Wednesday, 22 February 2012


THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) is an under-appreciated treasure from the horror genre and slasher subgenre. Nevertheless, you don't have to be an aficionado of either of those film categories to get a kick out of this charming film. It's perhaps the best-known item from the oeuvre of a relatively little known and short-lived director, Douglas Hickox.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: English director Douglas Hickox was born in London in 1929 and died in 1988 from a heart attack. He got an early start in the British film industry as a production assistant for Black Narcissus (1946). He gradually moved up to assistant director, then second-unit director, co-director (The Giant Behemoth (1959)), and finally solo director for Just for You (1964), Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1969), Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970), Sitting Targets (1972), Theatre of Blood (1973), Brannigan (1975), starring John Wayne, Sky Riders (1976), and Zulu Dawn. (1979), an epic war drama. He also made a fine version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) for television. Theatre of Blood has achieved cult stature. Hickox's son, Anthony, also became a director, specializing in horror films, such as Waxwork (1988), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), and Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992).

THE PLOT: Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) was the world's worst Shakespearean actor, routinely vilified by London critics for his hammy performances and unwillingness to ever perform anything outside the Shakespearean repertoire. When he lost out to an upstart for the coveted Actor of the Year award chosen by the London Critics' Circle, he leapt to his death, melodramatically, from an upper story balcony, after one last overwrought rendition of Hamlet's famous soliloquy. Strangely enough, Lionheart survived the fall, plunging into a deep lake and later washing up in a drainage channel amidst a group of homeless Meths-imbibing vagrants. After recovering from his injuries, Lionheart uses the cover of his presumed death to embark on a program of systematic revenge against all of the critics who ever panned his work and denied him what he earnestly believes to be his just deserts. Aided by his daughter Edwina Lionheart (Diana Rigg), with Cordelia-like devotion, Lionheart will not merely revile and murder his critics, but kill each one in the manner of a murderous scene from one of the Bard's great plays.

First to incur the thespian's wrath is George Maxwell (Michael Hordern), who doubles as a critic and a slumlord. He is lured to an abandoned building where Lionheart's bevy of devoted vagrants have holed up, to exert his prideful authority to drive them out. It is the Ides of March and there Maxwell is brutally slashed to death by the tramps, in the manner of Julius Caesar. The second to go is Hector Snipe (Dennis Price), aptly named for a critic. He is impaled with a spear and his body dragged by a horse to the site of Maxwell's funeral, in the manner of Troillus and Cressida, leaving one funeral attendee to declare, "He was supposed to be one of the mourners!"

Next, in a hilarious scene, Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) gets his head cut off surgically in his sleep, after he and his wife (Joan Hickson) are injected hypodermically with a hypnotic. Edward performs the operation, with Edwina, disguised in red wig and sunglasses, assisting. The wife is only just aware enough to mistake the sound of the sawing for her husband's snoring. In the morning, the maid faints dramatically upon encountering the master's severed head on his pillow. By the time she comes to, the head has rolled onto the carpet beside her. She pries her eyes open and immediately faints again. This scene was based on Cymbeline.

The befuddled police, consisting of Inspector Boot (Milo O'Shea) and Sergeant Dogge (Eric Sykes), are thoroughly baffled, neither having studied drama in school. Lionheart's archenemy among the critics, the keen Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), is not a critic for nothing and recognizes the similarity between the crimes and the Shakespeare plays. Furthermore, the three murders thus far committed correspond to the first three plays listed on a plaque summarizing the repertoire of the supposedly late Edward Lionheart. Devlin and the police now realize that someone has set out to kill all of the members of the Critics' Circle and that the next attempt will play out according to a scene from The Merchant of Venice. Inspector Boot suspects Edwina because, as he puts it, "How can a dead man commit three murders?"

The police set out to provide protection for the remaining critics, but prove incredibly inept at doing so. The goateed Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) is lured by Edwina, decked out like a Marilyn Monroe-style blond bombshell, into attending an afternoon of Living Theater, where he is tricked into playing the part of Antonio, ultimately giving up a pound of flesh, which turns out to be his heart. Next to bite the dust is Oliver Larding (Robert Coote), drowned in a vat of wine, a la Richard III.

When Peregrine Devlin drops by his fencing club, he finds it empty save for a man he doesn't recognize, decked out in fencing gear. Too late he realizes it is Lionheart and that the blunt tips have been removed from the rapiers. They will reenact the duel from Romeo and Juliet. The life and death contest between the two men moves about the gymnasium and even onto a pair of trampolines at one point. Though Lionheart gains the upper hand, he spares his opponent this time, wanting him to anticipate a death later in the sequence of plays.

Instead, Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins) is Lionheart's next victim, in the manner of Othello. Psaltery is tricked into believing that his wife, Maisie (Diana Dors), is cheating on him, when he overhears her moans of exaltation in another room, not realizing that she is with a masseur rather than a lover. Psaltery smothers the poor woman with a pillow. Outside, Edwina, still disguised as the mustachioed cyclist in shades, advises a policeman on patrol, "If I'm not mistaken, Mr. Psaltery is murdering his wife." The bobby casually responds, "Oh, thank you, sir." Psaltery is duly arrested and packed off to prison, as good as dead.

With only three critics remaining, the police tighten their circle of protection. Nevertheless, Miss Chloe Moon (Coral Browne), the sole woman among the critics, finds herself being served by an unfamiliar hairdresser at her favorite salon, while her bodyguard is left to read magazines in the waiting room. Lionheart, wearing a red afro wig, presents himself as Butch the hairdresser. The rolling curlers inserted in Miss Moon's hair are rigged to a high-voltage transformer and she is duly fried, like Joan of Arc in Henry VI, part I.

Then there's an especially camp sequence, based on Titus Andronicus (in which the Queen is served her own children baked in a pie). One of the vagrants, made up to look like Lionheart, lures the police away from their stakeout, where they are protecting the foppish Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley). Merridew is never without his pair of prize poodles, who he refers to as "my babies." To his delight, he discovers that he's to be the guest of honor for a variant of the "This Is Your Life" kind of television show called "This Is Your Dish." He is served a delicious potpie, only to discover that the choice ingredients include his doggies. "Where are my doggies, my babies," he implores, incredulously. He dies from a forced feeding through a funnel.

Now only Devlin remains. Edwina contacts him, claiming to have located her father. She wants Devlin to go with her to meet with her father so they can ostensibly ask him to give himself up. She asks him to agree to come alone. Devlin is less a fool than the other critics, however, and is not about to fall so easily into a trap. He goes to the police and together they decide that Devlin will be the bait to help catch Lionheart. His car is rigged up with a homing device and Sergeant Dogge hides in the boot. Edwina arrives at the appointed time and gets behind the wheel of Devlin's car. Devlin is conked over the head and loaded onto a passing cart. Meanwhile, Edwina leaves the homing device on an old wreck and drives off in Devlin's car, with Sergeant Dogge still in the boot with his walkie-talkie. We hear him relaying his observations to Inspector Boot. "They've started up now. Now they're stopping. They're getting out. I can hear a train whistle. I can definitely identify it as a train . . . T-R-A" Kabloom!

Meanwhile, the adducted Devlin is taken to Lionheart's repertory theatre. Tightly bound and the sole surviving member of the Critics' Circle, he'll either recant his selection and announce Edward Lionheart as the recipient of the Best Actor of the Year trophy or have his eyes put out, in the manner of King Lear. Ever loyal to his profession, Devlin declares, "Nothing you can do will sway me from my original judgment." He urges Lionheart to get it over with so that he'll at least not have to listen to anymore of the actor's melodramatic renditions of Shakespearean dialog. The sound of police sirens erupts outside and Edwina reaffirms her devotion to her father, "Good my lord," she says, "you have bred me, love me, begot me," etc. To discover how it all ends, I suppose you have two choices: watch the movie or read King Lear.

THEMES: Here's a slasher film that actually has a real theme, although it never takes its theme all too seriously. The theme, of course, is the relationship between artists (including actors and filmmakers) and critics. Theatre of Blood takes its jabs at both groups. The critics come across as arrogant, erudite, and, sometimes, ignorant buffoons and snobs, who mercilessly skewer hardworking artists. "What do you know of the blood, sweat, and toil of the men and women in this noblest profession," demands Lionheart of one of the critics. Another critic, called upon to play a part, acknowledges, "I'm no actor, I'm just a critic." The role of critics could be summed up by a slight revision of that famous old put-down pertaining to teachers: "Those who can act (or make films); those who can't become critics." Theatre of Blood is about all of those millions of artists taking revenge on the dastardly critics who make and break careers with a few drops of ink and a bit of nasty wit.

Theatre of Blood also implicitly condemns those artists who lack the intestinal fortitude and self-assurance to ignore their critics. Although Lionheart's overwrought acting has been consistently lampooned by all of the critics, he maintains a scrapbook with every poisonous clipping and has committed to memory many of the choicest put-downs of his work. He keeps all of these vile diatribes close at hand to fire his anger and provide the venom for his revenge. Any artist who has no critics must be a very bland artist indeed. The best artists necessarily have both fans and critics. Even critics have both fans and critics, as we sometimes observe here at Epinions. A review that pleases everyone has to be a review that didn't say much. The trick, of course, is to listen to your critics only often enough to gather food for thought and personal reflection, but not often enough to drain your energy or cloud your artistic vision.

PRODUCTION VALUES: Anthony Greville-Bell wrote the delightful script for this film. The narrative plays out like a series of set pieces – almost like a horror anthology. I'm not big on slasher flics but this one is easily the most entertaining I've come across. Although it's all very much tongue-in-cheek, the murder scenes are plenty gory and realistic. The whole thing is so utterly camp that it's not all that scary. The fact that all of the episodes mirror scenes from Shakespeare plays also gives it a subtle kind of mainstream legitimacy. The humor in this film is exceedingly droll. It's terribly amusing to listen to Edward and, sometimes, Edwina effusively spouting Shakespearean dialog. No matter how over-the-top Price permits his performance to become, it fits perfectly with the script's premise that Lionheart is the worst ham performer of Shakespeare to ever go out on stage. The sets and special effects for this film are both commendable. Here, a severed head really does look like a severed head and a wound looks like a bloody wound. The costumes and make-up are also very good. The music composed by Michael J. Lewis is very effective.

It is obvious that all of the cast members are enjoying themselves immensely in this film. Perhaps it was the opportunity to lampoon critics and strike back for every bad word written about each of them over the years. Whatever the reason, their enthusiasm is infectious. Vincent Price is magnificent, chewing the scenery with relish. For some viewers, Price can do no wrong anyway, but for those who typically complain about his approach being too far over-the-top, there'll have nothing to complain about in this instance. Cast as the world's worst Shakespearean actor, how can he go wrong? Price made a career out of macabre roles, in films like House of Wax (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), and many others.

Although this is Price's film all the way, the supporting cast is a veritable Who's Who of British character actors, so much so that one rather hates to see them massacred one by one. Diana Rigg is one of only about a half-dozen actresses about whom I can claim no objectivity. I simply adore her performance style and she can do no wrong in my eyes. She's my all-time favorite Bond-girl, for example, despite the fact that she appeared in what is overall the very worst of the 007 films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). The nine critics include Ian Hendry (Repulsion (1965) and Get Carter (1971), Harry Andrews (The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)), Coral Browne (Auntie Mame (1958), Robert Coote Stairway to Heaven (1946), Jack Hawkins The Cruel Sea (1953)), Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)), Arthur Lowe (This Sporting Life (1963) and If… (1968)), Robert Morley (Major Barbara (1941)) and Dennis Price (I'm All Right Jack (1959)). Also highly effective are Milo O'Shea (Sacco and Vanzetti (1971)) as Inspector Boot, Eric Sykes (The Others (2001)) as Sergeant Dogge, and Diana Dors (A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)) as Maisie Psaltry. As I said, all of them were having a good time with these roles.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The DVD from Midnight Movies provides a transfer in widescreen format and Dolby digital monaural sound. The only extra provided is the theatrical trailer. Soundtrack options include English, French, and Spanish. Subtitle options are French and Spanish. I loved this film! If I hadn't, I'd be a damn fool to say otherwise. Douglas Hickox's daughter would probably come after me with a carving knife! The script is delightful and the performances spot-on. Sure it's a slasher film, but, as its screenplay makes abundantly clear – Shakespeare was a slasher playwright!

Review: metalluk
Images: theblackboxclub

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