Saturday, 3 May 2014

Blu-ray Review: Theatre of Blood (1973) Vincent Price, Diana Rigg

theatre of blood poster
A genuine classic from the early '70s, this wonderful piece of Grand Guignol is both a tour de force of acting from Vincent Price, but a great ensemble piece, with many instantly recognisable stars from the period.
Edward Lionheart (Price) is an famous stage actor, so disgusted that the critic's choice award was given to someone else when he thought he Shakespeare season would have clinched it, that he throws himself into the Thames, with the scoffing hacks watching. He's saved by a group of tramps, however, and plots a diabolical vengeance on those who he ridiculed his work.
Using the many deaths in the plays he performed as inspiration he offs them one by one.
While the film is very well known, and has played on TV numerous times - indeed, I'd wager most of the people who buy it would have seen it on a late night screening when they were in their teens, it's a very welcome release. Not only is it incredibly enjoyable as a horror film: the deaths are particularly gory and rather brutal - especially the first couple, but it has a great streak of black humour, which makes repeat viewings a delight.
Among the stellar cast, there's some 'old' greats such as Michael Hordern, whose death occurs within the first few minutes and is especially nasty. The great, but fading, Dennis Price (who by this time had been in several low budget horror films, the best of which was Horror Hospital) also suffers a really gruesome fate; as well as being speared, he is dragged by a horse in front of the mourners at Hordern's funeral (cemetery geek point: this was filmed at the glorious Kensal Green Cemetery). Lovable Arthur Lowe is decapitated in his bed while his wife (Joan Hickson) complains of his snoring (it's actually the saw going through bone). Harry Andrews donates a pound of flesh while Coral Browne (with whom Price started an affair and later married) is electrocuted while having her hair done by a wonderfully camp Butch (Price, in bubble-perm wig and hippy clothes). Boozy Robert Coote (My Fair Lady) is drowned in a vat of wine, and Jack Hawkins (voiced by Charles Gray since cancer had taken his voice box) is locked up for life for being tricked into killing his wife (Diana Dors). The most audacious and hilarious in it's own sick way is Robert Morley, being fed his 'babies' (his poodles) baked in a pie. Ian Hendry (Repulsion) is the critic helping the police, but he too has a run-in with Lionheart. You don't have to be an expert on the Bard to get the references in the murders, as they are all signposted and mentioned.

Diana Rigg pops up as Lionheart's daughter - and only the less observant will fail to spot her elsewhere, and the police investigating are played by Milo O'Shea (Barbarella) and Eric Sykes, although not necessarily a stooge roll, he stills manages a few gags thanks to his genius at physical comedy. It's Price's film, though and despite the fact he's meant to be overacting and hamming it up, his renditions of Shakespeare lines are truly spectacular. You can see he is obviously relishing the part; particularly as critics often wrote him off as a hack too. There's a great morality at play, these writers, who make it their business to criticise a performance - often ruining careers with their words purely because they wield the power - don't often think of the consequences of the bad notices they give. Of course, if something is terrible it needs to be said, but one should never resort to personal attacks or name-calling, something they do when they don't like a particular actor (naming no names, but I'm sure there's a few people you could think of). The pen might be mightier than the sword in theory, but not when it's going through your stomach.

The film is released on Blu-ray from the wonderful Arrow Video, and once again they do a fantastic job. Not only is the film presented in stunning quality (the screenshots presented here are from an earlier DVD release - I don't have the facility to grab HD shots), it's worth pointing out that it is fully uncut too (some earlier releases are missing some shots of Arthur Lowe's head on a milk bottle).  There's also the wealth of  supplementary features we have come to expect from the arguably the best cult film distributor in the UK, if not the world. *side note: let's hope it stays this way, and the planned changes to the BBFC submissions system forcing extras features to be classified - and as such paid for - don't go through the way they are threatened.* To start with, the beautiful booklet is packed full of info and rare stills, then on the disc itself, there's a cracking commentary from The League of Gentlemen (Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson and Steve Pemberton), which is very entertaining, full of info and very much like ear-wigging on a group of mates in a pub, having a jolly good chat about films. Then, a series of short interviews with some key people about the film. The lovely Madeline Smith (one of only two - Dame Diana Rigg being the other - of the main cast members who are still alive) talks frankly about her time on the set, including some of the low points (such as the fact they were made to run through the burning building for real). American critic and fan David Del Valle talks of the horror star's career, while Vincent's daughter Victoria tells of her father's love for the film, and, in a surprisingly quirky and entertaining interview, composer Michael J. Lewis (The Man Who Haunted Himself) explains how he got involved. Kudos once more to Calum Waddell's High Rising Productions for putting together some great extras.

9 out of 10

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