Theatre of Blood
Vincent Price is a national treasure. You can forget about other grizzled genre stars like Randolph Scott, Bela Lugosi, or, hell, even Esther Williams — Price, perpetually melodramatic and slithery, never appeared to come to a point in his filmography in which wooden schtick replaced an indelible persona. 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 during Price’s long career in which 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.
So 1973’s Theatre of Blood, 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 succulent (and batshit) black comedy around it. Resulting is one of his best films: 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. It’s a perfect star vehicle.
Consider its storyline, which never wanes in its ability to be rigorously brilliant. 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, thus destroying Lionheart’s confidence in his own genius. After attending an awards ceremony that goes sour, the actor decides that there is no way to recover from his crippling self-doubt. So he decides to kill himself, to 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 secretly rescued by a group of hobos that lets it be known that 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 single 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 slinky demeanor give her direct 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.
And we’re plenty happy to go along with Lionheart’s outlandish mission. Provided even more humor through elaborate staging and cheeky costumery, there’s not a moment of Theatre of Blood in which 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 stricken with innovation that only enhances its keen 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), somehow manage to complement his acting instead of hide in the shadows of its sagacity. Really, Theatre of Blood is the highest point 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 nothing serves him better, and we’re left with a diamond in a rough of Roger Corman’s ghost. B+