Long considered one of Vincent Price’s best movies, Theater of Blood has been unavailable in high-definition in the United States except for a limited edition release from Twilight Time in 2016. In September 2021, though, Kino Lorber fixed that with a special edition release, letting me retire my old DVD print.
I research a movie by first looking up actor histories. Sometimes this takes no time at all (Llamageddon) but Theater of Blood turned out to be quite an undertaking. The headliner is Vincent Price, who was at this point thirty-five years into his fifty-two-year career. Vincent Price plays Edward Lionheart, a titan of the stage. Lionheart is popular among fans but loathed by critics. In fact, a clique of critics has turned roasting Lionheart into a kind of competition amongst themselves. This culminates in a public snub at an awards ceremony. Lionheart, disgraced and furious, leaps to his apparent death.
But Lionheart does not die. Rescued by indigents living in a camp on the bank of the Thames, Lionheart plots his revenge against each of the nine critics he holds responsible for his downfall. He kills each of them in a manner similar to a Shakespeare play.
Edward, not stable to begin with, has gone mad. Diana Rigg plays Edwina, his adult daughter. Edwina is grounded enough to pretend to help the police. But when they’re not looking, she’s donning costumes to lead Edwards victims to their deaths.
Diana Rigg’s first movie role was as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On stage, Rigg had already played Cordelia from King Lear and Viola in Twelfth Night with the Royal Shakespeare Company, following that up with a turn as Lady Macbeth at the Old Vic. These were opportunities Vincent Price never really had because Hollywood had typecast him in horror roles since the 1950s.
Price and Rigg are the stars, but nearly every person in this movie had a solid career ahead or behind them. Ian Hendry, the original star of The Avengers, is a victim. So is British character actor (and former spokesperson for British Airways) Robert Morley. English comic actor Eric Sykes, by this time almost completely deaf, has a small speaking role as Sgt. Dogge. Hammer Horror star Madeline Smith has a minor role as well, but she would join Diana Rigg as a Bond Girl alumna in 1973’s Live and Let Die. Australian actress Coral Browne, who plays the critic “Chloe Moon,” was popular in Shakespearian roles. Vincent Price would leave his current wife, Mary, and marry Chloe about a year after electrocuting her in this film. Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) is there somewhere… and you know what? I could go on like this for several more paragraphs. I’ll spare you.
In a movie that trades in stereotypes, it’s no surprise that some of the humor rings a little false almost fifty years on. Robert Morley’s Meredith Merridew is both obese and effeminate in a way that’s offensive now. His execution — being force-fed his own toy poodles — is hard to stomach. In another scene, Edward poses as a male hairdresser with the mannerisms and subtext you’d expect. Nevertheless, many of the cast were or bisexual. This includes both Coral Browne and Vincent Price, but not Robert Morley.
The movie is almost Diana Rigg’s show as much as it is Vincent Price’s. Rigg and Price have extraordinary on-screen chemistry, and the decision to have Rigg play Edward’s daughter rather than a love interest lets the two of them share some very tender, Lear-like Shakespearian moments without the age difference being too creepy. At 35, Rigg was the same age as Vincent Price’s career. Rigg not only took the role seriously, she claimed that Theater of Blood was her best movie. She’d later collect real critic’s real snark in a volume called No Turn Unstoned and go on tour reading excerpts.
Given the strong anti-critic messaging of the script, it’d be easy for the movie and the performances devolve into an artistic airing of grievances. It never does. Even though we feel some compassion for Edward, Price plays him with enough arrogance and self-pity to underscore that everyone is taking things a bit far. The critics are terrible snobs, but do their crimes deserve these theatrical executions? Of course not. And anyway, Edward has his own snob issues.
The movie does not argue that critics should be nicer, that critics are wrong, or that film critics should not exist (thank god), but it suggests that maybe film critics and performers both need a bit more perspective and a little less self-importance.