Vincent Price’s smile is chilling. As he seals a critic’s fate with Shakespeare and an ominous narration, we want to scream out a warning, though it is far too late.
“If I am a dog,” Price says, weaponizing The Merchant of Venice, “beware my fangs.”
Price’s critically acclaimed horror comedy Theater of Blood turns 50 in April. The story follows Edward Lionheart, a bitter actor, and perhaps a cartoon exaggeration of Price himself, seeking revenge on the critics who’ve defamed him over the years.
A hilariously distinctive delve into the dark and macabre for 1973. It is timeless, due ultimately to its uniquely creative premise and Price’s powerful performance. The film’s comedic flair when dealing with morbid topics, its larger than life sequences, and its melodramatic themes served as whimsical, if bloody, escapism. To enjoy the film is to get lost in its eccentricity and flow.
Price himself held Theater of Blood in high regard. As an actor who always wanted to perform Shakespeare, the film served as a sort of wish fulfillment — just not the way he expected. His character’s recitation of lines from various Shakespearean plays allowed Price to fill the role of many of the Bard’s infamous characters, but with a thrilling twist.
TOB‘s strength lies in its juxtaposition of horror and humor. The story is built around Lionheart’s theatrics, a modern setting of utterly ridiculous and implausible scenarios. But the contrast works due to the movie’s masterful use of the absurd.
Each of Lionheart’s murders are inspired by Shakespearian deaths, making both their appearance and execution inherently theatrical. He recreates the way certain characters were killed, paying homage to nine different works. The Trojan-horse style entry into the house of Horace Sprout operates entirely in the absurd, bridging humor and horror in its stunningly casual portrayal of a gruesome murder. Lionheart and his assistant, played by Diana Rigg, infiltrate the home in a large box, exiting in the dead of night and subduing the couple before rather systematically decapitating the critic, like Cloton in Cymbeline. Such extravagantly crafted scenes are why the movie is so memorable.
The film continuously subverts the audience’s expectations using the element of surprise, tying all these murders together in seamless and comprehensive fashion. Lionheart’s unhinged actions cannot be anticipated, and in that uncertainty is the power Theater of Blood holds to captivate its viewers, even 50 years later.