Edward Lionheart is one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his generation–in his own estimation, at least. He has given the theater his heart and soul, but never achieved the recognition he feels he deserves. He has withstood years of vicious reviews undaunted, but when the Critics’ Circle denies him the Best Actor award in his last season, the humiliation is too much. He confronts his enemies, and when they laugh him off, he jumps to his death right in front of them. The critics barely bother to be shocked by this violence, considering it a reasonable price for never having to endure another Lionheart performance. Two years after these events, however, the members of the Critics Circle start dying off in ghastly re-creations of murders from Shakespeare’s plays. Is someone out there avenging the memory of Edward Lionheart? Or is it possible that Lionheart himself has returned from the grave to wreak his vengeance?
Boy oh boy, you’re not going to want to miss this one! Vincent Price as a frustrated Shakespearean actor driven to elaborate, stagey murder by the unending cruelty of his critics? Diana Rigg as his devoted daughter, a Cordelia with wide streak of the other Lear girls in her soul? A gaggle of great British character actors taking a larking turn as Lionheart’s troupe of methylated spirits-addled co-conspirators? Campy doesn’t begin to describe it; “trippy” is more like it. You will certainly wonder if the writer and director weren’t maybe swigging the methylated booze themselves, now and then.
The film does require a particular suspension of disbelief (beyond how Lionheart is able to accomplish some of the necessities of the murders): after the first two or three murders, the pool of victims is pretty well aware that Lionheart, or someone close to him, is behind the assault on their numbers. They’re primed to be on the lookout for him, and yet, victim after victim, he’s able to lure them to their doom. Yes, he’s in theatrical-quality disguises–but his voice isn’t, and as I’ve commented many times throughout this project, Price’s voice is one-of-a-kind. So we have to believe that Edward Lionheart’s voice isn’t as distinctive as that of the actor playing him. Moreover, this isn’t the only case of a voice giving the game away. I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s another character in the film who gets a big reveal toward the end that’s meant to shock the audience, but the actor’s voice is far too identifiable for the disguise to last past the first few scenes. Basically, once the character start talking, it’s pretty obvious who’s under all that hair.
Reportedly, Theater of Blood was one of Price’s favorite films, because he longed to perform Shakespeare, but was typecast in horror roles. This gave him the opportunity to perform some of the Bard’s greatest speeches: “To be or not to be,”; “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”; “Now is the winter of our discontent…”; and his climactic set piece from Lear, which becomes all too terribly real for Lionheart. (A gang of methed-out maniacs, incited to murder, turns out to be a difficult weapon to wield.) And here we have to suspend our disbelief again, for while Edward Lionheart is a terrible ham of an actor, Vincent Price was considerably more gifted, and he lets his joy in performing Shakespeare lure him into giving a much finer performance than his character should be capable of. I, for one, can’t begrudge him the choice, especially as it gives us a glimpse of what we might have enjoyed, had any director had the vision to cast Price in a classical production.
This review is for the Peril on the Screen challenge of RIP V.