The Abominable Actor, Lionheart

by Arthur B

Theatre of Blood sees Vincent Price turn the ham up to 11.
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As capable and diverse as he was as an actor, let's face it - you didn't cast Vincent Price if you were after a restrained, subdued performance. Nine times out of ten, what his directors wanted was his distinctive, instantly recognisable personality, and his ability to break out the ham at a moment's notice. Ham acting when unintentional is unbearable; when brought to bear on purpose, in its proper place, it's ragingly good fun, and part of what makes Price's films so enjoyable is the sense that everyone - including Price - was having fun with them.

Perhaps the best example of this is Theatre of Blood, which is something of a spiritual sequel to The Abominable Doctor Phibes, since it features Vincent Price as a vengeance-driven madman picking off the entries on his enemies list one by one with a series of murders based around a striking central theme or motif. This time around, Price is cast as Edward Lionheart, the hammiest Shakespearean actor of his generation. Convinced of his unparalleled skill, he tops off his career with a retirement run of appearances in various Shakespeare plays, and then sat back waiting for the critical praise to come rolling in. Surely, in the light of his retirement, the hearts of the critics would soften and give him the Critics' Circle Award For Best Actor he had yearned for for so long?

Well, unfortunately the Critics' Circle don't see it that way, and yet again they snub Lionheart. He attempts suicide, and having survived (though thought dead by the theatrical community) falls in with the group of vagrant meths drinkers who saved his life. This loyal crew fawns on Lionheart's every word, obey his every command, and - most importantly - applaud his every performance provided he keeps the money rolling in. Finally surrounded by an uncritically appreciative audience, Lionheart decides that it's high time the critics who slammed his every performance got what's coming to them - and with the aid of his new lackeys he sets about slaying each of them. These murders are no hasty improvisations, however - why should they be, when by modelling each death on a slaying in Shakespeare, Lionheart can take advantage of the best co-writer he could ask for?

Director Douglas Hickox draws together a really top-flight cast for this one - one of an unusually high pedigree for a garish mass murder-based horror flick - and part of the joy of the film is in spotting well-known figures amongst the victims. Arthur Lowe, for instance, plays Critics' Circle member Horace Sprout as a slightly more cultured take on his signature role of Captain Mainwaring, albeit with the authority he was accustomed to in Dad's Army a distant memory, whilst Diana Rigg gets to chew her own share of the scenery as Lionheart's grieving daughter Edwina and Robert Morley seizes the opportunity to turn the camp up to 11 as poodle-cuddling critic Meredith Merridew. (One character is even played by two actors - the fancifully-named Solomon Psaltery is played by Jack Hawkins, who had lost his larynx due to cancer surgery some years prior, so his lines are dubbed in by Charles Gray.)

On top of that, Anthony Greville-Ball's script both amuses and scares on a range of different levels. Even if you don't know your Shakespeare, the gruesome killings retain their power, and Lionheart's absurd belief in his own brilliance can inspire laughter, dread or sympathy at Price's whim. At the same time, the more Shakespeare you know, the more layers become apparent. For instance, the first killing is based off Julius Caesar, and as well as Lionheart's own plan revolving around the specifics of the play (for instance, the killing takes place on the Ides of March), there's also circumstances that Lionheart clearly couldn't have had any control over which parallel the play, such as the victim's wife having dreams and premonitions of impending disaster.

In addition, the delicious twists the script puts on Shakespeare are heaps of fun. The Cymbeline-based killing is brilliantly surreal in its modern trappings, whilst there's something weirdly pleasing about seeing a spin on The Merchant of Venice where Shylock finally gets his pound of flesh. The Shakespeare isn't just restricted to the killings, but there's also a range of other nice little touches here and there. For instance, just as the funeral party for the first victim, George Maxwell (Michael Holdern - yes, even the BBC Gandalf isn't safe) departs from the graveside, Lionheart himself is revealed lurking in the background, disguised as a gravedigger - one of Shakespeare's recurring stock characters - and it just wouldn't be a celebration of the Bard if there wasn't at least one plot twist revolving around cross-dressing.

The climactic scene is excellent mostly for the way it exonerates the art of criticism. As much as we might come to appreciate Lionheart's talents over the course of the film, it would obviously be a bad day for the theatre as a whole if critics gave in to terrorism. Having captured the last remaining critic, Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry), Lionheart attempts to restage the fatal awards ceremony and hopes to force Devlin into recanting his decision and give the award to him instead. Devlin's act of resistance in defiantly calling the award for the original winner makes a genuinely heroic quality of his critical integrity, and it's only too appropriate that the film rewards him with the last word on Lionheart's performance.

Combine the irreverent appreciation of Shakespeare with a villain whose motivation is his hatred of critics (at one point Price gives a villainous monologue griping about how critics have no right to slam creative sorts because they don't have the talent to create art themselves), Theatre of Blood might be the most Ferretbrain-flavoured horror movie ever made. Spoofing the world of theatre and criticism with both love for the world of theatre and an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between art and criticism, as well as providing a more diverse showcase for Price himself than you might expect from the premise, the occasional dated "lol, gay people" joke aside (arguably a Shakespearean trope in itself, of course, though still kind of dodgy for it) I can recommend this without reservation.

The recent Arrow rerelease is crammed with the usual Arrow quiver of top-notch extras, and is particularly enhanced by audio commentary on the film from The League of Gentlemen, none of whom are old enough to have actually been involved in making the movie but whose style of comedy has a lot in common with it; as Mark Gatiss explains it, all of the Gentlemen had seen and loved the film as kids and considered it the best of his early-1970s revenge movies, and I'm personally inclined to agree.
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