Posts tagged Shakespeare

Vincent Price & Theatre of Blood

Let’s be quite candid about Vincent Price’s acting style (and I say style, not ability) – he was an out-and-out ham. Under a particularly gifted director, he could produce a more serious, subdued performance, of course. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) is the most notable example. For the most part, however, Price was a larger-than-life presence on the screen, fond of exaggerated gesticulation and over-the-top delivery of lines. In his most celebrated films, the overacting served him well.

Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood

In the seventies, Price began to parody this camp tendency, and never more than in the trio of films he made in Britain between 1971 and 1973: The Abominable Dr Phibes, Dr Phibes Rises Again and Theatre of Blood. In the first Phibes film, he played a disfigured organist who takes revenge on the surgeons who failed to save his wife by subjecting them to his ingenious recreations of the biblical plagues on Egypt. (The deliberately absurd tone seemed lost on Time Out critic David Pirie, who rather humourlessly denounced it at the time as “perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945.”) In the sequel, Phibes picked off his enemies one by one with a similarly dramatic series of tortures. Then, in Theatre of Blood, he was Edward Lionheart, a stage actor, presumed dead, who borrows death scenes from Shakespeare to exact his revenge on the critics he blames for killing his career. It’s a Grand Guignol-style variation on the Phibes idea, but it stands out for its unique intertwining of Price’s persona with that of the central character.

Lionheart is a relic, an old-fashioned thespian once popular for a highly theatrical style of acting by now outmoded and damned by critics. Film and literary scholar Peter Hutchings describes Theatre of Blood as

an elegy for a lost style of Shakespearean drama, a style that involves approaching the films as barnstorming melodramas and one which is characterized by a reliance on non-naturalistic forms of acting within extreme situations, on scenes that emphasize pathos, cruelty and suffering, and on the presentation of wrongs done and of wrongs righted.

Lionheart’s own murderous actions are ironically self-reflexive, turning his theatrical craft to malevolent purposes to butcher his enemies. But there’s a self-reflexive element to the film itself, too, for Price represents an old style of horror movie that, by 1973, was well on its way out. It was the year of The Exorcist, a serious and scary drama that treated the supernatural like the stuff of documentary, not melodrama. The old school Gothic horror film had been declining for years, and traditional horror producers like Britain’s Hammer Films were fighting against the trends, finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the new universe brought to birth, arguably, in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Hutchings notes that even director Douglas Hickox’s approach is decidedly old-fashioned, “eschewing the subjective camerawork and fragmented narrative structures” common in genre films of the time. Nor is there evidence of “youth in revolt,” a popular horror theme of the time, with Lionheart’s daughter (Diana Rigg) presented as a “model of filial devotion” likened to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

So the movie is effectively a double joke – Lionheart defiantly turns his beloved but waning style of theatre into a weapon with which to destroy his critics, while Price gives a tongue-in-cheek FU to a genre that is quickly making his own style obsolete. It might very well be seen as his swansong, for after Theatre of Blood, the actor’s horror features consisted mostly of far inferior attempts at this kind of self-parody, such as Madhouse (1974), The Monster Club (1980) and House of the Long Shadows (1983).

In 2005, London theatre company Improbable recognized the genius of Theatre of Blood and co-produced a stage adaptation with the National Theatre. Jim Broadbent was cast as Lionheart – one need only watch him as the showman Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! (2001) to see how adept he is at the kind of the overblown theatricality needed for the part – and, in yet another self-reflexive twist, Rachael Stirling was Lionheart’s daughter, a role played in the original film by her mother, Diana Rigg.

Improbable and the National Theatre retained the seventies setting, for this was the decade in which the concrete National Theatre complex itself was erected on the South Bank of the Thames. The oft-criticized building and its context in the history of British theatre were the butt of jokes throughout the play, which is set as the NT is preparing to open. The critics in the supporting cast represented real British rags of the period, such as The Times, The Guardian and The Evening Standard. Ironically, however, the production itself received a mixed response, with some reviewers complaining that the play was apparently so self-reflexive, the industry in-jokes went over the heads of audience members unfamiliar with the context.

Undoubtedly, Price knew he symbolized a generation in horror that was becoming a quaint relic. But let’s not assume there was any bitterness behind Theatre of Blood’s tongue-in-cheek lament for the passing of an era. Price was not afraid to laugh at himself; his unique status as a pop culture icon in commercials, music videos and kids’ cartoons is testament to that. “The last thing my father was was a snob,” Price’s daughter Victoria told the Riverfront Times in 2011. “He understood that popular culture was an incredibly powerful force. He had fun.”

And fun was certainly what he had treading the boards as Edward Lionheart in the film that, arguably, contained more of the real Vincent Price than any other in the inimitable ham’s screen career.


Sources Cited

Hutchings, Peter “Theatres of blood: Shakespeare and the horror film” in Gothic Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis & Dale Townshend, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)
Levitt, Aimee, “Back from the Undead: Happy 100th to homegrown horror icon Vincent Price” in Riverfront Times, May 19 2011
Pirie, David A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, 1945-1972, (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973)