Thursday, 1 May 2014

Theatre of Blood (1973)

It’s no secret to those who know me that THEATRE OF BLOOD is my favourite film of all time, and now here it is, lovingly presented on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, and with a host of extras as well. 
Someone is murdering theatre critics in London. Michael Hordern gets slashed to death by an assortment of vagrants and ne'er-do-wells in a grim and grotty warehouse; Dennis Price gets stabbed through the guts and dragged along a gravel path tied to the tail of a horse. The Gods of the Movies are rarely kind, but this was pretty much Dennis Price's final role, and after all the rubbish he'd been in over the previous couple of years it's nice that he was able to appear in something really good to go out on. 
        Then Arthur Lowe gets his head cut off in a scene that, for me, is where THEATRE OF BLOOD begins to show its true colours. Up until then it's all been a bit grim, but the surgery scene is played for pure comedy, and Michael J Lewis' music compliments it perfectly. In fact it all works so beautifully (including Brigid Erin-Bates' collapsing maid as a coda) that it pretty much resets the feel of the film. After that Harry Andrews' lecherous Trevor Dickman (ouch!) getting his come-uppance (sorry) at the hands of a bulbous-nosed Shylock and a sexy Portia is almost as funny despite the smoking heart gouged from his chest that Price ends up holding. Likewise Robert Coote's drowning in wine (“I wonder if he'll travel well?”) is a perfect balance of humour and horror, and it's only when we get to Coral Browne's electrocution that we're back in the realm of the properly nasty, even though she's been despatched by Price in an Afro. Robert Morley's death by being force-fed his own poodles was the only death colleagues of mine at work could remember when they had their memories jogged about the film, and the film just has to end in flames because absolutely nothing else will do. 
I still haven't mentioned the best ever fencing duel in cinema that involves trampolines, vaulting horses and ropes; BARBARELLA’S Milo O'Shea and the mighty Eric Sykes as the law; Diana Dors (“Don't keep me waiting you naughty man!”) as Jack Hawkins’ naughty wife; Ian Hendry doing his best to provide a link between the set pieces and getting the last line; some excellent London locations apparently used by necessity because the budget didn't reach to any studio work; Diana Rigg giving her all and having the time of her life as Lionheart's daughter; and last but absolutely, totally and utterly not least at all, Vincent Price. No-one else could have played Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, the great actor-producer modelled on Sir Donald Wolfit and others of his ilk, with quite the same gusto, wit, skill, melancholy and style as this marvellous actor who, despite the terrible punishments (Lionheart's own word) he metes out to the people who humiliated him, is smiling all the time at the audience who loved him so much. 

Put together by a bunch of people who usually had very little to do with horror films usually (composer Michael J Lewis had to be convinced because he didn't want to do a horror film at all) THEATRE OF BLOOD actually benefits from this, especially in having, in director Douglas Hickox, someone who was much more at home shooting brutal crime dramas than witty Shakespearean revelry. As a result, Hickox let the actors get on with the acting and concentrated on making sure the murders were as gory and as horrible as possible. An article in the UK adults-only fold-out horror magazine Monster Mag at the time of its release stated that THEATRE OF BLOOD had more violence in its hundred plus minutes than the entirety of World War II, and while that's going a bit too far, the 1973 production was extremely violent for its time, particularly when compared to the kind of movies still being made by Hammer (FRANKENSTEIN & THE MONSTER FROM HELL) and Amicus (FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE).
Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation is, on the whole, excellent. For a film I’ve seen innumerable times this is the best it has ever looked, with only a few scratches here and there and some rather dull sound on occasion to mar the proceedings. Extras include a commentary track by all four League of Gentleman (Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson). Like their previous BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW track, this really is like watching the film with friends who love it too, and there are enough laugh out loud moments to make this extra alone worth the price of the disc.

Michael J Lewis has always been one of my favourite movie composers - for THEATRE OF BLOOD, THE MEDUSA TOUCH and JULIUS CAESAR as well as many others. So I have to give full marks to Calum Waddell for tracking him down, interviewing him, and getting him to play key themes from the movie on the piano for a featurette on the disc. He's always been a bit of a musical hero of mine, and I was delighted to discover he still retains his Aberystwyth accent. I must admit the black and pink cowboy hat, however, did come as a bit of shock.
David del Valle delivers a touching appraisal of Price’s life and career in A Fearful Thespian and actress Madeleine Smith gives her reminiscences in Staged Reaction. There’s also an interview with Price’s daughter Victoria.
The steelbook is gorgeous and reproduces the UK quad poster that I had on my bedroom wall for many years as a boy, but there’s also some lovely new reversible cover art for the standard package. Some of the front of house stills (I still have the entire set in my files) are reproduced in the accompanying booklet as well. 
Arrow's THEATRE OF BLOOD package is just lovely - go and buy it already as a big thank you to the company for bringing us one of the Blu-ray releases of the year.

Arrow Films were due to release THEATRE OF BLOOD on 5th May 2014 but because of a glitch on the disc the new release date is 19th May 2014


  1. Excellent review, John! I agree that the audio is a little muted but it's an improvement on the MGM DVD but I think it's still a little disappointing, though. It's very pleasing to see the film presented in its correct aspect ratio, another improvement on earlier releases, particularly for those wide angle shots such as when Devlin enters the gymnasium. All in all, I'd say Arrow have well and truly come up with the goods - again!

  2. Thanks Gerald! I always compare the sound of versions of THEATRE OF BLOOD to a recording I made of a BBC screening many years ago which was, as one might expect, perfectly crisp and clear. The wide angle shots are an interesting choice, aren't they?

  3. I must say that I was rather disappointed with the audio quality on the Arrow release...I was hoping Arrow may have done a cleanup or boosted it in some way....still sounds very "flat" to me....