Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Overlooked Gems #60: Theatre of Blood

Grade: 82/A-

Oscar season is upon us, so it’s time for much of the world to reduce important (and not-so-important) films to whether or not they’re going to win awards. Oscar prognostication is a bloodless enterprise, not to mention meaningless, and it’s enough to drive talented people to insanity (see: actors saying “yes” to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). So it’s with the spirit of the Oscar season, and the Halloween season, that I recommend Theatre of Blood, the decidedly nasty Vincent Price film about an actor driven mad by lack of recognition.

Edward Lionheart (Price) believes himself to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time, but the critics don’t agree. They’ve panned his Lear, his Othello, and his Shylock, and when he thought he was a front-runner for a Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, they gave it to a newcomer. Despondent, Lionheart attempts suicide, but he survives, and he decides to take revenge on his critics in a decidedly Shakespearean fashion.

The film was directed by Douglas Hickox, best known for his run of black comedies and thrillers in the 70s (Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Sitting Target). With Theatre of Blood, Hickox combines the lurid Grand Guignol of Hammer Film Productions with a darkly comic wit that would fit with the classic Ealing Studios films Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. When Lionheart kills his critics, he not only selects a person based on a vice, but also pairs it with a famous death in a Shakespeare play; the glutton is forced to eat his beloved dogs (similar to Titus Andronicus), while a drunkard critic is drowned in a cask of wine (like the Duke of Clarence in Richard III).

The film does get a bit too episodic as it moves from one gruesome set-piece to the next, but they’re all vividly staged, they’re held together by Price’s regal yet sinister performance. They also give Price the opportunity to sink his teeth into the Bard’s most famous soliloquies, which he does with deranged glee. Price was an exceptional actor with a stage performer’s control over his voice, but his horror background saw him typecast and unable to step outside of the genre.

Price loved the film because it gave him that chance, but it also could be seen as his dark joke on the stuffier critics who turned their noses up at horror. As the film reaches its mad climax as Lionheart tries to force the lead critic to finally present him the award he believes he so richly deserves, it takes on new relevance. Mad as he may be, at least his awards show is more lively than the Oscars.

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