Steelbook edition shown - click for a larger view.
Note - the scan really doesn't do it justice.
UK 1973, 104m, United Artists/Harbor Productions
Blu-Ray: Arrow Films (UK), cert 15.
Someone is bumping off London's theatre critics. Not only that, but their demises are carefully crafted, grisly re-enactments of scenes from the works of William Shakespeare. The link seems to be Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a thespian who was frequently mocked in the review columns until he took his own life - or, did he?
Vincent Price turns in a career high point. As he ekes out his revenge, the phrase "with relish" doesn't come close, and yet there is also something touching about his situation, particularly when flashbacks show the sheer cruelty of the critics and the joy they take in ridiculing him. That Price is able to elicit sympathy and laughs in equal measure, as well as occasional disgust at his actions is testament to the man and his talents. Perhaps he was giving the perfect response to his own critics?
Ah yes, those critics... portrayed by a cast which you would be hard pressed to top. Led by the great Ian Hendry, supported by Michael Horden, Arthur Lowe, Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, Robert Coote, Harry Andrews, not to mention Price's wife-to-be Coral Browne. Then there's Milo O'Shea and Eric Sykes representing the ineffective police, Madeline Smith, Joan Hickson and Diana Dors in supporting roles... The icing on the cake is Diana Rigg as Lionheart's daughter, Edwina, who may or may not be a suspect in the police investigation. It's a cast of the cream of Brit-talent circa 1973.
Everyone concerned has just the right amount of tongue in their cheek, but there are real horror moments too. A victim stabbed by masses in a twisted homage to Julius Caesar is still quite chilling, whilst another being force-fed his "loved ones" in a nod to Titus Andronicus will have you laughing and cringing in equal measure. A novel way of obtaining the Merchant Of Venice's pound of flesh, creative use of a cask of wine, a nocturnal (and gruesome) performance of Cymbaline and a unique take on hairdressing keep the giggles and the body count rising.
Michael J. Lewis' score avoids the usual expected discordant chords and stings, and he gives the film a neo-classical accompaniment which stands up rather nicely on its own merits. It perfectly compliments the brisk direction of Douglas Hickox, who works wonders on a tight schedule in difficult locations, making great use of the derelict Putney Hippodrome. Without giving too much away, its safe to say that the method of shooting the climax would never be allowed under today's health and safety regulations...
You'll laugh, you'll occasionally squirm, and yet you'll cheer Lionheart on all the way. Not only is Theatre Of Blood one of Vincent Price's finest films, it just might be the best horror-comedy movie ever made. Really.
Blu-Ray Notes: Another lovingly curated Arrow Films release. The HD transfer by MGM strikes a fine balance between retaining the original feel of the film and respectfully upgrading it far beyond any previous release, and it's finally back in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The soundtrack... well, Theatre Of Blood was shot and recorded entirely on location on a very tight schedule, and the variable acoustics of the different locales are all too clearly reflected. The score (particularly on the opening credits) has always sounded a tad distorted in places on every version I've seen, although it's noticeably less jarring on this edition: transferred from the original, mono 35mm optical track, this is probably as good as it's gonna get.
Extras: A commentary by The League Of Gentlemen will prove great fun for anyone who discovered this film on a late night TV screening back in the 70's/80's. It certainly had me in stitches.
Interviews with Price's daughter Victoria, as well as Madeline Smith cast an interesting light on the film's production. David Del Valle's insights on Price's own fondness for the film are most welcome, whilst an animated Michael J Lewis gives a fascinating look at the composition of the score.
Rounding off the package, the booklet features an extended essay, excerpts from the original press book and some choice stills. An essential purchase for any classic horror fan.
Arrow Films promotional trailer:
Original Theatrical Trailer (may contain spoilers):