British Film Appreciation: Theatre of Blood (1973)

The creative process can be brutal. To make a sentence the right words must be hunted, like thieves in the night.

The creative process can be brutal. To make a sentence the right words must be hunted, like thieves in the night. To make a song the right notes must be pulled from the ether where they hang, like elusive torture. The dancer beats his body into rhythmic submission. The painter fights with colour on her canvas. When humans make things fear and longing and loathing are often our closest companions.

Meet Edward Lionheart, an Actor who owns just the right amount of absurdity to create without torment touching his sides. He has always believed himself to be best at performing Shakespeare's works and so that is all he has ever done. This leads to much derision and ridicule from a circle of comically indulgent London theatre critics. After the Critic's Circle Award for Best Actor is given to a young Marlon Brando type, a bereft Lionheart attempts suicide but is unsuccessful. We meet him three years later murdering critics inspired by the deaths of characters in the plays of his company's last season. In failing to die Lionheart, fuelled by lust for revenge finds the courage for unabashed artistic work.

Theatre of Blood (1973) is a romp, a clever horror-comedy, it winks at you, it nudge-nudges you, it reminds you of William Shakespeare's most deliciously gruesome works. Lovers heads in beds! Loved ones baked into pie! Death by love via strangulation! When your GCSE English teacher told you Shakespeare was horror before horror was horror you rolled your eyes but Theatre of Blood confirms this.

Filmed on location the London of Theatre of Blood is unadorned, a London of high and lows, of chic cafes and back alleys, of Embankment penthouses and Bermondsey warehouses. Sometimes the smell of patchouli lingers, other times it's mouldy books and damp clothes. This London has its tongue in its cheek and its heart in its underbelly. It is slight of focus and darkly bright, all the better to compliment the broad strokes and languor of Vincent Price's face.

Vincent Price's face!

A face permanently under the cast of a shadow. A cat's face, all balanced features and expansive as though it is breathing into itself. His eyebrows arch until they reach a point. His eyes are small and glassy and fixed into the distance. His whiskers are his wisp of a moustache. He made his fame and fortune playing horror villains, with that face, what else could he have done?

Lionheart is rescued by a merry band of Meths drinkers. They are charmed by him, they become his accomplices and his audience. To them he is a delight, the centre of the home they make for themselves in a dilapidated theatre. Lionheart brings the group to life all while plotting murders. They take pleasure in his swanning, they gather and watch him the way most of us do TV. You could argue that Meths drinkers are perhaps not the most discerning audience. I would suggest that cartoon alcoholics are some of the most difficult people to entertain, to hold rapt with Shakespeare.

Vincent Price's voice!

It is hard to resist. It hums at you, it purrs, it is the engine of a fancy car that could go too fast. Terribly comforting, unsettlingly smooth. Lionheart fools the critics with disguises, is a flurry of sweeping gestures, as he lures them to their deaths. He orates in gorgeous long tones and is genuinely moving. How could this man have ever been a ham? Shakespeare's words spill so perfectly out of his curdled mouth.

Lionheart is his own lesson, his name is the clue. When you are making something - and fail but try again, and fail again and fail better - you need Lionheart moments, moments of bloody single mindedness. There is totality in creation. All art is the pursuit of excellence. You'll never get there, nothing made by humans is perfect but you try, you must try. Throw yourself into whatever it is, fear and longing and loathing be damned. Play only to the cheerful crowd of vagrants in your head. I study Lionheart when I've exhausted myself by failing to put the words down just right, when I have more to give to whatever I am creating, when doubt is all over me, in my hair, creeping behind my ears, nestling in the spaces between my fingers. Lionheart is a presence, an attitude made physical: kill your criticism, kill your critics.


What's Hot