Theatre of Blood [DVD] (1973)

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Arrow Films has just released Theatre of Blood on Blu-ray, part of a major series of restored Vincent Price films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The new release appealed to me, in particular because it has an audio commentary from The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) that has been getting rapturous reviews from everyone who has heard it; but my enthusiasm was held in check by memories of not actually being too partial to the film when I saw it for the first and only time, around a decade ago. But maybe my sensibilities had grown and developed since then?

I dug out a copy of the old 2002 DVD that I still had, and rewatched the film to see how I took to it second time around. And the truth is, my feelings hadn’t much changed at all: this is still a film I struggle to see the enthusiastic appeal of.

The story involves ageing Shakespearian actor Edward Lionheart deciding to kill the theatre critics who have given him bad reviews and mocked him down the years; he does so in methods suggested by the various plays that he’s performed in, with the first victim stabbed to death by a mob on the Ides of March. In that sense it’s well ahead of its time and a very modern concept – this would absolutely work as an episode of Criminal Minds or remade as a B-movie in the modern serial killer vernacular.

But this is a work of the 70s, and painfully so. Maybe it’s this that I can’t get around; there’s a particular feel to things produced in the early 70s that I simply react against. I find such films and TV shows more painfully dated to watch than anything else: the forties have noir, the fifties a certain technicolor nostalgia, the sixties still boast effortless style, and the late 70s and 80s are the period that I remember growing up and therefore benefit from my cosy memories of the day to insulate them. But films from the early 70s – and especially ones shot in Britain – just have a tatty, tawdry and sleazy feel to them to my eyes that I just can’t get over.

And in Theatre of Blood that’s absolutely the feel they’re going for. It’s immediately pretty clear that none of this is to be taken seriously and it’s grand guignol high camp, played to the rafters by everyone involved. And credit where its due, this has got a fantastic cast for its day: Vincent Price is Lionheart and Diana Rigg his daughter Edwina, and there are supporting turns as the endangered critics from Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Robert Morley and Dennis Price, plus brief cameos from Eric Sykes, Diana Dors and Joan Hickson.

It’s reported to be Vincent Price’s favourite of his own films and he’s certainly having a great time with it, playing the out-of-date hammy theatre has-been with fruity, over-the-top staginess, making the character a knowing riposte to his own real life critics – and yet also at the same time performing the various Shakespearian soliloquies with true style and presence (moments that frankly run on too long for comfort.) He knows what he’s doing with this film as does Rigg, but the performances among the rest of the cast are somewhat variable. Some get the joke, others not so much. Hendry’s playing is mostly straight heroic leading man (he gets a lengthy sword fight with Price mid-film), right until his final scene where he practically gives a nudge and a wink direct to camera in order to make sure we know he’s in on it.

There are some great murderous set-ups particularly what happens to Lowe, Andrews, Browne and Morley while others are less so, and in fact it could have done with fewer such set pieces to avoid a sense of repetition settling in that lessens the effect. While it does ensure the film rattles along at a crackling rate, I have to confess that at times I got restless and my mind wandered. Making up for that somewhat are the locations, with the film shot around London – mostly around the Thames, but also delighting in going to some of the more rundown ruins that proliferated around the city around that time.

Unfortunately it’s a film that also has a very low-budget look, and the picture on the DVD is dull and grey as it was on the original print. Outside of the lively murder set pieces it’s rather flatly directed by Douglas Hickox. The mono soundtrack is particularly problematic, with dialogue not easy to pick out at several points. I’m sure the Blu-ray had done a lot more work with both visuals and audio but there’s only so much that can be done with the original materials, and overall this comes out of the process only as well than the average contemporary episode of Doctor Who.

The overall script is, frankly, a bit of a mess. A lot hinges on the fact that everyone believes Lionheart is dead prior to the start of the film, but we don’t see the events that lead to that supposition until gone midway through the film – by which time it’s really no longer of any interest. And one big potential twist about Lionheart’s accomplice is tossed in early on, and then also presented as a major ‘surprise reveal’ at the end when frankly all it does is confuse us, thinking: “Oh, were we not meant to know that already?”

Overall the film is a dark Carry On film, and it’s the sort of jet black humour that would be developed, finessed, refined and improved substantially over the years, not least by the aforementioned The League of Gentlemen and by Pemberton and Shearsmith in their delicious Psychoville. Suffice to say, if you don’t like those then it’s highly unlikely you’ll like Theatre of Blood, and even if you do then this might not click with you anyway as it clearly didn’t for me.

I wish I could share in the delight of so many horror aficionados who adore this film and see it – like Price himself – as the best Vincent Price of all time. It certainly has its selling points, it’s just that at the end of the day that early 70s vibe just became an insurmountable barrier for me and I still wouldn’t give it more than two stars out of five. But on the plus side, the latest viewing of the old DVD has saved me some money, as it’s clear that however good the new Blu-ray release is, this is just not a film I need to have in high definition any time soon.

Theatre of Blood is available on a cheap extras-free DVD but be warned, it’s a non-anamorphic letterboxed format which means that that it didn’t play all that well with my current set-up and was instead a small picture surrounded on all sides by black borders. No such problems I’m sure with the new Blu-ray from Arrow Films that came out in regular and steelbook editions on May 19, 2014, with featurettes, interviews and a collector’s booklet included in the package.

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