THEATRE OF BLOOD “The Noble Art of Murder”

By Dr. Abner Mality

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts”.

Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart was indeed a man of many parts, but his best work came after his death. His greatest performances were done in bringing others to their exit from this vale of tears. The critics were able to fully appreciate these performances because they themselves were the target; Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart took great relish in bringing about their deaths in most spectacular fashion.

Vincent Price, king of horror and master of murder, brought Lionheart and his bloody deeds to life with tremendous enjoyment and not a little irony. As a superb actor who often felt the blunt words of critics who considered his horror movie work to be little more than trash, he was a brilliant choice to play the clever murderer Lionheart, who used the works of Shakespeare as the template for his revenge. The 1973 film “Theatre of Blood”, which told the gruesome story of Lionheart’s war against his critics, was perhaps the crowning achievement of Price’s career in horror. Indeed, in many ways, it serves as the end to what is considered his “classical” period.

“Theatre of Blood” can be appreciated on many different levels. On the most basic level, it’s a true horror film full of bloody mayhem and a high body count. It can also be looked at as a comedy...a satirical and savage look at the world of the theatre and theatre critics and also as an absurdist lampoon of murder with slapstick killings like the morbid cooking show that disposes of Meredith Merridew or swishy beautician “Butch” and his deadly hair treatment. One can also admire Price’s delivery of Shakespeare’s best dialogue from a wide variety of his plays. And Price is not the only actor of distinction in the film; names like Diana Rigg, Michael Hordern, Robert Morley and Ian Hendry also contribute smart performances.

Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart

Directed by Douglas Hickox, “Theatre of Blood” is very much a spiritual successor to Price’s other great films of the early 70’s, the Dr. Phibes movies. I could wax rhapsodic about the virtues of those clever horrors for a very long spell. The similarities are obvious: they also featured some incredibly inventive and gruesome murders; their protagonist was a genius presumed dead who waged war against those who he believed wronged him; they had a great sense of style and wit. While the Phibes movies were visually superior to “Theatre of Blood” due to the unique Art Deco visions of director Robert Fuest, Lionheart gave Price a meatier character to play. His wonderful speaking voice was muted by electronics as Phibes, but explodes in all its glory as Lionheart. Always a devotee of Shakespeare, Price could finally cut loose in not one but several rich Shakespearean roles as Lionheart.

“One may smile, and smile, be a villain.”

The first member of the Theatre Critics’ Guild to fall was George Maxwell (Michael Hordern). He received a police call stating that the rundown riverside property he owned was being overrun by squatters who had to be evicted from the ruins. Maxwell arrives at the abandoned building and is met by two police bobbies, who usher him inside. Sure enough, it’s infested by a large group of particularly drunken and disheveled vagrants. When Maxwell loudly tells them to leave or go to jail, the bums react in an ominous manner, pulling out knives and breaking wine bottles. They move towards the critic with obvious violence on their minds. When Maxwell implores the policemen to help, they stand frozen and silent, not lifting a finger.

Maxwell is slashed to ribbons by the vagrants and lies bleeding to death. He sees the lead bobby take off his hat and pull off his false mustache. “Lionheart!”, groans Maxwell, expiring with the knowledge of who was responsible for his death. The date on the calendar is March 15...the Ides of March. And Maxwell has been stabbed to death just like Julius Caesar was. The first stage in Lionheart’s plan of revenge is complete.

Next to fall is critic Hector Snipe, who is run through with a spear. When the other members of the Theatre Critics’ Guild appear at George Maxwell’s funeral, they notice Snipe is missing. But not for long. A horse races up the nearby lane, with Snipe’s dead body tied to its tail. Snipe has died just like Hector did in Shakespeare’s play “Troilus and Cressida”.

Lionheart as Richard III

Police Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea) is assigned to find a pattern to the murders. The only person so far who seems to have an idea of what’s going on is critic Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), who notes both men have been killed like characters in Shakespeare’s plays. He also notices that Edwina Lionheart (Diana Rigg), daughter of the late actor Edward Lionheart, was distantly watching Maxwell’s funeral.

The death of critic Horace Sprout is even more grotesque and absurd. A large box is delivered to Sprout’s home, courtesy of persons unknown. The box cannot be opened because there is no key for the lock, so Sprout and his wife simply let the box stay unopened as they go to sleep. Late at night, the box is opened from the inside, allowing Lionheart and his mysterious hippie assistant to exit and put Sprout and his wife to sleep via injection. Then begins a gruesome operation, as Sprout’s head is neatly severed from his body. When his wife awakens next morning and gives his body a shove, the head simply rolls right off onto the floor.

There’s no doubt now that the critics are the target of a maniac. Sprout’s death mirrors the demise of Cloton in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”. The Bard is obviously providing the inspiration for the murders. Inspector Boot asks Devlin if he can think of anybody who hates the critics enough to kill them in such gory and poetic ways. He can’t think of any living person who could do it...but a dead man comes to mind.

Eventually we learn the backstory of Lionheart and the critics. The Guild was always delivering bad reviews to the old fashioned and histrionic Lionheart despite his years of theater experience. When they give the annual Critics’ Guild Award to a young newcomer named William Woodstock, the old thespian is outraged and confronts the Guild at a party. The critics are merciless in their dismissal of Lionheart and are amused by his discomfiture. The actor heads out to the open air balcony, many stories above the Thames River. He delivers the soliloquy from “Hamlet” to himself and throws himself over the balcony into the river below, as daughter Edwina, newly arrived to the party, screams in horror.

Lionheart is declared dead but his body is never recovered. Somehow he survives and his body washes up on the muddy shore of a decrepit slum. There a strange society of drunken vagrants finds him and nurses him back to health. These deranged fringe-dwellers will now become a new theater troop that will help Lionheart achieve his just revenge…

“How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

It is now apparent that the critics are not only being murdered in accordance with Shakespeare but also to exploit a character flaw they exhibit. Lecherous Trevor Dickman (the irony of his last name being purely coincidental, I’m sure) is a rabid skirt-chaser and is lured to his doom by a fetching young lady who makes a play for him. He is bloodily dispatched ala a scene from “The Merchant of Venice”, where Lionheart’s Shylock cuts out his heart to serve as a pound of flesh. Devlin notes that this is somewhat different than the scene in the play and wryly observes “only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare”. Dickman’s heart is later mailed to a critic’s meeting, accompanied by a note saying “I may be absent but my heart is with you”.

Oliver Larding’s failing is his love of alcohol, so he is drowned in a vat of wine like Clarence was in “Richard III”. Price’s portrayal of Richard here is perhaps his best Shakespearean performance in the movie. He next makes Devlin his target and uses “Romeo and Juliet” as his template. Devlin is a fencer and a masked Lionheart is waiting for him at a fencing appointment. He is meant to be killed in a duel as per the play, but in this case, Lionheart has a special hatred of Devlin and says he will be the last of the critics to die. He tells the critic the story of his survival and wounds him but does not kill him, making his escape.

There’s now no doubt whatsoever that Lionheart is alive and has targeted the critics for revenge. Inspector Boot and his faithful assistant Sgt. Dogge have the entire police force on alert, but seem helpless to stop the killings. The police ineptitude here mirrors that of the earlier Dr. Phibes almost expects Inspector Trout to show up. Boot believes Edwina Lionheart is the key to finding her father and tries to have her help put a stop to the murders.

"Butch" and his assistant give Ms. Moon a special treatment...

More "Butch" and friend...

Lionheart’s revenge takes a different turn when it comes to critic Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins). Psaltery’s weakness is extreme jealousy where his wife is concerned and Lionheart exploits this expertly, disguising himself as a French massage therapist who visits the promiscuous blonde. Psaltery is duped into killing his wife just as Othello did. He is not killed but is arrested by the police and will be spending the rest of his life in jail. The scenes of Price applying massage to the oversexed woman are hilariously absurd.

The comedy becomes increasingly dark as Lionheart continues to target the critics. Next on the list is the only woman of the group, Ms. Chloe Moon. Ms. Moon is put under constant police protection and is never out of their sight. Lionheart looks upon this as a challenge. The vain Chloe has an appointment with her favorite hairdresser, but finds him replaced by “Butch” and his assistant. This is an outrageously swishy Price in a huge Afro and sunglasses, asking Chloe to “let Butch take care of it, baby”.

“Butch” takes care of it, alright. Aided by his mysterious assistant, he gives Chloe a 10,000 volt hair treatment that fries her to a crisp. This death is modeled after the burning of Joan of Arc in “Henry the VIth”. All while the oblivious policeman assigned to protect her vacantly reads a girly magazine. Incidentally, Ms. Moon was played by Coral Browne, who later became Price’s wife, which gives their scenes here extra zest. Lionheart has just about made his way through the entire Critic’s Guild.

“Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.”

The police and Devlin are frantically on the trail of Lionheart but are thwarted at every turn. Sgt. Dogge hides in the trunk of a car that is believed to be driven by the lunatic actor but winds up having an unfortunate encounter with a train. A virtual army of police guards the house of critic Meredith Merrridew but are lured away when a vehicle apparently driven by Lionheart cruises past them. The car leads them on a merry chase but at the end of it, they discover the driver is one of the drunken bums wearing a Lionheart mask.

While the cops are on a wild goose chase, Lionheart has created his most grotesque revenge yet for the portly Merridew (Robert Morley), a swishy gourmet who is slavishly devoted to his two pet poodles. He and his associates have created a TV show called “Name That Dish” where the this case, fed a special dish he must identify. The gluttonous critic ties into his meal with glee...until he learns he is eating his own poodles, cooked into a pie. Once that secret is out, he is force fed the horrible dinner until he literally dies. This was a pretty disgusting scene to watch as a kid, especially when the pies are topped off with the poodles’ heads, but I can appreciate the absurdity of of it in my elder years. Incidentally, Merridew’s death was taken from “Titus Andronicus”, where the queen is fed a meal made of her two children.

But the police are closing in on Lionheart. The bum he used as a decoy has revealed that the mad actor’s headquarters is an abandoned theater. Edwina, who has been helping her father disguised as the mysteious hippie, is arrested. Only Devlin is left out of all the critics.

Devlin is captured by Lionheart and his daughter and taken to the decrepit old theater, where the drunken vagrants serve as a crowd for the latest spectacle. Devlin is strapped to a chair and his head held in place; a pair of red hot daggers is set to gouge his eyes out when the rope that holds them back is burned through by a candle flame. This grisly death will be the same as Gloucester’s in “King Lear”. But there is a way for Devlin to escape this fate: if he acknowledges that Lionheart was the true winner of the Critic’s Circle Award instead of William Woodstock.

I’ll say one thing for Devlin: he’s got balls. Even with his eyes ready to be burned out by hot knives, he still insists Woodstock was the better actor. Balls, but not brains...I’d tell Lionheart he was the greatest of all time if I was staring that death in the face. But things start to unravel for the vengeance-crazed thespian. For one thing, the police have discovered his hideout and have it surrounded. Secondly, Devlin’s fate is postponed when the knife mechanism is hung up and jammed. And worst of all, Lionheart has finally lost control of the bums, who revolt against him and slam Edwina in the head with the award that was meant for her father.

Merridew is served a very special dish...

The theater goes up in an inferno of flames as Devlin is rescued from the knives just in time by Boot. Edwina delivers a Shakespearean soliliquy as she expires, leaving the grief-stricken Lionheart to clutch her body and head to the roof of the blazing theater. Overwrought till the end, he delivers Lear’s final monologue as the building collapses in flames. Devlin turns to Boot and wryly says “he always did know how to make an exit”.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The film was a delicious and bloody homage to Shakespearean theater while also spoofing it. It’s unlikely that Vincent Price ever delivered dialogue in any other film with as much relish as he does here. He also has the opportunity to dress up and camp it up in a wide variety of roles, ranging from Richard III and Shylock to the amorous French masseuse and fruity hairstylist Butch. His enjoyment is apparent in every scene here.

Diana Rigg also mentioned that Edwina was one of her favorite roles as well, as she also got the chance to play various characters as well as recite Shakespearean verse. In fact, everybody in the movie seems to be having a fine old time, from well-known character actors as the hapless critics to the unknowns playing the vagrants. It can be said that the vagrants, identified as “Meth’s Drinkers” in credits, are rather a caricature of the public audience...witless, confused and finally quick to turn on their favorite performers.

The film received generally good reviews at the time of release and was a modest success. But the days of actor-driven horror movies with class were drawing to an end in the early 70’s, replaced by killer zombies and bloody giallos. Price’s long horror career was coming to an end and he had only a few more movie roles after “Theatre of Blood”.

As the years have rolled by, the reputation of the movie has grown and in some quarters, it is even more celebrated than the Phibes movies, which were all time classics. Surely Vincent Price was luckier than his character Edward Lionheart in living long enough to get the critical accolades that eluded poor Lionheart.