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Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox) 1973 


    Theatre of Blood, a 1973 Vincent Price horror vehicle, has the distinction of being perhaps the most critic-proof film ever created. It features Price as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who rises from an apparent death to extract revenge on the critics’ circle that snubbed him repeatedly in their year-end awards. What makes these killings deviously clever is that each is a recreation from a murder in one of the Bard’s plays. It’s a high-concept plot, but it works well, and keeps the audience from taking the film too seriously (though I doubt the audience was ever in much danger of that to begin with). The killings are, by their nature, set pieces, and feel a bit disconnected from each other. Not a lot of things than happen in the film make a lot of sense. The police are notified, and place the critics under protection, but time and again Lionheart and his troupe of homeless miscreants seem to waltz past any security measures. In one scene, the same decapitated head seems to turn up in two separate places across London. These killings take up the film’s entirety (there are no lame romantic subplots or anything like that) and though they are incredibly gory and often quite elaborate, they are rarely downright scary.

    Still, the film manages to feel more like entertainment than a display of endless torture, since it usually prefers to take the humorous route instead of the horrific one. The critics are portrayed as a group of erudite eccentric snobs, and they generally seem to have no concern when their colleagues are bumped off. The critics continue to criticize Lionheart’s methods of dispatching them and his method acting, even as they have knives to their throats. They are caricatures, but fun caricatures. What’s interesting is that the film seems to hate the pomposity of critics, but at the same time sympathizes with Lionheart, who obviously places stock in what they say. Clearly, many directors and actors fine-tune their work based on the responses of critics. Auteur theory clearly seems to have given modern directors a notion that they need to place their directorial stamp on a film. It’s good to see a film that directly addresses the critical / creative relationship, even if it does so within a hugely exaggerated context. Despite these subtexts, the film is hugely approachable, and mostly functions on a visceral level. Price has a great time hamming it up, and even gets to present a few choice scenes from Shakespeare’s work. The general shoddiness of the film doesn’t matter much. Theater of Blood is a solid example of a slasher film that is more than the sum of its parts.

* * *


Jeremy Heilman