Release Date(s)1973 (September 7, 2021)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
Vincent Price was not one of our subtlest actors. He’s remembered today for his many horror film performances, many of which feature him wringing every ounce of juice out of his dialogue. Some would say he was a shameless over-actor, but fans and audiences in general love his screen persona. He’s in full Price mode in Theater of Blood, a comedy revenge thriller with a full bow—rather than a nod—to William Shakespeare.
Edward Lionheart (Price) is an actor who feels he was robbed of London’s annual Critics Circle Award after what he believes was his triumphant season in a series of Shakespearean plays. So he kills himself in front of the critics who favored a younger actor for the award. When the very same critics start dying off in bizarre ways, the authorities can’t figure who is committing the gruesome murders. But Lionheart was saved from his plunge into the Thames by a group of homeless people. With the help of his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), he sets up an elaborate series of murders, luring each of the critics by playing into their egos.
Lionheart follows the chronology of his Shakespearean season to off one critic after another according to the modes of killing in each of the plays—beheading, drowning, burning, eviscerating, impaling, smothering, blinding. As he stages the murders with his audience of grimy, alcoholic acolytes, he quotes appropriate lines from Hamlet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Titis Andronicus, and others in full-out hamminess, with a generous helping of vitriol.
The murders are pretty graphic. Director Douglas Hickox and the Anthony Greville-Bell screenplay treat Lionheart’s vendetta as a wild, madman’s game. Determined to make the critics pay the ultimate price for their slight, he isn’t content with simpler and likely easier ways to kill them. No, Lionheart must go big! So old theaters, abandoned buildings, private homes, and even a beauty parlor become his sets while he, in full costume and make-up, forces his victims to watch him recite lines from the plays they panned before he inflicts the coup de grace.
Price is playing not only Edward Lionheart but also the many personas he assumes to lure his victims—chef, lover, hairdresser, grave digger, policeman, and fencing master. One of the wittiest scenes, in fact, is a fencing match on trampolines between Lionheart and critic Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry). Taking a page from an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, the two men exchange thrusts and parries while they bounce, turn cartwheels, and use other acrobatic moves (courtesy of stuntmen) as they fence with untipped sabers.
Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is lovely and her Edwina figures more prominently in the plot as the film progresses when the police put two and two together and conclude that the murders have the mark of Lionheart. A dutiful and loving daughter, Edwina is protective of her father, shares his indignation toward the London critical community, and may be more than an abetter to his crimes than is initially evident. Though Theater of Blood is clearly Price’s film, Rigg adds a nice extra bit of star power.
The other critics are played by Harry Andrews (Trevor Dickman), Jack Hawkins (Solomon Psaltery), Robert Morley (Meredith Merridew), Arthur Lowe (Horace Sprout), Dennis Price (Hector Snipe), Robert Coote (Oliver Larding), Michael Hordern (George Maxwell), and Coral Browne (Chloe Moon). Milo O’Shea plays Inspector Boot, head of the investigation into the spate of grim murders.
Director Hickox for the most part balances comedy with melodrama but occasionally makes certain scenes hard to believe, such as critic Psaltery conveniently showing up when his wife (Diana Dors) is getting a massage, mistaking her moans as evidence of a sexual tryst, and smothering her with a pillow. And it’s never clear why the coterie of outcasts have attached themselves to Lionheart. Are they turned on by the extreme violence he creates, his elephant-sized ego, or both?
I’ve always loved this film. It has a wicked sense of dark humor and a memorable, appropriately over-the-top performance by Price. Apart from being fun, with inventively horrific murders, it’s highly entertaining, with opportunities to watch Vincent Price performing Shakespeare—the sprinkles on the ice cream cone. There are similarities to the Dr. Phibes films Price made prior to Theater of Blood, but Theater is directed with more panache and style.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Picture quality is excellent and is an improvement on an earlier DVD release. There are no instances of dirt specks, scratches, emulsion clouding, or splices. Skin tones look natural in both indoor and outdoor scenes. The color palette varies from bright, bold colors to somber, darker hues, depending on the scene. Blacks are deep and velvety. Price’s make-up is intended to look theatrical when he’s portraying Shakespearean characters or disguising himself from his victims. Often, his get-up is over the top, such as the curly wig he wears when he’s pretending to be Chloe Moon’s hairdresser.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue from the nearly all-British cast is precise throughout, with Price’s dialogue clipped and seething with pent-up anger as Lionheart and appropriately dramatic for his various Shakespearean soliloquies. A key scene features a loud scream from Diana Rigg and sound effects include the mutterings of Lionheart’s grimy audience, police sirens, and a galloping horse. Michael J. Lewis’ score is nicely balanced with dialogue and adds atmosphere. Interestingly, the gruesome murders do not contain overly horrific sounds, though Merridew’s confrontation with Lionheart is heightened by disturbing sounds of him gagging.
Bonus materials include two audio commentaries; Trailers from Hell with Alan Spencer; TV spots; radio spots; trailers; reversible cover art featuring the original US one sheet artwork on the front and the original UK quad artwork on the other; and a slipcover featuring the same US artwork. An isolated score audio track and an 8-page booklet by Julie Kirgo from the earlier Twilight Time Blu-ray release and interviews from the Region B Arrow Video Blu-ray release are not included in this edition.
Audio Commentary #1 – In this new commentary, screenwriter/producer Alan Spencer identifies the black-and-white silent film clips of Shakespearean performances that are shown along with the opening credits. The excerpts include Richard III (1911, the first known depiction of Shakespeare on the screen), Othello (1920), The Merchant of Venice (1923), and Hamlet (1913). Though modestly budgeted, Theater of Blood was filmed on actual locations. The mob that follows and assists Lionheart is referred to as “meth drinkers.” Price’s make-ups were designed to look like they came from a theatrical make-up kit. Price is doing a self-conscious parody of a not very good Shakespearean actor. The cast includes a “who’s who of British thespians.” The first scene of the critics assembled together concisely provides exposition and gives insight into their characters. Douglas Hickox was not the first choice to direct. Robert Fuest, who directed The Abominable Dr. Phibes was contacted but turned down the job because he felt Theater of Blood was too similar to Phibes, which dealt with a protagonist who choreographs the deaths of nine victims according to the plagues of ancient Egypt. Theater of Blood was a grade A production. Director Hickox was complimentary about the cast, a collection of thorough professionals. Because of Price’s adopted vocal affectation, he was right at home acting with an all-British cast. Diana Rigg did the film for fun because she admired the dark humor of the script. Spencer points out a few lapses of logic, but feels that Theater of Blood represents Vincent Price’s finest screen performance.
Audio Commentary #2 – This commentary was included previously on the Twilight Time Blu-ray. Film historians David Del Valle and Nick Redman note how the opening clips of actors playing Shakespearean roles in silent films shows respect for the material. The original title of the film was Much Ado About Murder, but it was thought that this would put off audiences who expected to see a typical horror film. The new title—Theater of Blood—made it sound like a Hammer film. After seeing Price’s performances in the Shakespearean roles he assumes in the film, co-star Diana Rigg urged him to return to the stage. Price met his future wife, Coral Browne, while making this picture. Each actor has a showcase in which he/she does a scene with Vincent Price. With Price’s American International contract coming to an end, he was offered a series of plays in St. Louis when Theater of Blood came along. After years in movies, Price missed stage work and eventually starred as Oscar Wilde in the one-man show Diversions and Delights, which toured all over the country. He also toured in the 1960s as Captain Hook in Peter Pan. House of Wax (1953), a box office smash, changed Price’s career direction toward horror. After a few lean years, from 1955 on, he never turned down a role. The Fly, the William Castle films, and the Roger Corman Poe films are noted. His frequent TV appearances made him a favorite with young viewers. After providing the creepy narration/rap for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, he became the “rock ’n’ roll Boris Karloff.” Coral Browne’s losing battle with cancer took a great toll on Price.
Trailers from Hell with Alan Spencer (3:33) – Interspersed with brief scenes from Theater of Blood, Spencer discusses why kids became fans of Vincent Price. He briefly sums up the plot of the film as follows: Edward Lionheart goes on a killing spree of critics who have wronged him. The black comedy allows Price, a classically trained actor who began his career on the stage, to play many Shakespearean roles. In Theater of Blood, he plays an under-appreciated actor much like himself. The film received rave reviews when originally released and subsequently attracted a cult following. Made in England, the film offered Price the role of a lifetime. Spencer comments that when he was a young man, he met Vincent Price. Spencer told Price how the actor instilled in him an appreciation of the Shakespeare he was studying in school. Price thanked him and added, “If you kill a few critics, I’ll give you extra credit.”
Theatrical Trailers – Eight trailers are included:
- Theater of Blood (2:21)
- The Raven (2:39)
- The Comedy of Terrors (2:33)
- Master of the World (2:31)
- The Last Man on Earth (1:51)
- The Tomb of Ligeia (2:31)
- Scream and Scream Again (2:22)
- House of the Long Shadows (2:28)
TV Spots (1:28) – Two brief television ads for the films are included. Exciting clips, in rapid succession, are shown.
Radio Spots (3:01) – Four short radio advertisements extoll the virtues of Theater of Blood, with emphasis on Price’s role of Edward Lionheart.
Theater of Blood was the last film in which Price was the lead. He would go on to make The Whales of August and Edward Scissorhands, but Theater of Blood closed the book on a rich chapter in his professional career, and was a fitting way to tip his hat to a genre that embraced him for years.
- Dennis Seuling