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My usual position when it comes to Theatre of Blood (1973) is that it shows that everyone has at least one great film in them – but only one in some cases. The script is wonderful, the direction is capable, and the music is fantastic – and yet none of the people responsible for these things have a noteworthy career beyond this film. The one who came closest was Douglas Hickox, the director, who had a longish career, much of it as the AD on fifties potboilers: I’ve heard of some of the films he made (Behemoth the Sea Monster and Zulu Dawn, for example), but would struggle to describe them especially distinguished. Nevertheless, every year BIFA gives out the Douglas Hickox Award for the best new director, which probably isn’t anything to do with Theatre of Blood – but I can’t help feeling it should be.

The movie is set in the present day and opens with pompous theatre critic and grandee of London society George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) being summoned by the police to move a gang of homeless people on from a property he is involved with. Maxwell wades in fearlessly – ‘We’ll have no trouble here!’ he cries, unwittingly spawning a catchphrase for a future age. However, the mob of homeless people clearly would like there to be some trouble, and set upon Maxwell, bloodily stabbing and hacking him to death, all in sight of an oddly detached policeman and a poster advertising a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Maxwell’s fellow critics are upset, which rapidly turns to alarm when a second of their number (Dennis Price) is run through with a spear and his corpse tied to a horse’s tail, thus reproducing the death of Hector from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. A third (Arthur Lowe) has his head sawn off in his sleep (this one comes from Cymbeline). Someone is clearly staging a season reviving some of Shakespeare’s most spectacular murders, with the members of the Critics’ Circle in the central role each time. But who, and how?

The surviving critics are uneasily reminded of the actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), who would only ever appear in Shakespearean roles and whom they were all routinely very cruel to: in the end, their mockery, and the fact they refused to give him their award for best actor, drove Lionheart to apparently commit suicide by diving off the balcony of leading critic Devlin (Ian Hendry), into the Thames. But his body was never found – could he have survived somehow? Devlin approaches his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), but she is hostile and uncooperative.

Meanwhile the murders continue, restaging scenes from Richard III, Othello and The Merchant of Venice (a radical reinterpretation where Antonio does get his heart cut out – ‘Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,’ says a shocked Devlin, who seems to be more aghast at this than the death of his colleague). Can the police track Lionheart down before there’s no-one left in England to write theatre reviews…?

Quite why this particular group of people wound up making a film as distinctive as Theatre of Blood remains a mystery, but the lineage of the film itself is rather less obscure: it’s obviously a successor to the two Dr Phibes films Price made for American International in the preceding couple of years, but one which greatly refines and enhances the same formula. The basic plot, of a vengeful madman committing a series of extravagant murders, is retained, but the slightly laborious, almost steampunkish whimsy of the Phibes films is dispensed with along with the period setting.

Perhaps most significantly, the weird decision to make Phibes horribly scarred and functionally mute, thus seriously impacting on Vincent Price’s ability to give a performance in the role, is no longer a consideration. As a result this is one of the actor’s greatest films, as he gets to play not just Lionheart, but Lionheart performing many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. One of the reasons why many horror films from the fifties, sixties and seventies are so memorable is because they feature some of the finest actors of their generations, never quite getting the respect they deserve: you could argue that Theatre of Blood is on some level an oblique commentary on this whole phenomenon. But let’s not overthink this – it’s Vincent Price and Diana Rigg performing a range of characters (policemen, masseurs, rather camp hairdressers called Butch), causing mayhem and performing Shakespeare: how can it not be brilliant?

The film’s other stroke of genius, or possible good fortune, comes in the casting of Price’s victims, for Theatre of Blood has possibly the most distinguished ensemble of any British horror movie (even if most of them are only in extended cameos): quite apart from Price, Rigg, and Hendry, the cast includes Hordern, Price, Lowe, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Diana Dors. (Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes play the detectives.)

I suppose some people might say that Theatre of Blood isn’t really a horror film because it’s not actually scary – and it is true that it functions as a knowing, grand guignol comedy more than anything else. But even here the film has a few surprises to offer: in places it actually becomes genuinely moving to watch. You believe in the relationship between Lionheart and his daughter completely, and the critics do seem unspeakably cruel as they mock and scorn Lionheart just before his ‘suicide’. The film has an unexpectedly bittersweet, melancholic tone to it, almost as if it is suggesting that there is no place for someone like Lionheart in the modern world – that, rather than taking his revenge on the critics, his plan is simply a doomed parting shot from an earlier age of sincerity (even if it is rather hammy sincerity).

Because, apparently, even as late as the 1970s, it was apparently unacceptable for a film to conclude with Vincent Price getting away with it. Perhaps this was the result of moral concerns, or perhaps because one of the things that lifts the film is that fact that Lionheart is somehow a doomed, tragic figure from the start. The manner in which his plan comes undone is one of the few weak links in the script, but it does lead to an appropriately spectacular and operatic finale. This was apparently one of Vincent Price’s favourites from amongst his own films; Diana Rigg feels it is one of her best, as well. I can’t argue with that. This is one of the great obscure treasures of the British horror tradition.

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