It is in cinema that horror has found its most enduring home, but in many ways the stage is a more natural fit; the darkened auditorium filled with strangers dressed in their finery, any one of whom could be harbouring a murderous secret, the uniformed ushers with one eye on the performance and the other on the unpredictable crowd, and under the spotlights, life and death are played out, perhaps to the voyeuristic delight of the masses, perhaps inviting their condemnation. There are many ways to die on stage, and few are dignified, even when scripted
Perhaps it is for this reason that to a certain viewership Theatre of Blood is one of the most beloved films of British cinema, though to spare the reputation of the roster of participating talent who would never stoop to anything so common as a horror film, in polite conversation it is more properly described as the blackest of comedies, a savage stab at the heart of London’s celebrated West End theatrical traditions as an embittered actor takes his revenge on the critics he feels should have offered him greater respect and accolades.
Long overdue a restoration and re-release, Arrow Films have magnificently polished this gem and set it glittering amongst a comprehensive array of features including an interview with Victoria Price, daughter of the legendary Vincent Price, David Del Valle, a friend of Price’s and an expert on his career, Madeline Smith, who plays a supporting role in the film, and composer Michael J Lewis, with the main feature given a witty and insightful commentary from its greatest fans Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, the League of Gentlemen themselves.
Price is Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart, playfully sending up the perception that had grown around his talent through the many horror films which had driven his career, from The Fly through the William Castle collaborations House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler to the numerous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman, most famous amongst them House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death and, to that point Price’s own favourite out of his vast resume, The Tomb of Ligeia.
Having been denied the Critic’s Circle Award for Best Actor, Lionheart, presumed to be dead after throwing himself from the balcony of their meeting place into the Thames, begins to eliminate each of those against whom he bears a grudge, the manner of their deaths inspired by scenes from the final season he played beginning with Julius Caesar, as George Maxwell (Michael Hordern, knighted in 1983 for his services to the theatre, his unmistakable voice remembered from the BBC’s radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings where he played Gandalf), lured to a derelict building where he is stabbed to death by the squatting vagrants, the date of the killing the infamous Ides of March.
A surprisingly early and brutal death, the audience separated from it by only a stretched sheet of polythene, unlike many films of this era the blood is red, but the knives are not so sharp as the pens of Maxwell’s colleagues who have no sympathy even for their friend cut to ribbons.
“At last a headline instead of a byline” they quip, but at the funeral the laughter is shortlived as a second critic’s body is paraded before them, speared and dragged by horse as was Hector in Troilus and Cressida.
“Who hates you enough to want to kill two of your circle?” asks Milo O’Shea’s Inspector Boot, several years after Barbarella but a decade before he reprised the role of Duran Duran in the concert film Arena. “But, darling boy, they’re not going to start killing people for writing bad notices, are they?” counters Robert Morley’s Meredith Merridew.
Famed for playing pompous upper class characters in a half century career as well as his rotund stature, Morley’s own end later in the film is one of the most notorious of the film, his gluttonous character force fed his beloved puppies baked into twin pies as were the babies of Queen Tamora in Titus Andronicus.
Other victims include British glamour queen Diana Dors, Harry Andrews, his distinctive face and voice remembered as one of the Kryptonian Elders in Superman the Movie, and Dad’s Army’s Arthur Lowe, murdered as he sleeps beside his wife Joan Hickson, though despite the presence of the future Miss Marple there is precious little detection even from Inspector Boot and his colleague Inspector Dogge, Eric Sykes in a straight supporting role simultaneous with his greatest fame on his self-titled television sitcom. Instead, the joy is in the killing, ridiculous and delivered with flair, the antithesis of the grim gore porn of recent decades, willingly baiting the critics of the time, daring them to hate the film.
With opening titles playing against a montage of Edward Lionheart’s greatest dramatic achievements supported by Lewis’ beautiful and wistful score, it is wilfully theatrical in the foreshadowing, thunderclaps over the city as Maxwell drives to the tenement only to be greeted by his murderers. With no hints of what is going on or the background of the characters, it’s a very modern film, at home in post sixties London, a more comfortable fit than Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 of the previous year.
While many horrors have drawn on literary sources for inspiration, few have done it as extensively or comprehensively as Theatre of Blood, and as an actor, Edward Lionheart is in his element as various Shakespearean leads, a policeman, a gravedigger, and most memorably, a flamboyant and incendiary hairdresser (“I wish you would let me do something camp with the colour, flame with ash highlights.”)
“You begin to resent an actor if you always give him bad notices” says Ian Hendry’s Peregrine Devlin, ostensibly the hero of the film in that he is the most sympathetic character, his harping colleagues regarding themselves as above the work they are apparently very well paid to critique, their beautiful houses tended by maids, while Lionheart is unable to see that his own success has long since been acknowledged but that critics must also foster new talent.
Released in the same year as The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist, it is the old talent which marks this film as a classic, though as noted by the League of Gentleman, the circumstances in which they gathered were not ideal. “The British film industry was on its knees,” they explain, a circumstance which encouraged those who would not normally associate with the horrific to lower themselves to the genre, though for the Anglophile Price, pigeonholed by association, it was “a gift,” in the words of his daughter. “Doing Shakespeare and working with that cast was a whole different calibre for him.”
Madeline Smith is similarly enthusiastic in her recollection. Having previously worn a blonde hairpiece in the roles where she had come to his attention, when director Douglas Hickox met her and learned she was naturally brunette he was dismayed, but she cut him a deal, offering to bleach her hair if it would secure her a part with that gathering, but it was not an easy shoot. “The budget was curtailed. We were worked to death… Some of the older actors did get very tired.”
Echoing the comment made by the League of Gentleman, Smith knew it was the end of an era, remembering “People were completely intoxicated by television at that time…the last of the Carry Ons, last of the Hammers, last of the independent horrors…” That fin de siècle is reflected in the conclusion of the film, one which Smith recalls as a quite literal trial by fire for those characters left standing in the final reel: “This was a real theatre and we had to run through real burning curtains. No health and safety, no insurance.”
Madeline Smith and composer Michael J Lewis differ in their memory of Douglas Hickox, with Smith describing him as a “hard task master [who] shouted a lot,” while Lewis says he was “one of the most gracious men I’ve ever met,” though a caveat is that a performer on set for long and stressful hours and a composer whose work is largely after principal photography is complete may have very different experiences, but one thing all parties are agreed on is Vincent Prince himself, Lewis reminiscing about their day together on set talking about cooking, Smith stating “He was always adorable.”
Speaking of his friend, David Del Valle recalls “He was a unique and wonderful person,” while Victoria Price, when researching her book A Daughter’s Biography, interviewed co-star Diana Rigg who said of him “People don’t know what a wonderful speaker of verse your father was,” before laughing at the fact that as the former star of The Avengers was now playing her father’s onscreen daughter, perhaps she could grow up to be Emma Peel?
There could be many reasons why Theatre of Blood became her father’s acknowledged favourite of his many films, surpassing even The Tomb of Ligeia; it was there he met Coral Browne (“That’s how I met my wife, I electrocuted her”), that it allowed him to perform Shakespeare, that it allowed him to silence the critics, but his onscreen rapport with Rigg is clear. “The only difficult interaction he had with Diana Rigg was carrying her down the fire escape,” Victoria Price recalls.
As Edwina Lionheart, Rigg is class and sophistication personified, thoroughly proving her skill in the same way she did in Witness for the Prosecution, hidden in plain sight for much of the film, her character flitting between the wounded daughter when she confronts Devlin by her father’s grave (“Forgive me, I forgot; it was your reverence and admiration which drove him to take his own life,”), the casual indifference of her everyday life as a makeup artist on a film set, or vamping it up as she seduces one of the critics.
Rigg’s scenes with Devlin are of particular interest to fans of The Avengers, for Ian Hendry was in fact the original avenger himself, Doctor David Keel, whose fiancée was murdered in the very first episode of that classic series, Hot Snow, his quest to bring her killer to justice giving the legendary show its title.
While the restored print is bright and sharp, it does occasionally show minor scratches and sparks, but the dialogue, the performance and the soundtrack are all crisp and timeless, the original compositions standing out, particularly the Cymbeline inspired decapitation scene counterpointed by a theme Michael J Lewis freely admits was a pastiche of the medical melodrama of Doctor Kildare.
Incongruous sound and vision are also employed elsewhere, in the inappropriately added sound effects in the empty theatre, cheers and applause offering a post-modern commentary on the artificiality of cinema as opposed to stage, the drawing back of the curtains before Lionheart supposedly makes his final exit into the Thames, in the tenderness of the tramps by the waterside who rescue him, treating him with more kindness than the professionals of the theatre industry.
Victoria Price considers that along with House of Wax, Theatre of Blood bookends the most intense two decades of her father’s career from 1953 to 1973, though he continued working for many more years, with Michael Jackson’s Thriller being “a huge deal,” though her greatest fondness was for the role specifically written for him in Edward Scissorhands, the shooting altered to accommodate his failing health. “I’m so grateful to Tim Burton for giving him his swan song.”
Described by the League of Gentleman as “the best of the revenge films,” it is Madeline Smith who encapsulates the reason why Theatre of Blood is a jewel in the pantheon of British cinema when she considers the current industry and simply says “You couldn’t recreate it.”