Almost 10 years before Vincent Price’s definitive performance as the ghoulish rapper in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Price had already riffed on his career as a veteran Hollywood survivor in 1973’s Theater of Blood (playing this week with Scream of Terror as part of Film Forum’s Halloween double bill). Price rode out the transition from major studio contract leading player in A-list films like Laura (1944) to a star of André de Toth’s atypical thriller House of Wax (1953), which tracked him from icon status through American International’s low-budget grand guignols. Jackson intuited how Price—St. Louis, Missouri’s most urbane export—turned scary into camp.
Theater of Blood itself riffs on Price’s American International junk, casting him as Edward Lionheart, a flamboyant classical actor out for revenge on the London Critics Circle, who denied him an award for his season of Shakespeare repertory. It’s a role that showcases Price’s natural hamminess. The prevailing joke is Price’s pretense of British aristocracy. His vocal affectations suggest high-toned virtuosity to untutored audiences—the culture vultures who think Aussie Cate Blanchett is a great actress. These hoi polloi are depicted as Lionheart’s minions—street bums and boozehounds—his only remaining fans who carry out his murderous plans.
Lionheart plots to kill each theater critic by restaging various murder scenes or violent anecdotes out of Shakespeare. This novel idea lifts Theater of Blood out of the exploitation proto-Saw category, and yet Douglas Hickox’s inelegant direction sinks potential. Hickox doesn’t grasp the splendor of theatricality—where the meaning of life and death are heightened, as well as the meaning of ambition and ego and tragedy. Hickox never pauses to highlight Willy’s poetry or even Vinny’s learned elocution.
Theater of Blood is still worth seeing as one of film history’s best could-have-beens. Its reenactments of Shakespeare’s greatest “hits” demonstrate the cultural expectations that were still part of pop art during the ’70s. Imagine a contemporary horror film that depended on non-comic book literary awareness as part of the audience’s delight.
Theater of Blood
Directed by Douglas Hickox
At Film Forum, Oct. 30-Nov. 5
Armond White’s new book, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles is available at resistanceworks.blogspot.com.
Trackback from your site.