*. I have a bit of a history with Theater of Blood. Back in the 1980s it was about the creepiest and goriest thing you could watch on TV. What I remember bothering me the most about it though wasn’t the violence so much as the opening scene, and one shot in particular, where the two (phoney) cops are such sinister figures, appearing slightly out of focus in the background. It’s one of those images that has stayed with me for decades now.
*. Later on I cooled a bit toward it. It just seemed kind of silly, with Vincent Price essentially reprising his role as Dr. Phibes, accompanied by a beautiful consort (a daughter this time instead of a dead wife/lover), and killing off his victims in set-piece theatrical ways. In fact, the project was offered to Rober Fuest, who directed The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “the guy who makes Vince Price theme killing movies.”
*. Watching it today I like it more, and see it as really standing out from the usual Brit-horror fare of the day for its macabre blend of horror and humour. You can tell why it was Price’s personal favourite of all his films, and the one Diana Rigg thought her best.
*. The story has it that a Shakespearean actor named Edward Lionheart (Price) feels slighted by the decision of a circle of London’s leading theatre critics to give their actor of the year award not to him but to a young up-and-comer. He tries to kill himself by jumping off a balcony into the Thames, but unbeknownst to anyone, is rescued by a gang of grubby mudlarks. Revived, he plots his revenge on the critics, killing them off in ways suggested by Shakespeare’s plays.
*. This is a concept that I don’t think could work today. Of course the idea of the theme killer is still going strong. Witness the Saw franchise, which is very much in the direct lineage of this movie and the Dr. Phibes films. But in 1973 you could probaby expect a basic level of familiarity with Shakespeare that would help the audience enjoy more of what’s going on here.
*. Because it’s not just the killings themselves. It’s the first critic’s wife trying to persuade her husband not to go the theatre (and his death) because of her bad dreams, which is a foreshadowing of his Julius Caesar-style murder. Or the way another victim looks down into the pit in a manner that recalls the scene in Titus Andronicus, which is not the play whose rubrics he will be killed according to. Or the name of the wine emporium that will see a critic drowned in a butt of malmsey. These are pretty sophisticated in-jokes for a slasher flick.
*. Even the plays aren’t the ones you’d expect everyone to know. Cymbeline? Troilus and Cressida? Henry VI Part 1? Nowadays you’d probably need a graduate degree to know anything about those plays, much less recognize plot elements from them.
*. Of course you’re not meant to take any of it seriously. Not when the critics have names like Dickman, Psaltery, Sprout, and Snipe and Rigg is dressed up in hippie drag most of the time. But that undertone of dread I mentioned still attaches to Phibes’s gang of “Meths Drinkers” (which is how they’re credited). I don’t find these guys funny at all. Swinging London has gone to seed, something that the location shooting assisted with.
*. A brief aside on Meths Drinkers. This is not a reference to methamphetimines but to methylated spirits, which means stuff like paint thinner. Now you can drink liquid meth, which is powder methamphetamines dissolved in water, but that’s not what’s going on here.
*. I’ve never been sure what we’re meant to think of Lionheart as an actor. Apparently he really was a respected Shakespearean actor and was definitely in the running for the actor of the year award. But at the same time, the critics have all panned his performances. So was he just past his prime? Or was he only ever a ham? And how would you answer that question with regard to Vincent Price? I think you can at least see why Vince was so fond of the role. Or maybe it was more because he met his third wife (Coral Browne) on the set. He was still married to his second wife, but not for long.
*. Director Douglas Hickox doesn’t let the side down by being too arty, beyond an overfondness for low-angle camerawork. The sterling supporting cast delights. I especially got a grin out of Diana Dors hyperventilating through another alt-sex scene (I was thinking of her turn in Deep End all the way). And the hair! The eyebrows of Milo O’Shea and Robert Morley! The sideburns of Ian Hendry!
*. Especially given the time and the place, I think it stands out as a really superior production. It shares its blend of gore and humour with the Phibes films, and those were singular and prophetic enough, but throw in Price waxing Shakespehearean and you’ve got one of the more unique and enjoyable horror romps of the period, and one that like the Bard himself isn’t just for its day but for all time.
The Eyebrows of O’Shea & Morley. That should be it’s own horror movie!
They were crazy! Alas, they’ve gone the way of the mod ‘fros you see Price and Rigg styling in the third picture.
Never thought ‘fros a good look even when they were ‘in’!
According to Guinness . . .
Rigg looks like Jeff Lynne…
Always thought ELO was an American band for some reason. Maybe it was the hair.
Dr Phibes III eh?
Very close, but better all around. Mainly smarter and with a better cast.
Very fond of this film, liked it as a kid, grew out of it, but grew back into it again. Precursor of Se7en, lovely lush score, fun ideas, grotty London atmosphere. Nothing wrong with being called Dickman, I can think of several critics who deserve such an illustrious name…
Richard Dickman would be a good name. I’d rather be a Psaltery.
I think I saw this at a drive-in once, but I was most definitely in an altered state at the time. That development did not include either dry or liquid meth, but it has blurred my memory of this one.
You may remember a better movie! That sometimes happens.
I thought the title sounded familiar but I’m probably getting mixed up with Throne of Blood (1957). I’m very curious to watch it after reading your review, especially considering the year it was made. And Diana Rigg of course! It feels like something I may have seen late night on BBC1 or 2 in the late 1980s.
This and Throne of Blood are both Shakespeare adaptations . . . sort of! You very well might have seen this on TV in the ’80s as I think it was a staple. It’s definitely something a little different.