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.