At the movies · Shakespeare

“Theatre of Blood”

I indulged myself earlier this week and watched the 1973 British horror movie “Theatre of Blood” again. It’s the first time I’ve seen it since the 1980s, and therefore the first time since watching and reading every Shakespeare play.

As the movie’s IMDB page puts it succinctly, “a Shakespearean actor takes poetic revenge on the critics who denied him recognition.” Vincent Price plays the actor Edward Lionheart and he takes his revenge by killing a number of theatre critics in ways derived from the plays staged in his last Shakespeare season. Lionheart was presumed dead after jumping from a balcony into the Thames but has survived. The movie is steeped in Shakespeare. As Lionheart / Price kills each of his victims he quotes from the relevant play, and there are knowing references throughout. If only for my own purposes (as described in an earlier piece about version control) I’ll list the ten plays that feature most prominently. If you haven’t seen the movie before, or haven’t seen it for a while, I recommend it heartily. Maybe you should watch it before reading the following 700 words, otherwise, for the record, here are the plays.

  1. “Julius Caesar”: George Maxwell (played by Michael Hordern) is murdered in a disused building in Bermondsey, hacked to death by many hands. From his apartment window overlooking Hammersmith Bridge we see a van for “Shakespeare Removals” just before he gets the call that brings him to Bermondsey. His wife urges him not to go; she has had premonitions, bad dreams in the night. It’s the Ides of March, 15 March 1972.
  2. “Troilus and Cressida”: Hector Snipe, played by Dennis Price, is persuaded to come to the “Burbage Theatre” and is also hacked to death, like Hector in “Troilus and Cressida”. For good measure his body is then dragged behind a horse in full view of the mourners at Maxwell’s funeral. This is where my brother and I came in the first time that we saw the movie (on late-night TV, after an evening at the George IV). We’d have given it ten minutes if it hadn’t been any good but we were gripped, and having studied “Troilus and Cressida” at A-Level I recognized the references. (Hector’s body being dragged behind a horse is described in the play rather than staged, as you can imagine.)
  3. “Cymbeline”: Horace Sprout (played by Arthur Lowe) is decapitated in his bed and his wife wakes to find his headless body beside her (just as Imogen wakes to find the headless body of Cloten in “Cymbeline”, though she thinks it’s her exiled husband Posthumus Leonatus). This prompts the other critics, and the police (played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, one of my favourite comedians), to see the pattern in the murders and it prompts round-the-clock protection for the remaining critics.
  4. “The Merchant of Venice”: Before the police can provide protection for Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) he is persuaded by Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) to come and see a rehearsal of “The Merchant of Venice”. They re-work the play (“alterations to the text … and one Rather Large Cut”) so that Shylock, played by Lionheart / Vincent Price, does get his pound of flesh, and cuts out Dickman’s heart.
  5. “Richard III”: although the police are now protecting the remaining critics Oliver Larding (Robert Coote) is killed while attending a wine-tasting session (at a wine shop called George Clarence). He is drowned in a barrel of wine (like the Duke of Clarence in “Richard III”, drowned in a “butt of Malmsey”).
  6. “Romeo and Juliet”: no murder here, but Lionheart reveals himself to Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) at a fencing school and fights a duel in which he could kill Devlin but says that he wants to make him suffer, and that he’ll kill him at some point in the future.
  7. “Othello”: Solomon Psaltery (Jack Hawkins) is driven mad by jealousy and smothers his wife Maisie (played by Diana Dors) with a pillow, just as Othello murdered Desdemona. He’s the only critic so far to be left alive, but as Devlin / Hendry observes, he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.
  8. “Henry VI Part 1”: Chloe Moon (Coral Browne) visits her hairdressing salon but her usual hairdresser has been replaced by “Butch” (Lionheart) and although there is a policeman waiting upstairs she is still murdered, electrocuted under the drier and burnt alive like Joan of Arc (“Bring forth that sorceress condemned to burn”).
  9. “Titus Andronicus”: Meredith Merridew (Robert Morley) is devoted to his pet dogs, and calls them his “babies”. He is killed by being force-fed a pie made from the flesh of his “babies”, just as Tamora was fed her own sons, baked in a pie. This was my first introduction to the play. Every time I have seen it the image of Robert Morley being force-fed comes to mind.
  10. “King Lear”: not the ending that Lionheart had in mind. In the disused theatre that they have been using he sets up a device to blind Devlin with red-hot knives (the Duke of Gloucester was blinded in “King Lear”) unless he gives Lionheart the award he feels he deserves. Devlin refuses but as the police close in Edwina is killed and Lionheart carries her dead body, quoting Lear (“Thou art a soul in bliss”). He climbs up to the roof of the theatre, which is now ablaze and makes his final exit, “madly overacting as usual”, in the words of Devlin, who has survived.
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