With its worldwide Blu-ray debut coming out today (Monday 19 May), here's my retrospective look at the deliciously macabre 1973 cult classic and a full analysis of Arrow Video's fantastic release.
A TOAST TO THE IMMORTAL BARD
In a role that was tailor-made for the actor, Vincent Price plays tormented tragedian Edward Lionheart who executes an ingenious plot to use the works of William Shakespeare to kill off London's leading theatre critics who had ridiculed his career. Three years after a failed suicide attempt, and with a group of meths-swilling vagrants acting as his chorus and his devoted daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) as his leading lady, Lionheart opens his grisly new season devoted to the immortal Bard at the dilapidated Burbage Theatre. [SPOILER'S AHEAD]
George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) is butchered on the Ides of March in a re-enactment of the death of Julius Caesar; Hector Snipe (Dennis Price) is speared and his corpse dragged behind a horse, the fate of Hector at the hands of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida; and Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawed off in a bizarre reworking of Cymbeline.
Baffled, the police (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes) call on leading critic Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) to help them in their investigation, but Lionheart’s show must go on. The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock gets his pound of flesh from Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews); Richard the III drowns booze-hound Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) in a cask of Chambertin 1964, and Othello’s Iago coerces possessive Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins) into smothering his wife (Dina Dors). While recreating the famous duel scene in Romeo and Juliet – on trampolines – Lionheart vents his rage on Devlin before revealing how he survived his suicide attempt. Meanwhile, the might of the entire London police force are unable to stop Lionheart as Ms Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) is electrocuted while having a shampoo and pedicure in a flamboyant restaging of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake in Henry VI, Part 1, and effeminate glutton Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) is force-fed his ‘babies’ (his pet poodles) a la Queen Tamora in Titus Andronicus.
With just one critic and one play left in his repertoire, Lionheart kidnaps Devlin and, as King Lear did to the Earl of Gloucester, threatens to blind him with two red-hot daggers if he does not give him the coveted Best Actor award. But when the police arrive, Lionheart sets the theatre on fire and, in the confusion, his daughter Edwina is struck dead with the award. Carrying her body aloft, Lionheart gives one final monologue on the top of the theatre before taking his bows. To which Devlin wryly comments: ‘It was a remarkable performance, but he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.’
LIONHEART IS IMMORTAL!
Theatre of Blood is arguably the magnum opus of actor Vincent Price’s film career and marked a fitting end to his Master of Menace persona, which had started out with 1953's House of Wax 20 years previously. It’s also a bone fide British cinema classic that holds its own thanks to a winning combination: brilliant one-of-a-kind supporting cast, first-rate production values, Anthony Greville-Bell’s literate script, which is an ingenious feat of dark comedy and pathos, Michael J Lewis’s glorious Elizabethean-inspired score, and the fabulous London locations, looking their summer best.
But topping it all is Vincent Price’s tour-de-force performance. He’s certainly having gleeful fun appearing in a host of disguises: camp hairdresser, Scottish masseur, French chef, while picking off his victims, played by a bevy of respected British (and Australian) thespians, in ghoulish tongue-in-cheeck Grand Guignol fashion. But while giving full reign to his Master of Menace horror persona and playing up to his campy Uncle Vincent style of acting, Price – who called this his ‘favourite funny film’ – also lends great dignity to his demented Lionheart.
The multiple guises also gave the 61-year-old the opportunity to show his own critics his extensive range, as well as the chance to perform his beloved Shakespeare, something he had been unable to do owing to his long-running film contract with American International Pictures. But while Price only gets to quote snippets from the Bard, he does so with aplomb – his ‘To Be or Not to Be’ projects real anger, while his King Lear speech is truly heartfelt.
Away from the screen, Price did get the chance to woo critics when he took to the stage in 1977 to play Oscar Wilde in John Gay’s Diversion & Delights. This one-man play would go on to perform in some 300 cities in the US, and a jaunt in Australia, over three years, thus giving Price the serious accolades he had longed sought after and so richly deserved.
ABOUT THE ARROW BLU-RAY Arrow Films have done a fantastic job in bringing director Douglas Hickox’s cult black comedy to Blu-ray (and in a Blu-ray Steelbook) in the UK, beginning with a delightful menu that uses clips from the film and a section of Michael J Lewis’ melodic theme tune playing underneath. Arrow’s mastering of the MGM 1080P transfer is pristine with practically no grain. However, the audio in the feature (a linear PCM 2.0 channel at 2304 kbps) sounds slightly tinnie through my amp, and is particularly noticeable in the extras where clips from the film are used. There was also a glitch in the Harmony of Horror extra, which resulted in a delay in the release. Niggles aside, this is a great addition to my Vincent Price collection and your cult cinema library. And now for those wonderful extras…
• The audio commentary by The League of Gentlemen (aka Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson) is hugely entertaining. Their imitations of the film’s best lines had me in stitches and I got a real chuckle out of them mistaking actor/choreographer Tutte Lemkow for a woman. This so deserves to be a stand alone podcast.
• A Priceless Pot-Boiler: Vincent Price’s daughter Victoria takes a personal look at how the film marked the end of her father’s 23-year marriage to her mother, Mary, and the beginning of her relationship with her ‘wicked’ stepmother, Coral Browne. Victoria also describes what a wonderful speaker of verse her dad was, who also taught her to speak in iambic pentameter as a young child.
• A Fearful Thespian: Film historian David Del Valle (who interviewed Price as part of his Sinister Image series in 1987) discusses how the black comedy was the actor’s favourite film and why Price’s legacy lives on because he always gave 100% in his performances, even when he was 'over acting'.
• Staged Reaction: Actress Madeline Smith (one of the few cast members still alive) recalls how there was ‘nothing romantic’ about the making of the film, given its short filming schedule, tight budget, it’s hard task master director and aging cast. She also reveals how her scenes as Ian Hendry’s love interest were cut (which now explains why her character is present in the film's climax).
• A Harmony of Horror: The larger than life composer Michael J Lewis recounts how he created the score, then performs the main themes on a 1894 Bechstein piano that he had used to compose the music (although he goes off key playing Edwina’s Theme). And if you want to know why he’s wearing that pink satin shirt and cowboy hat, it’s because he’s a big devotee of Texas honky tonky. This one is certainly a coup in my books, as Lewis has also been one of my all-time favourite composers.
• UK theatrical trailer: Watching this unrestored, pan-and scan-trailer, just shows how good the HD transfer really is.