Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a famed Shakespearean (and only Shakespearean) stage actor, is unexpectedly (to him, at least) passed over for his coveted Critic’s Circle Award by unanimous vote from a fraternity of London’s finest theater critics. Following a failed suicide attempt and subsequent faking of his death, Lionheart strives to put on his greatest performance – a performance of revenge involving some of the most grisly and over-the-top acts of revenge imaginable on said critics, all based directly on the very Shakespearean performances he was so mercilessly panned for. This all arguably inspired many films years afterward, from the concept (“Se7en” famously involved serial killings based, creatively and gruesomely, on the seven deadly sins) to the execution (i.e. all those god-awful “Final Destination” films that were little more than a showcase for deaths whose brutality and depravity knew no bounds). Admittedly, the tone of “Theatre of Blood” is closer to the shameless, carefree exploitation of the latter than the atmosphere of suffocatingly pervasive depression of the former (case-in-point, the downright comical degree to which both Lionheart’s victims and the police are slow on the uptick to figure out what the hell is going on). You can’t feature a delighted, cackling Vincent Price serving “Titus Andronicus”-inspired dog pot pies and a “Cymbeline”-inspired beheading without at least acknowledging the utter over-the-top absurdity of the entire proceedings. Yet, there is a certain degree of satire, of thought-provoking criticism of, well, criticism, that ascend all this nonsense above the mere mindless and depraved. Amongst all the crazed monologuing of Lionheart as he walks his journey of over-the-top vengeance, one line actually stuck with me as he engaged in a “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired fencing duel with one of his potential victims, when he angrily exclaims,

How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because because you lack the ability to create yourselves!

Never mind the fact that Lionheart perhaps has far too lofty an opinion of his acting skill, he’s saying what countless actors must have been thinking for centuries. Indeed, with hardly an exception, the critics to whom Lionheart directs his theatrical revenge are old, white, pretentious, stuffy, flamboyant assholes, the very stereotypes invading the minds of those claiming (and celebrating) the increasing irrelevance of criticism, film, theater or otherwise, making this film oddly satirical and predictive of today’s society. That, combined with a Vincent Price who seems like he’s having an absolute blast in this performance, relishing his overacting and his increasingly absurd disguises, almost put you in Lionheart’s camp, make you identify more with him and his obsessive devotion to his craft than with his snobbish victims. Of course, Lionheart is a madman who must himself be punished in a genre film such as this lest this be nothing more than a 2-hour argument for and defense of straight-up vigilantism and no-questions-asked revenge, but pardon me if I don’t exactly mourn the line of victims who have to feel his wrath before everything is set “right.” And, if nothing else, this all got me in a major mood to read Shakespeare, to see what could so inspire such creative brutality. All in all, I had as much shameless fun watching this as Vincent Price clearly had starring in it, even if I’m willfully missing Lionheart’s entire point by writing about it.

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