One of Vincent Price’s late, excessive Grand Guignol vehicles, Theater of Blood is most definitely a “’70s movie,” not just because of the fashions and arty texture, but more importantly because of the dark, cynical and very violent view of human nature that would never pass the censor today. The very situation would be suspect. Price plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who is killing a group of critics who panned his performances. The animosity towards critics would be merely exploitative except for the diabolical twist that all of the murders are re-stagings of scenes from Shakespeare.
As one character makes clear, it’s not so absurd to think of a victim of smug, sniping critics seeking some kind of vengeance. Certainly the ones who Lionheart is killing off are unlikable and presumably untalented. Their only qualification is a willingness to be gratuitously cruel. The film’s depiction of critics as epicene parasites is an unfair caricature, but more than a touch clever (and, frankly, no more unfair than many critics). For Lionheart’s victims are so unappealing and his imagination so obviously greater than theirs’ that it’s difficult not to sympathize with his hatred and wish him success.
This is a movie that effectively endorses violence against public figures, which is one reason why it is difficult to imagine it being produced today. There is also the problem of the violence itself, and not only because it is depicted in graphic detail. All involved are reveling in the violence as Lionheart gives the critics a taste of their own medicine. The sadism is not treated as pathology. Quite the opposite, it is played as a grim, but very bloody joke.
This being a ’70s film, there is a predictable combination of realistic settings and ornate camerawork that draws attention to itself at every opportunity. The first murder, for example, takes place in an abandoned building, where we get to wallow in the broken glass, puddles and general detritus that includes a troupe of psychotic vagrants who serve as Lionheart’s accomplices. The victim (Michael Hordern) isn’t just murdered. He’s hacked to bits in gory detail, his blood smeared and splashed across the ruins. The camera zooms, pans, racks focus and is positioned in the unlikeliest of places, all presumably to be demonstrably “Cinematic.” Each murder is treated as a similarly juicy turn-on, a campy delicacy for jaded palates.
The conceit of linking this mayhem to Shakespeare makes an interesting point, however. The gore has a long pedigree. Lionheart is merely re-staging violent events Shakespeare created. It is therefore difficult to criticize Theater of Blood’s violence without simultaneously questioning Shakespeare’s use of it. To praise the latter as somehow edifying and morally superior while condemning the former as base, bad and torturous is sheer hypocrisy. To enjoy one is to sanction the other. Intentionally or otherwise, in other words, the film implicitly demonstrates “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”