OK, maybe this movie doesn’t fit the criterion I set out for this series. This belongs to that genre of self-aware bad movies that embrace their badness. The directors figure if they can’t make Citizen Kane they might as well have some laughs. There’s a visceral joy to movies like Return of the Living Dead or Clue, both of which came very close to making this series. As much as I like them, they are a bit too polished for my taste. I like my schlock choppy and rough, like Theater of Blood. This tongue in cheek horror film exploits Vincent Price’s gift for the hammy and discards any attempts at realism. It’s a bad movie, but it’s a howler.
When beloved Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Price) is passed over once again for a prestigious London critics’ circle award, the man is more than a little displeased. He did, after all, stage a series of Shakespeare plays throughout his farewell season, reprising some of his best roles, like Julius Caesar, Othello, Titus Andronicus, and Shylock. The only reason, in his mind, that the snooty critics could have passed him over again is they have a irrational vendetta against him and any other popular actors in favor of the trendy and obscure. This is their last jab at his dignity.
So Lionheart does what anyone would do in a similar situation: fakes his death, recruits a small army of homeless henchmen, and sets out to kill off all of those nasty critics. But just killing them would be too easy; there’s no artistry in that. Lionheart kills them, one by one, modeling each killing after a killing in a Shakespeare play. One man is stabbed by a group a la Julius Caesar, another is drowned in a vat of vine a la Clarence in Richard III, and another has a pound of flesh cut out a la The Merchant of Venice (which leads to one of my favorite lines: “Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare”).
So the young, allegedly sexy critic teams with the police to stop Lionheart before London’s critics are made extinct. It would have been a hoot if Lionheart was joined by other disgruntled actors who had been skewered by the mean spirited critics. Of course the critics are petty, sadistic harpies, which should have soured me to the film since I think criticism is a noble and important art form in itself, but even I wanted to kill these snobs.
This is almost an identical plot to another Vincent Price film, The Abdominable Dr. Phibes, though this one is more fun, campier. Phibes kills off his victims using the plagues of Egypt as models, which is much less fun than Shakespeare. Also, Price goes all out in this one. We feel the personal joy involved, like Price was getting back at all those critics that have dismissed his career over the years. He plays each murder scene with somber seriousness, never hinting at the utter absurdity of it all, especially a scene where he beheads a sedated critic in bed as though he were a doctor performing an operation, ordering the instruments from the nurse and having her dab the sweat from his forehead. There’s another scene where he poses as a gay hairstylist and it is especially hilarious.
When you get a chance, check out Theater of Blood. It’s goofy and creative and, most importantly, it made me want to go back and reread some of the lesser known Shakespeare plays. Here’s the trailer: