Directed by Douglas Hickox
Written by Anthony Greville-Bell (screenplay), Stanley Mann (idea), John Kohn (idea)
I’ve been thinking it was time to revisit some classics that I loved as a kid but which I haven’t watched for a while. These are the films that had a real impact on me when I saw them and influenced my love of horror. But are they as good today as they were back then?
Only one way to find out!
And where better to start than with Theatre of Blood, a film that was released the year I was born, for which I have a real soft spot and fond memories of watching many times as a youngster. I can’t remember how long it has been since I watched it, but I think of it often, and it was clearly overdue for a rewatch.
I am not sure how old I was the first time I saw it, but I don’t think I could have been much older than 11 or 12, randomly stumbling across it during a late night illicit TV session. My abiding memories are of the opening and Michael Horden being brutally stabbed to death by a load of drunks and Robert Morley’s unpleasant dinner – two scenes that have stuck with me for over 30 years.
But would they have the same impact now? Would I feel the same watching it nearly 4 decades later?
The short answer is yes, most definitely yes. While many of the scenes turn out to be a lot less graphic than my young mind remembers, they are still pretty horrific in their own way. Where they haven’t changed is in the gleeful black comedy that runs throughout the film.
Theatre of Blood is a wonderfully over the top, gaudy classic that is even better than I remembered it as a kid. Back then, I suspect my main driver for watching it was the opportunity to illicitly watch a horror film and it mattered little whether it was actually any good! Watching it now, with a wiser (I hope) head on my shoulders, I can appreciate it more deeply and fall in love with it all over again.
Vincent Price chews scenery as the bitter Shakesperean Actor, Edward Lionheart (great name) seeking pay-back on the circle of critics who beat him down until he tried to take his own life by jumping from the balcony of their riverside offices. He is saved by the local drunks who come to worship him as he plots his revenge via a number of gruesome deaths inspired by the plays of William Shakespeare. I know the film is old, but I won’t go into detail on these as they are inventive and wildly fun, (despite the dark subject matter) and I don’t want to spoil that enjoyment if you haven’t seen the film. This is the very core of Theatre of Blood; it is gruesome, bloody fun infused with an alarmingly wicked sense of humour as well an amazing all star cast, something I didn’t fully appreciate as a kid.
Alongside Vincent Price we have Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews, Carol Browne, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Michael Horden, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, Milo OShea, Eric Sykes and Madeline Smith. Diana Dors even turns up for a very brief stint as a critics’ wife and Miss Marple herself (Joan Hickson) even gets in on the action. These are all great actors of that era and they all just seem to be having fun. The dark humour that runs through Theatre of Blood is evident as the critics get bumped off but also in the supporting characters. Eric Sykes plays Seargent Dogge whose departure from the film is both disturbing and funny and the most salacious of the critics, played by Harry Andrews is aptly named, Trevor Dickman! The brilliance of Theatre of Blood is the way that it gets you sympathising with Lionheart, rather than the critics, who really are an unpleasant group of arrogant arseholes!
Some of the humour may be a bit dated and Price’s hairdresser, Butch, or Morley’s portrayal of the gay Merridew are very much of their time and probably a bit out of touch for modern audiences. However, the jokes and humour are never spiteful or vicious and it is all at the expense of the deserving critics. Any film that involves a fencing duel across two trampolines, or credits the ‘Choreographer of meth drinkers,’ gets the thumbs up from me. Theatre of Blood knows that it is melodrama of the highest order, and it wrings every drop of fun out of that self-knowing awareness.
It is also chock full of great ideas, and has been a great influence on many film-makers and writers; it’s DNA can be seen coursing through the veins of films like Seven, for instance, where the Seven Deadly Sins replace Shakespeare’s plays to horrific effect. The Blu Ray commentary is delivered by the League of Gentlemen who love the film and have all been influenced by it. Part of me also wants to believe it influenced something like Cannibal Holocaust, although that may just be me enjoying the idea of Deodato watching the gently scored opening of Theatre of Blood and deciding to steal the idea for his film! Both films use gentle, orchestral music which belies the horror that follows, although Theatre of Blood’s grainy black and white stage deaths do foreshadow events a little more than the rainforests at the start of Holocaust.
Theatre of Blood is one of those films you discover as a kid and think you are the only one who knows about it – it is your little secret but, as you get older, and learn more about film and television, you appreciate just how wonderful it is, how influential it has been, and just how many people are in the same boat as you, adoring a classic that was made with such love and care and is truly a classic of the genre.
I will hear no harsh words against it.
I will fight you over it… on a trampoline if I have to!
It’s always going to be a 5/5 for me, possibly boosted by nostalgia, but it is a film I don’t think I would ever get tired of watching.
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