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Theatre of Blood

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.

Hordern! Keep away from children and tramps

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.

Honey glazed ham The Lowe-Morley interface in full effect

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.

Who's that in the Rigg-ing? Price crunch!

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.

Don't panic! Swoon...

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.

Sykes and a... tache *That* mirror shot. Applause, please

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.

Blimey, the wife! Vinnnie flambees the Steak Diana

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’.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. THX 1139

    September 10, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    One brilliant thing (among many) about Diana Rigg: she loved this film. She published a book of critics’ scathing reviews called No Turn Unstoned, and I like to think she had this in mind when she wrote it (or maybe John Simon).

  2. Droogie

    September 11, 2020 at 3:42 am

    I showed this to a friend who’d never seen the movie a few years ago, and their shocked open-mouthed reaction throughout was hilarious to watch. They made a good point that Vincent Price acts like he’s in a different film to everybody else. This is a truly bizarre movie as it has almost a Get Carter look of early 70’s Britain with overcast skies ,shabby streets and homeless meths drinkers , but with Price hamming it up in various camp costumes throughout . It’s a shame all the talents involved didn’t attempt another movie together like the Dr Phibes series.

    • Sidney Balmoral James

      September 13, 2020 at 11:27 am

      It is very much like the Dr Phibes films in that the humour and quirkiness seems to make the horror all the more gruesome – I remember as a teenager being revolted by Arthur Lowe’s head on the milk bottle, and Robert Morley being force fed his dogs with a funnel until he chokes to death (and this was when I loved films like Scanners). I’ve not seen this in years, but isn’t there a gaping plot hole – Joan Hickson wakes up and knocks the head onto the floor, and then it’s found stuck on a milk bottle? Or do we presume she then fainted / got injected again, and then Lionheart and co depart, putting the head on the bottle on the way out?

      • THX 1139

        September 13, 2020 at 1:15 pm

        Eric Sykes’ demise is probably the funniest, because you don’t really see it happen.

  3. George White

    September 11, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    Also features that Creamiest niche – fictional ITV regions.

    London TV in the Final Conflict
    In this case, Avon TV.
    Northern television in Our Friends in the North
    Lion TV in There’s A Girl in my Soup.
    Peak TV in Trog
    Allied TV in Fanatic (1965).
    Rainbow TV (producers of Parkinson!) in AIP?PRICE/Cush fare Madhouse
    Manx TV in Mindhorn
    ECTV in Only When I Laugh
    Borderland TV in Bagthorpe
    Midiffusion in Take A Girl like You.

    60s Mission Impossible had the English Broadcasting Service and the English Television Network.

    • Droogie

      September 11, 2020 at 10:18 pm

      What does this have to do with anything George White? We’re talking about Theatre Of Blood here, but you keep sharing irrelevant crap. Are you a nutter?

      • THX 1139

        September 12, 2020 at 9:53 am

        No need for that, Droogie – George marches to a different drummer.

        • Droogie

          September 13, 2020 at 2:26 am

          Sorry for being an arse , THX 1139. I was out of order. I just wish this site has more regular contributors. It seems like there’s less than a dozen of us, and we end up talking about the same themes a lot .

          • THX 1139

            September 13, 2020 at 1:05 pm

            Yeah, I know what you mean, but there are hundreds of TV shows and films and whatnot listed on this site, so even with a hardy half dozen of us regulars we should be able to find plenty to say. In theory – alas the human memory is finite, so tends to return to the same subjects over and over.

            But the site does a sterling job of keeping some real obscurities alive, as well as offering an amusing take on the more familiar stuff, which is what we commenters should be striving to emulate.

          • George White

            September 14, 2020 at 3:16 pm

            Theatre of Blood, the company who produce This is your Dish is a fictional ITV region, Avon Television

  4. Glenn Aylett

    September 12, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    The early seventies seemed to mark the peak of the British horror boom that started in 1958 with Dracula. Theatre Of Blood was part of a brilliant finale for British horror and had a fantastic cast. Thereafter companies like Hammer found it more profitable to make sitcom spin offs before the British film industry came close to death in the late seventies.

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