Theatre of Blood

Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile. Filths savor but themselves.
King Lear: Act 4, Scene II

The cast of Theater of Blood without Diana Rigg

One of my favorite British horror films is the dark comedy Theatre of Blood (1973) so when the opportunity to contribute to the William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon arose I decided I would share some of my thoughts about the movie.

In Theatre of Blood the wonderful Vincent Price plays the Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart, who returns from the dead to take revenge on his many critics after suffering a lifetime of negative reviews. Lionheart’s desire for revenge is born after he is denied an important acting award by the London Critic’s Circle. When Edward confronts the critics at a private meeting he is berated and humiliated by them. In one final dramatic act, he steals the award and tries to commit suicide by throwing himself into the River Thames.

Much to Lionheart’s surprise, he does not die and when he wakes up he finds that he’s been pulled ashore by a group of beggars and tramps who quickly make Edward their uncrowned king. In a very appropriate twist, the poor drunken beggars seem to appreciate Edward Lionheart and his Shakespearean acting skills more than the educated and wealthy critics who have forsaken him.

With the help of his beautiful daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) and the beggars, Edward Lionheart feigns death and begins secretly murdering the critics who derided his performances and referred to him as a “ham.” Edward dishes out his poetic justice in a manner that is most fitting for an actor who spent his lifetime performing Shakespeare. He kills the critics one by one in executions all inspired by death scenes from the Bard’s various plays.

The first critic to die is George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) who is stabbed and hacked to death by the group of unruly beggars, which resembles a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Following that, Hector Snipe (Dennis Price) is impaled on a spear and then dragged behind a horse for miles from a scene borrowed from Troillus and Cressida. Six more murders follow and each one continues to take its inspiration from the Bard’s plays until Edward Lionheart meets his own tragic end in a scene inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Theater of Blood was made by the British director Douglas Hickox and based on a screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann and John Kohn. The writers clearly had a lot of fun coming up with the creative Shakespearean murders that it depicts and all the actors involved in the film seem to be having a good time with their roles. The numerous costume changes and humor driven story give the stars plenty of room to show off their acting skills.

The movie is played for laughs from beginning to end with Vincent Price giving one of his best and most campy performances as Edward Lionheart. The beautiful Diana Rigg spends half the film in drag and is barely recognizable behind her groovy 70s male garb. Both of these talented actors have called Theatre of Blood their favorite film from their rather large repertoires, and I think it’s easy to see why.

Theater of Blood takes a healthy jab at pompous critics who use their words as weapons to destroy actor’s careers. Vincent Price was constantly called a “hammy” actor during his lifetime and was never able to do the serious Shakespearean roles that he so badly wanted to do. Diana Rigg started her career doing Shakespeare and was part of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, but after her hugely successful run on the wonderful Avengers television series, she had a tough time returning to Shakespearean roles. During the start of her career Rigg had roles in films such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968) and Julius Caesar (1970), but the movies were met with mixed critical response. Fans continued to see her as Emma Peel from The Avengers and wanted more of the same.

The entire cast of Theatre of Blood is filled with great British actors such as Michael Hordern, Dennis Price, Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry, Robert Morley and Coral Browne (Vincent Price’s third wife who he met on the set of the film). Many of them started their careers performing Shakespeare plays on stage or appeared in films based on his work. This gives Theatre of Blood an authenticity and overall sense of irony that’s hard to miss.

The film has gained an impressive cult following over the years and is universally considered one of Britain’s best horror films. I think that’s due to the fact that Theatre of Blood appeals to such a wide variety of film lovers. Horror fans can enjoy the gory murders that it offers, comedy fans can enjoy its black humor and Shakespeare enthusiasts can enjoy figuring out how Edward Lionheart manages to creatively commit numerous murders based on the Bard’s plays.

Vincent Price is in top form in Theatre of Blood and gives each Shakespeare speech that he delivers in the film his all. It’s a shame that he wasn’t offered the Shakespearean roles that he deeply longed for during his lifetime, but his amazing career as an actor did not suffer from it. He brought great drama and tragedy into many of his best horror films and always breathed new life into the material he was given. I think Price’s Edward Lionheart would have made Shakespeare proud, or at the very least, made him smile.

8 thoughts on “Theatre of Blood

  1. I didn’t know anyone else had seen this movie, much less liked it in the way you describe. I found it on some random movie channel and thought it was a great way to spend two hours. Vincent Price is great in the film and deserves to be recognized for this performance. And those death scenes were the most elaborate ones I have seen outside of “Saw”

  2. Wow Kimberly,
    We must both have Diana Rigg on the brain. After writing my tribute to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on Friday I had a Diana Rigg weekend with a mini Avengers marathon as well as re-watching a couple of her films. Theater of Blood is a favorite and it crossed my mind to write on it but I went with The Hospital instead which I just posted.
    I love your writing and alwyas admire the films you choose. Price and Diana are just great in this film and it’s still one of the most inventive horror movies you can find.
    I wish the dvd had some extra features but, like the bare bones Hospital, I am just glad it is available.
    Price is an actor I admire very much, here is a guy who could go from Laura to the Corman films, from The Brady Buch to The Mod Squad and always bring a sense of finesse and class to every role.
    Cheers for thinking to include this with the Shakespeare blog-a-thon. I missed out but really enjoyed your choice.

  3. Great choice! I wish I’d chosen it.

    Well, no, I don’t, because I wouldn’t have done nearly as good a job writing about it.

  4. Thanks for this appraisal of one of my favourite films – ‘Theatre of Blood’. Apparently it is is Diana Rigg’s favourite film in her repertoire.
    I have to agree that ‘Joe Public’ wanted to see more of her as Emma Peel – I was guilty of this too at the time but, I was only 12 when Emma left with Peter Peel but, her stage work never suffered because of ‘The Avengers’ – in fact, at the same time as she was filming ‘The Avengers’ during the day she would drive north to Stratford-upon-Avon to appear in ‘Twelfth Night’.
    I have never heard her say that she wanted to do more Shakespearian roles than she actually did. But, she did say that she left the Royal Shakespeare Company because she knew she couldn’t get any further than she had already and wanted to explore other avenues, which indeed she did consciuosly. Unfortunately, as she has said very recently in The Guardian her biggest disappointment is her lack of a prestigious film career.
    But, lovely critique of ‘Theatre of Blood’ which of course her daughter, Rachael Stirling starred in on stage in 2004 at the Royal National Theatre in London. She played her Mother’s part which was renamed to Miranda and the fabulous Jim Broadbent played Edward Lionheart.

  5. James – Glad you enjoyed the film as well. I didn’t even think about the Saw comparisons until you mentioned them, but I can see what yo’ure saying. Vincent is terrific in Theater of Blood!

    Jeremy – Thanks so much for nice comments about my writing! Your encourgement is much appreciated. Diana is fabulous so it’s easy to understand why you’d have her on the brain. I look forward to reading your review of The Hospital! It’s shame that the Theater of Blood DVD is so bare bones. I’ve also read that MGM is ending their “Midnight Movie” series so the DVD will probably go out of print soon which is a shame.

    Neil – Thanks so much Neil! You write well and I’m sure you would have written a great piece on Theater of Blood yourself if you had decided to.

    Barry – Thanks so much for sharing all your information about Diana! I didn’t know that her daughter had been in a stage version of the film and that is exciting news. Diana is really lovely and a fantastic actress so it’s nice to know that there are groups like your “Ministry of Riggism” out there so fans can get together and discuss her and her work.

  6. Wonderful article! I haven’t seen Theater of Blood in fifteen years, but I remember it fondly. Now, I think I’ll have to check it out again!

  7. You know, Theatre Of Blood is a formative film for many Brit film fans as it was a staple “late night horror film” over here & I grew up with it & loved it, but I don’t know…the last time I saw it I was disappointed by it, it seemed really contrived & seemed to lack something. Maybe it’s the cast…all those Brit stalwarts in one place, or that I already know that Diana Rigg is hiding behind that disguise (hard to believe it’s her fave film as Barry says, as she’s disguised as a man, but she really didn’t get much film work anyway & I read in a recent interview with her that she resents not working more in film) or the obvious comparison with the Phibes films, I’m not sure…I think maybe the director Douglas Hickox wasn’t a “horror” director & he shot it a little too “tongue in cheek” for my liking.

    I can understand why Vinny would’ve relished the opportunity to embrace the “immortal bard” in the way he did, but for some reason this film has left me cold the last time I watched it. The ending is pretty weak & rather depressing. Hickox uses that “fisheye” lens alot ( he uses it in the film “Sitting Target” very well during a prison escape) & there’s something about it that distances the viewer a little too much, too stylised I think. I would’ve prefered Vinny’s character to have survived (like Phibes) & threatened revenge from beyond the grave! There is something a little too “realistic” about the film that depresses me.

  8. The movie is really a horror comedy instead of a straight up horror film so I think the director’s “tongue in cheek” style works well for it.

    I do agree that considering the movie is played for laughs, the ending does seem rather bleak. Like yourself, I think the movie could have been better if Edward Lionheart somehow survived in the end, but since he defeated death once before that might have turned out a little silly. I would have really liked it more if Diana’s character survived and she starred in another film later taking revenge for her father’s death.

    Either way, I personally think it’s a very clever film and really one of the best horror comedies made in the seventies.

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