Horror comedy is never an easy gig, combining two genres that are mutually exclusive at best, at worst actively pulling against each other. Add to that the fact horror films have, from Bride of Frankenstein onwards, exhibited a healthy knowledge of their own daftness anyway, and the task of the horror parodist becomes Herculean.
Theatre of Blood, a prime cut of United Artists folderol, is well up to the challenge. That grand master of borderline self parody, Vincent Price, is Edward Lionheart, a classical actor of the declamatory old school miffed at constant desultory notices and the incursion of trendible ‘Method’ types on what he sees as his turf. Eddie sets out to off the eight members of the London Critics’ Circle who’ve served up his most crushing reviews. Being a Bardhead, he themes each death after an on-stage coil-shuffling in each of the Shakespeare plays he’s been slagged off for being shite in, making it up when the plot doesn’t quite fit his purposes.
This leads to some memorable vignettes indeed – Robert Morley choking on his own poodles and Arthur Lowe’s severed head are the most famous, but there’s also the brilliant death-by-perm for Coral Browne, Dennis Price being dragged behind a horse, Ian Hendry facing an ocular dagger mechanism straight out of The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, and the, er, singular spectacle of Price in a white suit humping away at Diana Dors before Jack Hawkins bursts in and strangles her.
But it’s more than a series of Sellotaped-together bumpings-off, as Eddie’s tragic backstory gradually revealed, and there’s a nicely gruesome technique of using the body (or bits thereof) of the previous victim to hound the remaining nerks. It was reputedly Vinny’s favourite of all his films, and it’s not hard to see why: a green light for unrestrained fruitiness, umpteen costume changes, bizarre make-up, action scenes aplenty, a suicide, the chance to electrocute his future wife while impersonating Princess Margaret’s hairdresser, assorted camply wonky European accents and eight separate Shakespeare recitals. Handed the opportunity of a lifetime, Price inevitably runs riot, but as well as providing fantastic entertainment all along the line, his singular ability to make the ham look convincing as a ham, and not just an actor’s hammy idea of a ham, helps the club-footed logic of the baroque serial killer film no end.
The rest of the cast bulges with notables. Diana Rigg is Eddie’s daughter-cum-partner-in-crime. On their tail are the regulation blundering plods, senior detective Milo O’Shea (silver-haired, bluff, one step behind but doesn’t like it pointed out) and dogged sergeant Eric Sykes. The critics vary from the shamefully underused (Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe) to the brilliantly overdone (Harry Andrews and Morley), and a well-judged ‘main victim’ performance from the always-reliable Ian Hendry. Then there’s Joan Hickson being repeatedly injected in the arse, Madeline Smith as a secretary, and Stanley ‘Bungle off Rainbow‘ Bates reviving a drowned Price with a Mazola bottle half-full of meths.
Blood takes place in real ’70s London, in and around real landmarks, with real knackered old police Ford Zephyrs to boot. Consequently, it all looks grand. Director Douglas Hickox pulls off enough fantastic little moments to put Kubrick worshippers in the ‘Eight Idols or Less’ queue. Thrill as Michael Hordern is vertically stabbed against a sheet of polythene! Marvel at the incredibly complex horse-in-a-make-up-mirror shot! Swoon as the camera follows Price from balcony to balcony of reciting Hamlet! And stare open-mouthed at the use of wide-angle lenses in general, coming to a head when Hendry faces off with Vince in a trampoline-boosted fencing tournament. No other horror film – no other film, come to that – varies so wildly in tone.
Anthony Greville-Bell’s script perfectly balances on the point of self-parody, yet it’s serious enough within its own daft world to deliver some genuinely chilling goods – Hordern’s violent death in particular is not easily expunged from the memory. This is how to do horror parody: first, take horror itself seriously, then let daftness reign as you extrapolate a warped version of it, but make sure you turn the seriousness back up when it comes to the characters. Camp Lionheart may be, but he’s clearly deadly serious.
Besides, you have to love a film that credits a ‘Meths-Drinker Choreographer’.