Yesterday’s Monsters Are Today’s Punchlines

10/28/2009 4:00 AM |

One hesitates to write a bad word about Theater of Blood, a goofily highbrow splatterfest, given that it’s a movie in which critics who file negative notices get murdered in manners most clever and classical. Vincent Price stars as Lionheart, a thespian who only played Shakespeare and never got a good review; he fakes his own death and then picks off, one by one, the circle of London critics who disparaged his star turns. Lionheart and his merry band of feral followers, mostly backalley drunks, kill each in the manner of a death scene from the Bard’s folio: one is stabbed multiple times on the Ides of March, like Caesar; another by false friends, a la Hector in Troilus and Cressida; another beheaded in bed, as in Cymbeline. (A highlight: as Price saws off the critic’s head, the decapitee’s sedated wife moans, “You’re snoring again!”) This time, Shylock gets his pound of flesh! And so on.

The series of reworked murder scenes are clever, but in succession are a bit exhausting, especially as they increasingly rely on contrivance and coincidence. (For the Othello segment, one critic is led, a bit too easily, to murder his wife out of jealousy.) The real pleasure here is watching Price exercise his campy range, not only by hamming his way through the grand speeches of the Great Tragedies but also by appearing in a variety of costumes, in that grand English style of dress-up that extends from Elizabethan men playing Juliet to Peter Sellers and Sacha Baron Cohen; Price turns up not only in the pancake make-up of the stage, but disguised in the uniforms of a variety of professions: surgeon, gravedigger, bobby, masseuse, French-accented fencer, and, most hilariously, a homo-fied hair dresser, complete with billowy permanent.

Beyond its playfulness, Theater of Blood makes those old tired arguments against critics—why don’t you try to make something, then? —and posits all its reviewers as self-satisfied aphorists, full of “overweening malice,” who surely deserve to die for their withering wits alone. Still, the movie, perhaps inadvertently, tries to flatter us writers, too: the movie suggests that critics wield an awesome power, that they can destroy not only productions but entire careers. Pff, maybe in the theater world.