Monday, February 10, 2014

Theatre of Blood (1973): Using the Stage for Revenge

Theatre of Blood (1973)
dir: Douglas Hickox

Rarely has a b-movie had such a high intellectual price of entry. This movie is custom made for fans of Shakespeare who also really like Vincent Price, and bloody low-budget horror movies. Given the amount of death in Shakespeare's tragedies, one might think that this has some crossovers.

Vincent Price is Edward Lionheart, a terrible Shakespearean actor who held a final season of Shakespearean tragedies, in which he played the lead and was panned for all of his performances. At some pre-film awards ceremony, he expected to get a "Critic's Choice Award," but was humiliated instead, and subsequently attempts suicide. He survives to exact his revenge on the ones who deserve it most: the critics. He starts killing the critics using the methods of various Shakespearean plays in the order he performed them in his last season. During the sequences, he also performs the choice speeches that surround the murder.

In order to fully appreciate this movie, it helps to have a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare. And, by cursory, I mean, knowledge of no less than 8 Shakespearean plays: Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Henry VI Part 1, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Titus Andronicus.

Why do you need all of this knowledge? Because the death scenes are made into absurdist weird set pieces that seem like obscure oblique ways to kill people without any knowledge of their actual origins. Even with the knowledge of their origins, but without knowing the actual plays, the scenes are still rampant odes to some of the most famous scenes, and some of the least famous scenes, in Shakespeare with the dialogue stolen wholesale from the plays.

I can't imagine people who don't enjoy Shakespeare finding much enjoyment out of this movie. It seems like a prank in order to get you to eat your vegetables. If you find Shakespearean language dense and impenetrable, especially when parceled out at a spoken speed, you'll probably hate this.

Those who have studied Shakespeare sometimes are appalled by the sheer amount of violence in Shakespeare's plays, and this isn't for them either. The horror-comedy tropes are in full spectacle here, using and abusing all of Shakespeare's most violent tendencies.

But, for the crossover market, this is a perfect evisceration of both the supposed politeness of Shakespeare, and also a way to watch people get their secret jollies out on screen. Shakespeare was never polite. He was always just dense. But, his plays were always brutal.

But, then there's the second half of this movie, which is watching Vincent Price murder all of his critics who were so hoity-toity they couldn't appreciate him in the likes of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, just to name a couple of his then-recent films. And, as such, he was going to hoist them on their own petard, so to speak. If it's Shakespeare they want, it's Shakespeare they'll get!!!

Plus, he always wanted to do Shakespeare, and he got to chew the scenery as he always loved to do and was so good at. But, that almost takes backseat to getting revenge on the critics for their need for high culture in film.

Will you enjoy it? Do you like Shakespeare and b-horrors? It's the most fun you can have watching Vincent Price, unless you don't get Shakespeare. And, that can be a high price of admission for many people. If you have that, it is amazing.

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