The late great Douglas Hickox' hammy house of horror gets a much deserved blu-ray spruce up from Arrow. Mixing the world of the sit-com with horror and Shakespearean tragedy, Theatre of Blood is a one of a kind British curio that gets ever more enjoyable with the passing years.
Vincent Price was a great cinematic presence, but he was never one to underplay a role; here, on full throttle, he plays it with dastardly relish, with just a soupcon of tragic camp as disgraced theatre actor Richard Lionheart, believed dead but out for revenge on the critics who consigned him to obsolescence, and proving that the sword is mightier than the pen.
Hickox' proto-slasher is a series of vignettes, ripping out the iambic pentameter and the declarations of love, and getting to the red in tooth and claw violence that is as much a part of Shaky’s oeuvre as the marriages and cross dressing, played with committed theatricality by all concerned with maximum gusto. With its elaborately themed murders, it could be viewed as a precursor to Se7en (if David Fincher had a penchant for whoopee cushions and penny whistles). With a raft of critics to do away with, there is little time to breathe before the next sitcom stalwart is in line for the chopping block, most memorably Robert Morley’s "babies" meeting a Titus Andronicus demise, which may have inspired a few Tim Burton cheese dreams, and Lionheart giving it full camp in perm and flared slacks disguised as a gay hairdresser, all the better to go Joan of Arc on Coral Browne in a scene influenced by Henry VI Part One.
Theatre of Blood may be great fun, but it does have an edge of melancholy. Price’s rich mellifluous tones and ripe delivery come from another age. His character Lionheart is equally an obsolete construct, abandoned for the angry young men of the theatre that the likes of Look Back in Anger heralded onto the stage. It’s as though Vincent is giving a tip of the hat, one last hurrah before he leaves the stage. In truth it's more a steady decline in quality work apart from a cameo to cherish in Tim Burton’s superlative Edward Scissorhands.
Vincent may be running the show but he is ably assisted by a gaggle of television stalwarts, who never knowingly underplay, such as Arthur Lowe, Eric Sykes, Michael Hordern and Diana Dors, all of whom evoke a bygone age of smoking in train carriages, the gentleman’s club (before the term was assimilated by media haunts such as Soho House) and a choice of up to three TV channels if you could be bothered to turn it over. It feels in part like remembering a favourite relative who is now sadly gone. If this film was made now it would probably feature Robert Englund running around while the cast of The Inbetweeners call him a “bell-end” whilst slipping over dead bodies.
Cosy though it may be, there are moments that still make uncomfortable viewing. The murderous tramps may be a tad politically incorrect and are broadly played as gibberish spouting meths drinkers, but there is something uncanny about them, an unreasoning force that has done a deal with the devil for an unending supply of grog. As arbiters of chaos, they act sinister whilst the rest of the film is at play. Diana Rigg is as good as ever, but sadly sidelined in a badly disguised role that makes her look more like Ronnie Corbett than the ass kicking sidekick of The Avengers.
While Hammer was trying to get groovy with the kids with a series of horror misfires, Hickox embraced the present and looked to the past to create one of the great British horror films of the 70s, and a final iconic lead role for Vincent Price; and for that we should be eternally grateful.
Arrow are not known for stinting on the extras, and despite TOB's vintage and lack of surviving key players, once again they manage to deliver the goods. As well as the clean up, which has markedly improved the picture (although a little grainy in places and containing what looks like some edge enhancement), and greatly improved sound you also get a short interview with Victoria Price, talking about her father's work and his affair and subsequent marriage to co-star Coral Browne. Actress Madeline Smith talks about being directed by Hickox and how the theatre in the climax was burnt down for real. A short interview with historian David Del Valle is thin fare, while the longest extra is an interview with composer Michael J Lewis. There's also the usual reversible cover art and booklet.
The main point of interest is the commentary from The League of Gentlemen, which is funny, insightful and full of love for its subject; in fact, everything a great film commentary should be. If you are still greedy, there’s also a trailer. No poodle recipes unfortunately.
Review by Jason Abbey
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