Just when I thought it wasn't possible for me to love Vincent Price more than I already did, along came this absolute gem of a movie into my world. As an English major with a concentration in a Shakespeare, and an unabashed horror fanatic, this film was literally tailor-made for me, and it baffles me that I got this far without ever having seen it.
Fresh off the superb Dr. Phibes movies, Price made this flick, very much in a similar vein, and nearly as delectable. In it, he plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor beloved by the public, who nevertheless is invariably panned by critics due to his over-the-top hamminess (and it's clear that Price relishes the role in part as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of his own hamminess). Driven over the edge, his career in ruins, Lionheart concocts the master plan to bump off each of the critics one by one, using a method of murder taken from a different Shakespearean play for each.
And so, the central narrative very much resembles Phibes, in that the film revolves around a series of brilliant murder setpieces. And Price is utterly remarkable throughout each, playing the part of the vengeful Lionheart with such gusto that one can't help but be completely enraptured by him. In fact, if the one drawback of Phibes was that he couldn't move his mouth, then Lionheart makes up for it in spades. My particular favorite is the fencing scene, in which Price reenacts the duel from Romeo & Juliet, his face a gleaming mask of self-satisfied, evil glee as he spouts purple prose to no end.
As with many British horror films of the period, including the Phibes pictures, Theater of Blood is fairly packed with delightful English character actors. The lovely Diana Rigg plays Lionheart's mysterious daughter; Ian Hendry (Dr. David Peele of The Avengers fame) plays the leader of the critics' circle, Peregrine Devlin. Amongst the rest of the critics are Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley of the 1951 Scrooge and the voice of Gandalf in the BBC radio edition of The Lord of the Rings), Harry Andrews (one of the Kryptonian Elders in Superman), and that incomparable English gentleman Robert Morley as the fabulous Meredith Merridew. Irish favorite Milo O'Shea rounds out the cast as the unflappable Inspector Boot. If you'll pardon the obvious pun, this is a cast to die for.
Speaking of which, Theater of Blood is an exceptionally dark and vicious comedy. While unceasingly funny, it is also surprisingly bloody, featuring fairly graphic scenes of organ removal, electrocution, beheading and more. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a gorier Vincent Price flick at the moment. A favorite of many fans of the film is the scene in which Morley's character meets his end--in which Lionheart, inspired by the baby-pies of Titus Andronicus, bakes up a couple poodles in crust and feeds them to his unwitting target until he chokes to death.
To watch Price chew up the scenery, letting Shakespearean soliloquies fly left and right, it's almost impossible to describe my elation. You can tell he's really enjoying himself here, and that carries across to the viewer. He also gets the chance to appear in a series of fairly ludicrous disguises, adding another level of delicious camp to his performance. Especially amusing is his turn as a '70s-era gay hairdresser, complete with white-man fro, giant gold chains, and painfully outdated slang. Truly an unforgettable Vincent Price moment.
I was lucky enough to come across this picture on DVD mere weeks ago on a discount rack, and boy, am I glad movies aren't sold based on their quality. Because this one was worth the five-spot I paid for it, about ten times over. I've already watched it multiple times, and am glad that after all these years, I can still discover an older film like this with so much to offer.
Theater of Blood proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vincent Price was a national treasure, and it is truly sad that he is no longer with us. Yet with thoroughly enjoyable films like this left behind, it's assured that he will never, ever be forgotten.
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