I’d love to live in a world where Vincent Price is considered “the world’s greatest actor”, but not like this. Not like this. Theatre of Blood is a puzzling meta horror vehicle for Price, both striking in the range it allows for the B-movie legend to chew scenery (plus its gore grotesqueness his films don’t usually approach) and disappointing in its lackluster execution. By all means, this gimmicky revenge thriller should be the exact kind of genre trash that has me head over heels, especially considering how unhinged Price manages to be in his lead performance, but by the end I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for what I had seen. This is decent schlock, but it had the opportunity to be much more significant than that. I didn’t hate it, but I really wanted to love it.
Price stars here as “the world’s greatest actor”, Edward Lionheart, a true thespian of the stage who refuses to take on any role unless it’s the lead part in a Shakespeare production. Fans agree that he is truly the world’s finest performer, but theater critics lock him out of all accolades due to his Shakespearean limitations. After a failed suicide attempt the bitter actor comes seemingly from beyond the grave to make each critic individually eat their own words (and, in one particularly brutal case, their own dogs) by killing them in elaborate ways that recall Shakespeare’s most notable works. There’s great subtext here about Vincent Price himself getting revenge on his own critics for brushing off his work as genre schlock by proving he’s at ease with difficult classical works, but for the most part the film is only exciting for its dozen or so brutal murders, which reportedly required six gallons of fake blood to bring to the screen.
What most confuses me about Theatre of Blood is its 96% approval rating on the Tomatometer. The film was a personal favorite for Price because he enjoyed being able to make money performing various Shakespeare monologues instead of pure horror cheese, which is totally understandable (if not more than a little sad). The truth is, though, that when Price isn’t performing these soliloquies or murdering his critics for an audience of Mortville bums, the film gets very one-note & boring, playing at best like a televised police procedural. It’s likely that people had fun with the film’s very campy tone & I’ll admit that the novelty of a grindhouse-esque work from Price that manages to be this silly is enjoyable in & of itself. I especially love its alternate title, Much Ado about Murder, as a note of exceptional goofiness. However, the film has nothing on similar revenge-minded works from the actor’s catalog like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, so there’s an oppressive cloud of seen-it-all-before hanging over the production. It’s at best on par with his other middling 70s meta horror, Madhouse, which isn’t too great of a position to be in at all.
Theatre of Blood is a serviceable Vincent Price flick probably best enjoyed in YouTube clips compiling its various gimmicky kills instead of watching its rough around the edges totality. As a critic, saying this might be inviting Price to rise from beyond the grave to smite me, but I’m okay with that. There are surely worse ways to die.