‘That damned editor’s cut the best part of my review’:
Theatre of Blood
UK, Douglas Hickox, 1973
by Paul Lewis
Once a late night staple on UK television, Douglas Hickox’s blackly comic horror picture Theatre of Blood (1973) is perhaps best framed as a variation on the formula established in the Dr Phibes films, The Abominable Dr Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (Robert Fuest, 1972): in all three pictures, Vincent Price plays a vengeful man who is believed by others to be dead; Price’s character applies the tools of his trade in order to exact revenge upon those he believes to have wronged him, leading to a series of vignettes involving deliciously twisted methods of revenge. Where in The Abominable Dr Phibes, the titular Dr Phibes (Price) delivered his revenge using techniques inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt, in Theatre of Blood Lionheart (Price) despatches the theatre critics who denied him a prestigious award by involving them in enactments of murders from a number of Shakespeare’s plays. As Leon Hunt notes, in each of these films – and in Jim Clark’s later Madhouse, released a year later, which also features Price in a narrative that bears similarities with the Phibes pictures and Theatre of Blood – ‘Price returns – from the dead, from the “past” – to avenge himself on modernity.’[i] The films, Hunt argues, emphasise Price’s ‘potentially anachronistic persona’: in Theatre of Blood, Price plays ‘a critically unfashionable, scenery-chewing Shakespearian actor’; similarly, in Madhouse, he plays ‘an outmoded horror star attempting a comeback.’[ii]
Theatre of Blood’s narrative revolves around Edward Lionheart (Price), a stage actor who in 1970 was denied the Critics’ Circle award for best actor. Staging his own death, Lionheart returns two years later to exact his revenge on the members of the Critics’ Circle: Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews), Chloe Moon (Coral Browne), Oliver Larding (Robert Coote), Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins), George Maxwell (Michael Hordern), Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe), Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley), Hector Snipe (Dennis Price) and Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry). Lionheart’s murders are inspired by scenes from the plays of Shakespeare and, in committing these acts of revenge, Lionheart is aided by his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) and a troupe of winos. He is pursued by Inspector Boot (Milo O’Shea) and Boot’s assistant Sergeant Dogge (Eric Sykes).
Traditionally, perhaps as a hangover from Victorian literature with its dualism of city/countryside (the former usually depicted as a place of rationalism, science and progress; the later a space associated with superstition and ignorance), the British horror film had often focused on rural settings and the superstitions bred within them. For example, films such as Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling, 1966) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Terence Fisher, 1966) depict educated urban folk who encounter nightmarish events whilst travelling through the countryside. Many of these films feature a period setting, but notably Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, released the same year as Theatre of Blood, relocates this type of narrative into the present day. This narrative trope may be said to look back to the classic horror tales of writers like M R James: James’ stories usually featured his gentleman-scholar protagonists travelling to rural villages or seaside towns and encountering ancient horrors there. For example, in ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (1925), the amateur archaeologist Paxton travels to the (fictional) Norfolk coastal town of Seaburg and discovers an ancient Anglo-Saxon crown, but finds that owing to the discovery he is pursued by a vengeful spirit.
Nick Freeman cites Theatre of Blood, along with Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972) and Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1973), as one of a group of British horror films that attempted to buck this trend, relocating horror within the metropolis.[iii] In the 1960s, London had been depicted within British cinema as a space of social change and class/gender conflict, in films such as Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1964) and The Knack… and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965). The city had been the location for crime films, spy pictures, social issue films, and comedies, but ‘its potential as a setting for horror films remained largely untapped,’ save for a few notable exceptions such as The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves, 1968).[iv] London-set horror films of the early 1970s, such as Death Line and Theatre of Blood, attempted ‘to redress the balance […] reveal[ing modern] London’s potential as a city of nightmare.’[v]
As with many horror films, Theatre of Blood explores the weight of the past, or rather it shows how the past is in conflict with present-day attitudes. Most obviously, this is depicted within the film in the conflict between Lionheart’s approach to acting, and his vow to only play roles in the plays of Shakespeare, and the attitudes of the critics: as Freeman notes, ‘Price takes the Shakespearean canon back to the world of Victorian melodrama, and then into a bloody confrontation with modernity.’[vi] The film opens with references to the past: the titles sequence features Michael Lewis’ mournful score accompanying brief fragments of footage from early silent cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, highlighting the theatrical characteristics of early cinema: in doing so, this montage offers a eulogy for this type of traditional theatrical performance which, during the mid-20th Century, had come to be seen as old-fashioned owing to ‘new’ acting styles such as the Method. (The Method was, of course, associated with the big screen, and for most audiences represented in performances by American actors such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Rod Steiger.)
Within Theatre of Blood’s story, the classical, theatrical approach to acting is embodied by Lionheart, whose performance style is criticised by the other characters (both the professional critics who denied Lionheart the award, but also Inspector Boot, who is investigating the murders) as ‘vigorous’. Of course, the metafictional implications of this are readily apparent: the criticisms of Lionheart’s classically dramatic performances mirror the criticisms that were often levelled against Vincent Price himself. One may recall the well-documented interactions between Price and Michael Reeves, who had directed Price in Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General (1968). By all accounts, Reeves battled during the production of that film to encourage Price – who was forced on Reeves by the American coproducers, AIP – to tone down his acting style. Price later recollected that ‘Reeves didn’t really know how to deal with actors. He would stop me and say, “Don’t move your head like that.” And I would say, “What do you mean?” And he’d say, “There, you’re doing it again. Don’t do that.” [….] Afterwards, I realized what he wanted was a low-key, very laid-back, menacing performance. He did get it, but I was fighting with him every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted, I could have cooperated.’[vii]
The first shot that follows Theatre of Blood’s opening titles offers an ironic commentary on the ‘relevance’ of classical theatre for the modern day: through a window, we are shown an image of Tower Bridge as vehicles pass over it. The camera singles out one vehicle, a removal van labelled ‘Shakespeare’s Removal, Fulham.’ The camera zooms out to reveal that the window through which we have been looking is in the home of George Maxwell, who as he is reading the Financial Times asserts, in a comment that connects the theme of theatrical performance with the act of murder, ‘That damned editor’s cut the best part of my review [….] My most provocative comment too, where I said the leading lady attacked the role with both hands, [and] strangled it to death.’ (The newspaper Maxwell reads is dated the 15th of March, the Ides of March – which has significance later, when Maxwell is murdered by Lionheart’s troupe of winos in a perverse interpretation of Julius Caesar.)
New and experimental models of theatre are subtly criticised within the film itself: in the prelude to the murder of Horace Sprout, Sprout and his wife (Joan Hickson) return home from a visit to the theatre, with Mrs Sprout complaining, ‘I don’t understand these modern playwrights. What we saw this evening didn’t make sense to me at all.’ Dickman’s murder sees him lured to the old Burbage theatre by Edwina Lionheart, posing as a young woman who is associated with a theatre group for whom Sprout has been offering criticism. In Sprout’s absence, Edwina asks Dickman to watch her experimental theatre group rehearse. Dickman, driven by lust for Edwina, agrees. At the theatre, Edwina tells Dickman that the performance is ‘living theatre with audience participation’: he will be asked to play the part of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. As Lionheart, playing the role of Shylock, advances on Dickman to claim his pound of flesh, Dickman notes, ‘Living theatre, yes, but isn’t this going a bit too far?’ Interestingly, Lionheart’s later Othello-inspired act of revenge against Psaltery seems once again to refer to the concept of ‘living theatre.’ The sequence sees Lionheart using Psaltery’s sexual jealousy to goad Psaltery into murdering his wife (Diana Dors), effectively making Psaltery an active part of the ‘performance’ – even to the point that Psaltery, as he suffocates his wife with a pillow, mutters Othello’s famous line to Desdemona (‘Down, strumpet’) without any prompting from Lionheart.
Aside from its subtle digs at modern experimental theatre, Theatre of Blood offers a jokey criticism of modern styles of acting such as the Method. A flashback to the meeting of the Critics’ Circle after the awards ceremony in which Lionheart was snubbed shows an enraged Lionheart entering the room to declare that the critics ‘deliberately humiliated me in front of the press, my crowd, my peers.’ He opines that they (the critics) ‘gave the award to a twitching, mumbling boy who can barely grunt his way through an incomprehensible performance’: Lionheart’s description of the actor who won the award ticks all the boxes for stereotypes associated with Method actors such as Clift, Brando, and Dean, who ‘were regarded [in their performances] as mumbling and speaking in a generally inarticulate manner.’[viii] Meanwhile, in the context of the dynamic world of modern theatre, during his career Lionheart refused to appear in anything other than Shakespeare and stuck rigidly to the classical approach to stage acting. When Devlin first meets with Edwina, she reminds him that Devlin never wrote a good review of her father’s performances. Devlin reminds her that her father would only appear in Shakespeare’s plays; Devlin asserts that ‘A truly great actor illuminates the present as well as the past. I attacked your father because I thought I could goad him into the Twentieth Century.’
The film highlights the vices of the critics, embodied comically in their names (the gluttonous Larding; the lustful Dickman), thus depicting them as objects worthy of the audience’s scorn and, to some extent, deserving of their status as the targets of Lionheart’s twisted revenge. In undercutting the pomposity of these high-minded critics, the film places in juxtaposition the high culture represented by the Critics Circle, and Lionheart’s own brand of populist theatre – with the winos who follow Lionheart functioning as both the populist/proletarian audience for his ‘performances’ and (in the words of Leon Hunt) ‘a kind of ultra-violent repertory company.’[ix] Ultimately, in terms of the film’s conflicts between the past and the present, and between populism and high culture, the audience is led to sympathise with the former (in both instances) by the energy and vitality of Price’s performance as Lionheart: as Hunt argues, ‘how can one side with modernity when the “past” is embodied in such persuasively flamboyant and wittily elegant form?’[x]
Ironically, although a number of the murders feature Lionheart in traditional Shakespearian garb (as Richard III, for example), in some of the murders Lionheart updates the roles that he plays: for example, as ‘Butch,’ the effeminate hairdresser who Lionheart masquerades as in his Henry VI, Part 1-inspired moment of revenge against Chloe Moon, who Lionheart sentences to burn like Joan of Arc in Shakespeare’s play. ‘Hello, I’m Butch,’ Lionheart, sporting a huge ginger Afro wig, asserts in a deliciously camp tone as he introduces himself to Moon. Ironically, despite his refusal during his career to appear in any plays other than Shakespeare’s, in his ‘performances’ Lionheart deviates from the plays substantially: as Hunt notes, Lionheart ‘rewrites Shakespeare by adapting his murders into elaborate serial killings – Shylock does get his pound of flesh this time.’[xi] After Lionheart sends Dickman’s heart in a presentation box to Devlin, the recipient notes to Inspector Boot, ‘It’s Lionheart all right. Only he would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’
The emphasis on theatrics and performance is enabled by the anonymity of the urban environment: after his ‘death,’ Lionheart is dragged from the Thames by the winos that live and scavenge on its banks. Smothered in mud, he is indistinguishable from them as they attempt to strip what they believe to be his corpse of his clothes and belongings. However, on his ‘resurrection’ Lionheart is distinguished from the winos not by the visible trappings of wealth – which have become smothered in mud (including the trophy that he takes with him as he jumps into the Thames, and which remains firmly clasped in his hand) – but by his mastery of language (he quotes The Tempest: ‘O, brave new world, That hath such people in’t’; by contrast, the winos grunt like apes) and his face, which the winos attempt to clean by pouring the meths they have been drinking over his head. During the murders, he dons numerous disguises, and despite the theatricality of Lionheart’s performances, none of Lionheart’s victims see through these disguises until he reveals his true identity to them: perhaps he is indeed a far better actor than they claimed him to be. Additionally, his daughter Edwina spends much of the film assisting him whilst in disguise as a young male hippy; again, this is a disguise that remains unnoticed by the other characters within the film – until, that is, she reveals her true identity during the climax. Furthermore, at several points Edwina, already masquerading as the male hippy, dons another disguise on top of that one, so as to play a part in her father’s acts of vengeance: during the Cymbeline inspired murder, for example, Edwina is disguised as the male hippy, who in turn plays the role of a television chef. As Freeman notes, Edwina’s employment as a make-up artist for films ‘is another witty hint that, in the modern city, all is not as it seems.’[xii]
Nick Freeman has also highlighted the ways in which Theatre of Blood uses various locations within London as theatrical backdrops, from the warehouse which serves as the site for the first murder, to the wine cellar in which Lionheart enacts the murder of the Duke of Clarence from Richard III. The film juxtaposes the Burbage Theatre that Lionheart makes his hideout – filmed in the largely derelict Putney Hippodrome, which Hickox had also used in his previous film Sitting Target (1972) – with the penthouse of Peninsula Heights, overlooking the Thames, in which the Critics’ Circle meet: many sequences alternate between the two locations as, in the theatre, Lionheart plans his crimes and, in the penthouse, the critics react to the news of the death of another member of their group. London is therefore depicted as a theatrical space, in which people perform their identities and play multiple roles – not just Lionheart but also the critics who he so despises.
There are notable similarities between Theatre of Blood and Pete Walker’s contemporaneous The Flesh and Blood Show (1972). Like Theatre of Blood, The Flesh and Blood Show is a horror film that focuses on theatrical traditions. Walker’s film takes its setting as a dilapidated theatre that is situated on the pier of a seaside town, where a group of young actors are despatched, one by one, by a mysterious murderer. Like Theatre of Blood, The Flesh and Blood Show foregrounds its theatrical setting, the derelict theatre in which the murderer resides, and thus highlights the conflict between this symbol of the past and the ‘new’ world of the 1970s – symbolised by the young actors who are hired to perform there. Traditional theatre (the killer is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Othello) is contrasted with the new: the young actors who have been called to perform at the seaside theatre seem to be rehearsing a very ‘modern’ type of performance that incorporates mime and dance. The young actors are also associated, albeit loosely, with countercultural trends through their liberal approach to sex: their sexual promiscuity is one of the triggers for the killer, whose first victim was his adulterous wife. Despite their similar narratives, however, The Flesh and Blood Show and Theatre of Blood are differentiated by the former’s low budget trappings, and more concentrated emphasis on sex and nudity. Nevertheless, like Hickox’s film, The Flesh and Blood Show – in the words of Peter Hutchings – ‘registers Shakespearean drama as a cultural practice associated firmly with the past, as something of little relevance to the present [….] At the same time, this type of drama is shown to possess a residual power and to exert a curious fascination.’[xiii] In common with many of Walker’s other films, the older generation In The Flesh and Blood Show is depicted as out of touch and in conflict with a younger generation that demonstrates an unexpected sense of agency and resistance to traditional rituals. Where Theatre of Blood enlists our sympathies for the past that is embodied by Price’s Lionheart, in The Flesh and Blood Show Walker depicts the murderer (who symbolises a similar set of values to Lionheart) in far less sympathetic terms.
Theatre of Blood is a superbly entertaining film, arguably the equal of the two Phibes films that Price made with Robert Fuest. There are many layers of irony within the film, which operates as a blackly comic modern-day version of a Jacobean revenge tragedy, whilst also offering an ironic commentary on attitudes to Price’s own approach to acting. Seeing Price exact revenge on his critics is highly satisfying, but on the other hand there’s a great deal of complexity to the film, which refuses to offer a simple black-and-white view of morality. Lionheart is by turns sympathetic and frightening: his crusade against critics has a twisted logic to it, and it’s hard not to sympathise with Lionheart when he corners Devlin and asks him, ‘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 the theatrical production? […] How could you know, you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because you lack the ability to create yourselves?’ On the other hand, it’s equally difficult not to agree with Devlin’s response to Lionheart’s arguably egocentric tirade: ‘Well, get it over with, then, just so long as I don’t have to listen to that demented rubbish of yours.’
As with the Phibes films, the murders in Theatre of Blood are gruesome and exceptionally well-staged: the sequence in which (in a perverse interpretation of the scene in Titus Andronicus, in which Chiron and Demetrius’ remains are fed to their mother) Merridew is fed his two beloved pet poodles in a pie by Lionheart and Edwina, who pose as the presenters for the television programme ‘This is Your Dish,’ has often been discussed as a sequence that inspires both laughter and revulsion. Unlike the pie that is fed to Merridew, Theatre of Blood is a delicious treat which leaves no sour aftertaste: it’s a witty, ironic film that contains much food for thought and has a great deal of complexity.
[i] Hunt, Leon, British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation. London: Routledge (1998), P.144
[iii] Freeman, Nick, ‘London Kills Me: The English Metropolis in British Horror Films of the 1970s.’ In: Mendik, Xavier (ed): Shocking Cinema of the Seventies. London: Noir Publishing (2002), P.196
[vi] Ibid., P.207
[vii] Price, in Price, Victoria, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. New York: Dover Publications (2018), P.269
[viii] McDonald, Paul, ‘Film acting and gender: Method acting and the male tantrum.’ In Nöth, Winfried (ed), Semiotics of the Media: State of the Art, Projects, and Perspectives. Berlin: Moyton de Gruter (1997), P.329
[ix] Hunt, op cit., P.144
[xii] Freeman, op cit., P.206
[xiii] Hutchings, Peter, ‘Theatres of blood: Shakespeare and the horror film.’ In: Drakakis, John & Townshend, Dale (eds), Accents on Shakespeare: Gothic Shakespeares. London: Routledge (2008)
Ellis Reed reviews The Thing That Ate the Birds – free to watch online through the Alter platform – and interviews the filmmakers, Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham…