Starring: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry
Along with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood easily ranks as one of my favorite Vincent Price films of all time. It bears certain similarities with Dr. Phibes, namely a colorful set, black humor, plenty of eccentricity, a central revenge plot, a sympathetic villain with a female sidekick, and thematically inspired murders.
Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), Shakespearean actor extraordinaire, has been deprived of the London Critic's Circle Award for Best Actor for too long. With an exit worthy of any Jacobean tragedy, Lionheart crashes the Critic’s Circle party, gives a fabulous anti-acceptance speech and then kills himself by jumping into the Thames. His legacy is left behind in his heartbroken daughter, Edwina (Diana Rigg). When the spoiled, selfish critics think he is really gone, he returns to kill them one by one, forcing them to witness some truly inspired moments of Shakespeare before depriving them of this mortal coil.
Highly recommended, this is the Grand Guignol film to end them all. Theatre of Blood is really a live action Theater of Death, with each critic meeting their sticky end in a scene from a Shakespeare play. What it lacks in sympathetic characters it more than makes up for in creativity, brutality, and Shakespearean poetry. Price delivers many famous monologues with aplomb and his Lionheart has enough hubris to rewrite Shakespeare if there is no fitting death scene available, a la Merchant of Venice where Shylock really does take his pound of flesh and possibly a bit more. Theatre of Blood also has what is probably the best adaptation of Titus Andronichus I've ever seen. Scenes from Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Richard III, Cymbeline, Othello, Henry VI Part 1, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear are also included.
This is also one of the greatest tributes to Price's skill as a character actor while simultaneously making fun of the fact that he was typecast as a horror actor throughout most of his career. He not only shines as Lionheart, but adapts a wide variety of Shakespearean heroes and villains, as well as side characters that allow him to sneak up on the critics, unsuspected. A French chef, sleazy massage therapist, and gay, afro-wearing hair dresser are just some moments where he is full of surprises, eliciting laughter and shudders of horror within the same scene.
Diana Rigg (The Avengers TV show) is wonderful as Edwina, Lionheart's loyal daughter whose life he sacrifices to get his revenge. Supposedly she and Price had a great relationship and Rigg very much looked up to him as an actor, remaining a close friend for the rest of his life. The other critics are also great, all playing their roles with incredible seriousness and straight-faces. They are not afraid to be big selfish buffoons, but they are also not afraid to snivel and plead for their lives before dying spectacularly. Some very big name British actors were in the film, including Harry Andrews (A Dandy in Aspic), Vincent Price’s future wife Coral Browne (The Ruling Class), Robert Coote (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), Ian Hendry (Repulsion, Get Carter), and many more.
Theatre of Blood is amazing, enough said. It is also surprisingly brutal and violent, wasting no time trapping and dispatching the critics with a ferocity that makes one wince a little. Supposedly this is also Price's favorite among his own work. The films is available as a single disc DVD, though also in the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set, where it is available on a double-sided disc with the similarly themed if slightly less spectacular Madhouse.