my heart. Price positively sparkles on screen and no work seems to epitomise his eccentric wit and commanding presence more than this: an indulgent spectacle that knows exactly what it is, and – what’s more – screams its gregariousness loud and proud.

While horror often creates a place for deep thinking and deeper emotions, this is a stellar example of how the genre can also be fun, quirky and hilarious. As a life-long Shakespeare fan, I also bask in the premise and the incredible speeches which Price delivers, spanning the canon of the world’s most famous playwright. Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve turned to this film for a slice of escapism, but nothing can compare to watching it communally. I had the great pleasure to experience it with some fellow-horror fans at a special event hosted by the incredible Screaming Queenz Podcast in the basement of an abandoned hardware store: it was everything I’d hoped, and more.

Price was sixty-two when Theatre of Blood was shot, making his physicality as Edward Lionheart even more impressive. In this role (or rather, roles!) he seeks to exact his revenge on the critics who published negative notices of his performances. Despite his obvious delusions about his outdated approach to acting, it’s impossible not to root for him as he plots the downfall of the Critics’ Circle. In their inventiveness – and ability to align with the demise of characters within Shakespeare’s texts – Lionheart’s kill sequences are wonderful to watch for their mix of playfulness and the grotesque. One outstanding scene involves Price emerging from an oversized trunk to perform surgery on his victim whilst having one of the most amusing exchanges as he requests various implements from his assistant.

Another element that enrichens the overall experience of watching the film is the identity switching that Lionheart undertakes. Over the course of 104 minutes Price embodies a parade of the most fantastically camp and delightful characters, including a policeman, a grave digger, Richard III and – perhaps most memorably of all – a hairdresser named Butch.

Director Douglas Hickox also manages to weave in some social commentary on class through the representation of the homeless, who demonstrate they are higher in the humanity stakes than the society that spurned them when they take the rejected Lionheart into their care. By coming together as a collective, the group prove themselves to be a strong, united force that can oppose the ruling establishment who attempt to beat them down. Initially we believe that Lionheart has adopted the homeless community, but in fact the reverse is true: he has been adopted by them. Their dynamic is a complex one however, as although Lionheart provides for them financially there is also a strong sense that he looks down on them when they show no interest in his flamboyant and overtly theatrical performances.

Outside of Price, the wider cast are also terrific with especially remarkable performances by Diana Rigg as Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (a nod to his self-inflated ego and desire for legacy) and Ian Hendry in the role of what I’m calling ‘The Final Critic’, Peregrine Devlin. Similarly the filming locations and overall aesthetic of the film are as much as part of its DNA as the performances. In particular the dilapidated theatre where Lionheart often retreats to recite Shakespeare’s poetry is a magnificent space that in its derelict and unoccupied state acts as a beautifully tragic reflection of his own decaying career. As a masterful actor whose captivating presence draws you in every time he appears onscreen, Price shows that there is no end to his talent as he relishes playing with language, providing an irrepressible number of puns and innuendos, such as ‘It’s a grave tale but I am sure you can rise to the occasion’.

With the net closing in on Lionheart (who the critics now suspect faked his own death) he finds himself coming face-to-face with Devlin, his greatest adversary, in an unforgettable fencing match. It’s one of horror’s rarest treats to see Price and Hendry sparring both physically and verbally whilst balancing on narrow beams and doing summersaults on trampolines. Lionheart threatens Devlin but notably does not carry it through on this occasion. Instead he warns that he is going to make the critic wait, keeping him in a state of agony and suspense.

As entertaining as it is, Theatre of Blood also has the capacity to be incredibly poignant and touching at times, none more so than when a flashback sees Lionheart appear before the Critics Circle in full cape and regalia. Clutching his award (which he is to lose to a young newcomer) he is truly crestfallen. In a cruel response, the critics openly make fun of him as he recites Hamlet’s famous lines ‘To be or not to be’. With a window between the actor and the critics acting as a literal and symbolic divide, Lionheart appears completely broken.

When Devlin eventually finds himself at Lionheart’s recreation of the Critics Circle awards (complete with disco lights and a throne) he is threatened with the same horrific fate of Gloucester in King Lear, as two smoking daggers are set to penetrate his eyeballs. Lionheart takes his place on the throne, holding his award as a final dramatic twist is revealed. In typical Price fashion the climatic scene involves high-drama and theatrics, as flames are thrown and sirens ring out in alarum. Lionheart may be the only one to ‘have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare’ – as Devlin observes – but by the end of Theatre of Blood he makes certain that his theatrical legacy will remain intact forever.

Rebecca McCallum

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