Reportedly, Theatre of Blood was one of the late Vincent Price’s favourite films, as it gave him the chance to deliver multiple Shakespearean speeches, something which his typecasting in horror movies had usually made impossible.
Watching Theatre of Blood is an utterly unique experience. Beginning with the brutal murder of a theatre critic at the hands of a horde of vagrants, the movie’s fever-dream tone is set early on, and it hardly lets up for a single second as the critic-slashing plot continues to unfold.
Despite a large cast, Theatre of Blood hinges entirely on Price’s performance. Frantically switching between twisted humour and intense pathos, Price brings the story of an unstable actor on a murderous rampage to life, and in doing so, proves yet again why he’s the master of horror.
The dark nature of the story is offset by particularly colourful and outlandish murders, each linked to a different Shakespearean play. The result is equal parts gleeful, melodramatic and gory, and each scene is delightfully ridiculous in a different way.
Theatre of Blood’s apparent protagonists – the critics desperately trying to avoid murder at the hands of the presumed-dead Edward Lionheart – are unremarkable and unlikable; but Price’s villain is the hero of the piece, thanks in no small part to his singular on-screen presence.
Although the entire film gives off an air of campy, slasher B-movie nonsense, it all comes together in way that feels fresh and impossibly coherent. The distinctions that elevate it above this apparent status are fairly small; the lurid and humorous set pieces (such as Robert Morley being casually fed his own poodles as Price’s Lionheart chuckles evilly in his face or the deadly fencing match that takes place on leisure centre trampolines), the subtle sympathy in Price’s performance, and the emotional core of the story all serve to make Theatre of Blood something more than it appears at first glance.
It’s something of a bridge between Hollywood’s earlier horror movies and the more modern slashers, although its most refreshing aspect is its refusal to take itself too seriously. If you’ve ever wanted to see Shakespearean soliloquies performed before murderous transients or the cold-blooded murder of sour-faced pundits, Theatre of Blood might just be the fix you’re after.
Summary: Unforgettably campy, insane and discordant, this ’70s British horror movie is deserving of its place in movie history for its unique nature alone. If you’re looking to be entertained, it’s unlikely to disappoint.