Vincent Price in 1973's "Theatre of Blood."

Theatre of Blood

Vincent Price is a national treasure. You can forget about other hyper-specific genre stars like Randolph Scott, Béla Lugosi, or, hell, even Esther Williams. Price, perpetually melodramatic and slithery, never came to a point in his career where he phoned it in. Though his body language and vaguely aristocratic manner of speech are the kind you almost immediately recognize when confronted by them, it’s nearly impossible to find a moment within Price's body of work where he doesn't seem to be enjoying playing a dastardly, snaky villain or a misunderstood anti-hero.  There’s a reason why so many of his films remain to be classics rather than era-defining relics slowly but surely withering away — Price's joy doesn't age.

 

Theatre of Blood (1973), released near the end of Price’s reign as horror’s biggest star, is a well-timed summarization of his work, recognizing the campiest aspects of his professional guise and building a scrumptious (and batshit) black comedy around it. It's one of his best vehicles. Its 

makers, director Douglas Hickox and screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell, are as fond of Price’s unique talent as they are aware that it could serve as the basis of a wicked farce.

 

Consider its storyline, whose subversive brilliance never wanes. In Theatre of Blood, Price portrays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor nearing the end of his long, mostly enviable career. While most agree that he’s among the finest stage actors of his generation, a circle of drama critics, who serve as the “antagonists” of the film, disagree. It destroys 

Lionheart’s confidence in his own genius.  After attending an awards ceremony that sours, the actor decides that there is no way to recover from his crippling self-doubt. So he decides to kill himself — jump from a high-storied apartment balcony and plunge into a nearby river.   

 

Fortunately, he’s given a second chance at life when he’s covertly rescued by a group of hobos that lets it be known they’d do anything to serve him. Thirsty for revenge — Hell hath no fury like a criticized actor — Lionheart makes it his personal mission to off every writer who ever wrote something demeaning about him. But, as he’s a drama queen who just so happens to be played by Vincent Price, never known for his subtlety, Lionheart makes things tricky by fashioning his murders into echoes of classic Shakespearean deaths. Assisted by his daughter (Diana Rigg), whose beauty and charm give her easy access to Lionheart’s enemies, he’s playing a game he certainly cannot lose. When you’re out of your mind, with vengeance burning in your heart, consequences don’t matter so long as you get your desired results.

 

We’re plenty happy to accompany Lionheart on his

outlandish mission. Provided even more humor with its 

elaborate staging and cheeky costumery, there’s not a moment in Theatre of Blood where we aren’t totally delighted, except for maybe when Price isn’t in the room.  This is a blood-soaked lark with a knowing sense of humor, at once distinctly conscious of its leading man’s façade and willing to innovate around it, only enhancing its wit.

 

Of course, Price is a riot — is there a camp actor more talented? And co-stars, like Rigg (devious), Coral Browne (ruthless), and Robert Morley (convincingly piggish), complement his acting instead of hiding in its shadows. Theatre of Blood might be the crowning achievement of Price’s career. Maybe it’s only slightly making fun of his schlocky past, and maybe it’s more prone to finding the comedy in his masquerade than its menace. But few vehicles have served him better. A-

 

July 9, 2016