By 1973, the traditional British horror industry withered down to make way for ax-wielding sickos, possessed children, and the other urban terrors that would reign supreme in Hollywood land. Bridging the gap between tradition and splatter, the most popular horror star of the 1960s and early 1970s —Vincent Price — triumphed in one of his last great genre appearances. Over 60 at the time, Price gives a career-worthy, Tour de Force performance with the blood flowing as free as can be in a film that's pure black comedy: THEATRE OF BLOOD. Originally released by MGM on DVD in 2001, and then as a “Midnite Movies” double feature DVD with MADHOUSE in 2004, THEATRE OF BLOOD finally makes it to stateside Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time.
Hot off the heels of the "Dr. Phibes" pictures, THEATRE OF BLOOD explores the same motif of a killer terminating a group of professional people with a common unjust towards him. In this case, it's a circle of stuffy London theater critics who refuse aging hammy Shakespearean stage actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price, MASTER OF THE WORLD) the coveted “Critics' Circle” award, instead bestowing it upon a “brilliant” newcomer. This drives Lionheart to suicide (jumping off a ledge in front of his celebrating deniers), but two years later, each of the critics are dying in the most bizarre ways possible. The police (BARBARELLA’s Milo O'Shea and Eric Sykes, THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES) are baffled, but the central (and junior) critic of the lot, Devlin (Ian Hendry, CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER) establishes a connection between the murders and events in various Shakespeare plays. Devlin also believes that Lionheart is still alive and responsible, and ultimately, the wrathful thesp plans to save the worst (and final) fate for him. In a flashback, we discover that Lionheart was rescued by a troop of wandering drunken tramps (performed with disturbing elegance by a group of actors listed in the credits as the “Meths Drinkers”) and they revere him to the point of orchestrating some of the well-planned murders.
Produced in England in 1972 and released by United Artists (during a time when Price was winding up his contact with AIP) the following year, THEATRE OF BLOOD allows Price to chew the scenery like he's biting into a thick juicy steak, and he's absolutely marvelous. Price's character is completely mad, and solely driven by his passion for Shakespeare and acting, and he transmits this on the screen to the max. Price not only gets to indulge in dressing up as and recreating over-the-top characters from the playwright's dramatic works, but he also dons the guises of a London policeman, a gay hairdresser, a fencing novice, a French television chef and a surgeon. This is all done for the sake of Grand Guignol-style slaughter (some of it in an abandoned theater, a very apt setting), as Lionheart melodramatically "punishes" the critics one by one.
Having secured one of the finest casts for a horror film, the rest of the critics are played by veteran character and comedy actors: Harry Andrews (BURKE AND HARE), Coral Browne (THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE), Robert Coote (THE COOL ONES), Jack Hawkins (LAND OF THE PHARAOHS), Michael Hordern (DEMONS OF THE MIND), Arthur Lowe (BRITANNIA HOSPITAL), Robert Morley (A STUDY IN TERROR) and Dennis Price (HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN). All are obviously having a lot fun despite their gruesome demises (Hordern is slashed, Price is speared and dragged by a horse, Lowe is decapitated in bed, Morley is fed his own Poodles, etc.). After meeting her on the set of this film, Price wound up marrying Coral Browne (who reportedly didn't want to be in a Vincent Price horror film), his third and last wife. This is probably one of the reasons why he used to go on talk shows (especially “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson) saying how it was his favorite film that he acted in. Former "The Avengers" star Diana Rigg (ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE) is excellent as Lionheart's faithful daughter Edwina. She also appears to be mad – an accomplice to her father in every way possible (even parading as a hairy modish moustached male) while acting innocent in front of the police. The character is well developed in that Rigg leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not she is totally insane and psychotic like her father, or just extremely devoted to him.
One-time 1950s blonde screen siren Diana Dors (FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE) has a great bit as Hawkins’ seemingly cheating wife (with Lionheart this time acting out as an overzealous house-calling masseuse) who moans in ecstasy during one of her sessions, and Hammer actress Madeline Smith (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL) makes a pleasant appearance as Devlin’s attractive secretary. Veteran director Douglas Hickox (THE GIANT BEHEMOTH) was more or less a dependable jobbing filmmaker, though his only venture into the genre is a triumph; a morbid tale of a revenge-bent, resurrected anti-hero (played with perfection by a horror superstar) set against a mostly drab and deteriorated London (and shot entirely on location) and the melding of dark comedy and clever body-count thriller is greatly aided by the wonderfully romantic and haunting score by Michael J. Lewis (THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, THE LEGACY).
Having THEATRE OF BLOOD on Blu-ray in American is quite a big deal since the previous MGM DVD was non-anamorphic. MGM’s HD transfer was first brought to the Blu-ray format in 2014 in the UK through Arrow Video, so Twilight Time’s new stateside “Region A” release looks identical. THEATRE OF BLOOD is presented here in 1080p in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and it’s a clean well-detailed transfer with excellent textures, good color saturation and deep black levels. Imperfections and blemishes are minor and grain levels are maintained well. An English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is included and it’s a decent mix for this film, even it if tends to be on the flat side. Lewis’ grand score is triumphant, while dialogue is largely audible and clear. English SDH subtitles are included, and the score can be isolated on a separate track (this was also a feature on Image Entertainment’s second laserdisc release of the film, back in the 1990s).
While Arrow’s UK Region B-locked Blu-ray has a number of interview featurettes (including one with composer Lewis and star Smith), the main extra on Twilight Time’s release is an audio commentary with David Del Valle and Nick Redman. The two cover a lot about the movie, including how one of the producers (veteran actor Sam Jaffe) was instrumental in getting Price for the film, the film’s reliance on natural locations (which Redman is most familiar with, having lived there at the time), that Price and Rigg (who had never met before) became great friends afterwards, the similarities (or rather homages) in certain scenes to PSYCHO and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and of course the “twilight years” relationship between Price and Browne which wouldn’t have happened had it not been for them starring together here. Del Valle dominates the conversation, but that’s fine since he has so many amusing stories to tell about the cast (especially Price and Browne) and occasionally does cheeky imitations of his legendary subjects. As Redman and Del Valle have different speaking and delivery styles, there’s actually some nice chemistry here and this is an absolutely entertaining and informative listen. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, as is an insert booklet (with the old MGM DVD artwork on the cover and the U.S. poster on the back) featuring liner notes by Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS