This past weekend marked the birthdays of not one, but three icons of the horror genre. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price would have all celebrated birthdays over the last weekend of May. Throughout the 1950’s to the late 1970’s, all three performers defined the horror genre with their various roles. They are horror royalty associated with some of the more memorable films from that era.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee will forever be linked with their roles in the Hammer productions of Dracula and Frankenstein. From House of Wax to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Vincent Price was a horror box office staple in the United States. For this edition of The Chopping Block, in honour of these three legends, I take a quick look at a hidden gem in each performer’s filmography. These are films that, while well-regarded by critics and fans, are often overlooked.
Theatre of Blood (1973)
Vincent Price is largely recognized for his films with gimmick filmmaker William Castle and his Edgar Allan Poe film series with B-film maestro Roger Corman. Arguably, House of Wax stands as Price’s best film. Yet my personal favourite in Price’s filmography is the 1973 film, Theatre of Blood.
In Theatre of Blood, we find Vincent Price camping it up with absolute relish as failed Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart. After a humiliating rebuttal at an awards ceremony by London’s most prestigious critics, Lionheart jumps to his apparent death. Somehow surviving the fall, Lionheart executes an elaborate revenge on his critics rooted in some of Shakespeare’s most morbid murders.
Following a similar narrative as the successful The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood almost plays out like a dark comedic predecessor to the slasher subgenre and the Saw franchise. It’s an extremely offbeat, idiosyncratic horror with some truly odd moments. Price’s Lionheart is assisted in his revenge by a motley collection of homeless people who have inexplicably embraced the Shakespearean thespian. Midway through the film, Lionheart squares off with Ian Hendry’s Peregrine Devlin in a bizarre fencing face-off … on trampolines no less. Lionheart’s carefully orchestrated murders includes force-feeding one of the critics his own poodles – to whom he refers to as his ‘babies – in a homage to Titus Andronicus.
Throughout the proceedings, Price is clearly having a blast as Lionheart. Fans of Price and 1970’s horror films will also enjoy the film’s intentional campiness and irreverent plotting. Theatre of Blood is undoubtedly a hidden gem among the icon’s extensive work.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
For all of the horror films produced by Hammer Films, the studio didn’t really dabble much in occult-based films. And Christopher Lee was rarely given the opportunity to play the protagonist. Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel, and a screenplay by Richard Matheson, The Devil Rides Out is one of the best films produced by Hammer Films. It’s absolutely soaked in atmosphere with a rich, twisting narrative. This film also boasts one of the better scores for a Hammer film.
As Nicholas Duc de Richleau, Christopher Lee turns in one of his best performances in a Hammer film. He’s arguably given much more of an opportunity here to demonstrate range. Lee was always physically imposing in his roles, but with more dialogue, he casts a commanding presence in The Devil Rides Out. Sadly, it’s hard in Canada to get a hold of this film, either on streaming platforms or Blu-ray. Hopefully, that’s an oversight that gets corrected sooner than later.
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Hammer’s first sequel to the Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula has a somewhat misleading title. That is, Dracula does not actually make an appearance in this sequel. This film’s undead villain is the Baron Meinster. Aside from a brief name-drop in the opening prologue and the presence of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, The Brides of Dracula shares little continuity with the Horror of Dracula.
Nonetheless, I actually personally prefer this film to its predecessor and the sequels that followed. Its story is more suspenseful and its pacing much more tight. Since the film isn’t tethered to Bram Stroker’s novel, Hammer regular Terence Fisher is actually able to weave in some mystery into the story. The film’s reversal of expectations early in the film regarding the villain is a nice twist. Fisher also includes some genuinely chilling moments, particularly one scene where a new vampire crawls out from her own grave. The Brides of Dracula also includes the best climax in Hammer’s Dracula series.
While The Brides of Dracula suffers a little from Lee’s absence, Cushing is dashing as always as the resourceful Van Helsing. His performance in this sequel stands out as his best characterization of horror’s most famous doctor. Cushing balances the eccentricity of the character with charisma and intelligence. His horrified expression as he witnesses the birth of a new vampire serves to humanize the character. To date, Peter Cushing’s version of Van Helsing stands as the best among existing portrayals.