1973’s Theatre of Blood is the prince of horror-comedies. And if it actually was a prince it would be an indecisive Danish one. The ‘haha’/’erk’ balance is a difficult one to get right, but this film manages it splendidly. The splendid story-telling helps – Vincent Price is prime ham Edward Lionheart, back from a faced suicide to take his blood vengeance on the pompous theatre critics who denied him a ‘Best Actor’ award.
The critics are offed in series of Grand Guinol Shakespeare homages. George Maxwell (Michael Horden) is stabbed like Julius Caesar. The fantastically named Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe)* loses his head, Cymbeline style. There’s death by wine barrel, death by hairdo** and death by poodle pie***. And for all of the horrible things that Lionheart and his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) get up to, you can’t help but enjoy their villainous crusade.
Vincent Price seems to be enjoying himself so much that you can see the glee beneath his theatrical pan-stick. There’s a flashback sequence in which he recites the ‘To be or not to be’ speech whilst the Critic’s Circle sneer and applaud sarcastically. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor old over-acting Lionheart. Price’s version of the speech manages to be both suitably OTT and strangely moving. Prior to a bonkers fencing match (with trampolines) he sneers at the one vaguely decent critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), ‘What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production?’
Early on in the film, Devlin receives a beautifully wrapped package apparently from his fellow critic, Dickman****. The attached note reads, ‘I am sorry to miss the meeting, but my heart is with you.’ Of course, the package is really from Lionheart and it contains – well, Dickman’s heart. It’s not subtle, but it is funny. And genuinely icky.
Director Douglas Hickox gets the right balance of camp and darkness, which fits Anthony Granville-Bell’s wonderfully. This film is a genuine one-off. ‘Lionheart is immortal!’ Price proclaims. It’s hard to disagree.
*Poor Devlin opens his front door the morning after to find poor Sprout’s head perched on top of a milk bottle. I felt a bit sorry for Sprout. He is Captain Mainwaring, after all. And in Theatre of Blood, he’s married to the 80s BBC incarnation of Miss Marple (Joan Hickson).
**Miss Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) gets electrocuted by a booby-trapped hairdryer, in homage to Joan of Arc’s death in Henry VI: Part One. Browne and Price later married. Insert ‘sparks fly’ gag here.
***Robert Morley’s character, Merridew, unwittingly eats his beloved poodles.
****Yes, Dickman. And guess what? The character’s a big old letch and is easily lured to his Merchant of Venice inspired doom by Edwina and her go-go boots.