By the 1970s, horror found itself in a transition stage. Studios like Hammer Films and American International Pictures, which had dominated the genre in the previous decade, were looking pretty dated. That is, the Gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein series and AIP’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations struggled to compete with horror’s shift to Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amidst this sea change, aging horror legend Vincent Price found new life in a handful of more grisly movies. Following the box office success of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Price doubled-down on the more bloody mix of revenge and dark humor with Theater of Blood. Like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood felt like a precursor to the 80s slasher movie and, to a lesser extent, what we’d later call ‘Torture Porn’.
For years, the classically-trained actor Edward Lionheart has starred in stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. In spite of what he believes are stunning performances, he just can’t get a remotely positive review from the Theatre Critics Guild – an inner circle of elite critics. When the Guild humiliates him by awarding the ‘Actor of the Year’ award to someone else, Lionheart seemingly commits suicide by jumping into the Thames River. But Lionheart somehow survives and returns to exact a brutal revenge on his critics.
Theater of Blood Straddles a Line As Predecessor to Two Horror Subgenres
Generally, film scholars identify Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and – to a lesser extent – Peeping Tom as the earliest examples of the slasher movie. Early 70s horror movies The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas more directly influenced the shape of the subgenre. And John Carpenter’s Halloween properly defined the subgenre and many of its tropes. Neither The Abominable Dr. Phibes nor Theater of Blood directly influenced the slasher subgenre. Yet it’s hard not to see some slasher DNA – and maybe early Torture Porn – in Vincent Price’s early 70s horror offerings. Certainly, each of these movies represented a dramatic shift from the Gothic horror that defined much of Price’s previous work.
Yet it’s hard not to see some slasher DNA – and maybe early Torture Porn – in Vincent Price’s early 70s horror offerings.
On one hand, Theater of Blood misses many of the storytelling conventions that would eventually define the slasher subgenre. There’s no ‘Final Girl’ and it’s not even remotely a whodunnit – the killer’s identity is never in doubt. By and large, Theater of Blood tells its story from Lionheart’s perspective as well. Aside from its thematic focus on revenge, Theater of Blood is narratively structured quite differently from the majority of slasher movies that followed it a decade later. In addition, the dark humor and Price’s trademark camp performance wholly set this one apart from the subgenre. While there’s some surprisingly brutal death scenes for the era, a cheeky sense of humor always takes precedence over nihilistic violence.
Theater of Blood An Eccentric Blend of Grand Guignol and Camp
Though it lacks many of the tropes associated with the subgenre, Theater of Blood absolutely includes the sort of Grand Guignol death scenes we associate with a classic slasher. In fact, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theater of Blood share more in common with some slasher movies and the elaborate death scenes of the Saw franchise than movies like Halloween or Black Christmas. Screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell’s concept of a Shakespearean actor patterning his murders on specific scenes from the author’s work is brilliant even if it recycles The Abominable Dr. Phibes to some extent. Each death scene feels extravagant and elaborate. And the literary connections add an air of conceit. If you ignore the tonal differences, Theater of Blood feels like a precursor to Se7en.
Screenwriter Anthony Greville-Bell’s concept of a Shakespearean actor patterning his murders on specific scenes from the author’s work is brilliant even if it recycles The Abominable Dr. Phibes to some extent.
Arguably, Theater of Blood hits its most pitch-perfect death scene with its darkly humorous spin on Titus Andronicus. Most viewers should quickly figure out just what comprises those meat pies. But the site of Lionheart force-feeding the pretentious Meredith Merridew his own toy poodles is a standout moment. For a movie released in 1973, Theater of Blood is surprisingly bloody though it’s certainly less grim than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Price’s trademark campiness distinguishes the elaborate death scenes from what would follow. The balance between the melodrama, camp, and shocking deaths makes for a very different kind of horror movie. To some extent, Theater of Blood had both feet planted in the past and future of the genre.
Vincent Price Gleefully Chews the Scenery
Though Vincent Price started his career as a familiar character actor in serious fare, he found his niche as the leading man of B-horror movies – it was a career shift that spanned three decades. Like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood allowed Price to chew the scenery and dial up the campiness. It’s a wonderfully cheesy performance that see Price inhabit several Shakespearean roles. There’s also something relevant to a story about often petty nature of critics reviewing work and the division between what critics and fans love about film and art.
Like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood allowed Price to chew the scenery and dial up the campiness.
What’s particularly interesting about Theater of Blood is that the supporting cast rounds itself out with several distinguished British stage actors. Ian Hendry (Tales From the Crypt, Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter) – a familiar British television and film star – delivers some of the movie’s best dialogue with deadpan delivery. There’s something dryly funny when Hendry observes that ‘only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare’ after receiving one of his colleagues’ heart in a box. Perhaps the most interesting bit of casting was the inclusion of Diana Rigg (Last Night in Soho) as Lionheart’s daughter. Despite the B-movie’s best efforts to surprise us with Rigg’s double turn, only the most unobservant viewer would have to miss it.
Theater of Blood One of Price’s Last Great Roles
No one will mistake Theater of Blood for anything more than what it is – a campy blend of horror and dark comedy very much defined by the era in which it was released. It’s not exactly prescient either, but this Vincent Price classic did anticipate some of the dynamics that currently mark our popular culture. And there’s bits of slasher and Torture Porn mixed in with the camp. Though it doesn’t reach the heights of Price’s best work, Theater of Blood may be one of his most fun roles near the tail-end of his popularity.