(The following, in a slighter shorter form, was written as a programme note for a screening of the film at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 18th April 2016.)
Stories of serial retribution have existed since at least Alexandre Dumas Pere’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo. They focus on characters, left to death or dishonour, who return and take their revenge on those who have wronged them, one by one. The sequence of killing gives the piece a structure and, in the cinema, allows for a good cast; each victim only needs to be paid for a few days of shooting. The protagonist can be an investigator, an intended victim, as in My Learned Friend (1943), a vehicle for the English comedian Will Hay, or the avenger, as in the most famous British example, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), which shares a scriptwriter, John Dighton, with the Hay film.
In the post Bonnie and Clyde 1970s, there came a mini-cycle of horrors in which the focus was not on the fact of revenge, but the methods of killing. Vincent Price appears in three of them: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) in which the murders follow the Biblical Plagues of Egypt, its sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), and Theatre of Blood. In this film, Price plays Edward Lionheart, an actor who murders a series of hostile critics, using methods drawn from Shakespeare plays. He’s assisted by his daughter, Edwina (Diana Rigg), who serves him as both Miranda and Cordelia, and a chorus of spirit-like down-and-outs; the film bears a surely unique credit for ‘Choreographer of Meths Drinkers’.
Lionheart has something in common with the idee-fixated villains of the British TV series The Avengers, and it’s not surprising that the cast includes former Avengers Rigg and Ian Hendry, the latter as Devlin, most likeable of the critics, and a male equivalent of a splatter film’s ‘final girl’. Anthony Greville-Bells’ hyper-literate script gives both Price and Hendry a number of James Bond-ish one-liners after each death; the most characteristic comes after the revelation that one murder is dependent on making an alteration (or ‘one rather large cut’) to The Merchant of Venice: ‘It’s Lionheart alright. Only he would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’ - how many horror films use the word ‘temerity’?
In-jokes and actor allusions abound: Robert Coote’s bibulous critic meets his end in a wine merchant labelled ‘Geo. Clarence and Sons’, Dennis Price, the murderer in Kind Hearts and Coronets, turns up as a victim, as if passing on a torch, Robert Morley, a gourmet in real life, plays one in the film, and gets fed his own poodles, cooked in a pie by Price, a real-life celebrity chef. This murder, taken from Titus Andronicus, is the one that people tend to remember with greatest discomfort when recalling the film, and confirms what Robert McKee said about Fatal Attraction (1987); as audience members, we’ll happily lend our sympathy to a character who kills people (or tries to), but withdraw it once s/he attacks an animal, especially one that’s cute.
When Shakespeare is used in genre films, it’s usually as a sign of ‘high’ culture, either to give a touch of class to a character, as when Christopher Plummer quotes Mark Antony in Star Trek VI; The Undiscovered Country (1991 - 'You haven't heard Shakespeare until you've heard him in the original Klingon' - a variation on an old Cold War joke) or to oppose it against the more dynamic ‘low’ culture of film – witness Last Action Hero (1993) which imagines Hamlet as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Theatre of Blood is unusual in that its opposition is not between ‘high’ and ‘low’, but between two kinds of ‘high’. Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart – his name evokes a nineteenth century actor and an eighteenth century playwright – loses the Critics’ Circle Award to William Woodstock, whom he describes as a ‘twitching, mumbling boy’, suggesting a Brando-ish methodist. Lionheart belongs to the theatrical past – as superannuated as the actor-managers like Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Frank Benson whom we see on silent film under the opening credits.
The film is ambivalent towards Lionheart; his victims, played by an array of British character actors, are an unpleasant bunch (and far more well-heeled than any real-life theatre critic has ever been - Devlin's riverside flat is in Alembic House, currently occupied by Jeffrey Archer) but it’s never made clear whether they're right about his acting – the most complimentary word used about him is ‘vigorous’ (by Milo O’Shea, no shrinking violet himself). This is complicated by the fact that Price, though very well-spoken, is clearly not a Shakespearean – when he plays Shylock to Rigg’s Portia, it’s like watching an amateur boxer getting in the ring with Mike Tyson. It’s implied that Lionheart’s murders may be his greatest performance, more credible than anything he ever did on a stage.
The film retains a considerable cult following, among fans of both Shakespeare and horror (a remarkable number of people seem to have seen the same television screening at Christmas 1979) and extends its influence into gimmicky murder films like Se7en (1995), which reuses several of its motifs – death through force-feeding, a pound of flesh, body parts in a box. In 2005, Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre produced a stage version at the National Theatre (which was itself being built while the film was made), with Jim Broadbent as Lionheart and Rachel Stirling, Rigg's daughter, in her mother's part (here renamed Miranda - the play was more explicit about the Tempest parallels than the film). The play imagined Devlin as a possible future Literary Manager of the NT, a fictionalised successor to Kenneth Tynan, and positioned the Lyttelton theatre, where the show took place, as the critics' final triumph over what Lionheart represents:
'Look at it! Look at it! Hard, empty, coy and sexless. Look at it! Smooth and gray so you can wash the blood away when you have done the deed and killed the actor. It should be ours! It should be mine! Brave and foolish, ludicrous and magnificent, wasteful and awesome. Knowing nothing, understanding it all, expressive and inarticulate. We are dead. Murdered like mafia hits and buried in the concrete walls of this mausoleum lest we misbehave, lest something not considered by the brains and the nice boys should spill messily onto the stage. We are the dead.'
(Lee Simpson/Phelim McDermott, Theatre of Blood, p. 92)
The stage production got mixed reviews; for my money, Jim Broadbent was miscast as Lionheart - a quirky character actor, he was never believable as a barnstormer. (Steven Berkoff would have been perfect.) It is, however, appropriate that the play should focus on (and criticise) its own location. One of the film’s incidental pleasures is in the spotting of London locations, including, in the final scene, the Edwardian Putney Hippodrome, which had lain empty since 1960. Like Lionheart, and the Lear that he plays at the film’s end, the building was a leftover from the past – Theatre of Blood allows all three to make one last grand exit.