Shakespeare 450: Theatre Of Blood - Blu-ray Review

2014 marks what would have been William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. In celebration of this (and being something of a Shakespeare nut) Ben intends to spend the year taking in as many Shakespeare films as he can - from old favourites to new interpretations and everything in between.

'Price clearly knows how ridiculous the role is, taking to each new absurd scenario with aplomb and making it work within the film’s farcical setting'.

Blending elements of Ealing Comedy and Hammer Horror with the works of William Shakespeare, Theatre Of Blood is based around a high concept so unashamedly barmy - Vincent Price as a murderous actor who dispatches his victims using methods inspired by the Bard's plays - that, handled with a generous dose of ludicrous campness, you'll genuinely want to believe that it could just work. Whether or not the finished product is your cup of tea will rely largely on how British you like your horror, how gruesome you like your comedy, and how up on Shakespeare's back catalogue you are.

Crucial to the fact that Theatre Of Blood works at all is undoubtedly the performance from Price at the film’s heart. Price gives it his hammy all, making Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart an extravagant joy throughout. Price clearly knows how ridiculous the role is, taking to each new absurd scenario with aplomb and making it work within the film’s farcical setting. Whilst Lionheart is clearly intended to be an antiquated Shakespearean, his performances flamboyant and lacking in subtlety, one of the most enjoyable elements here for Shakespeare enthusiasts is likely to be Price’s recitation of various lines and speeches from a great many of the Bard’s plays. Highlights throughout include Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and passages from the final scenes of King Lear. Based on the evidence here, it’s a real shame Price never managed to add any straight Shakespeare performances to his filmography, something the actor reportedly always wanted the chance to do.

Credit must be given as well for the creativity behind many of the film’s deaths, most of which are deliciously dark and cleverly selected from the Shakespearean canon. The ways in which the murders are set up and carried out are imaginative and entertaining, fitting well with Price’s exaggerated performance. Those which play on the film's comic elements, or which stick closely to their Shakespearean source, are undeniably the strongest. That said, there are a couple of sequences which feel far weaker than the rest. Two scenes, inspired by Othello and Romeo & Juliet respectively, just don’t work; the two plays in question also feel like odd choices when some of Shakespeare’s most bloody plays - such as Macbeth and Hamlet - are overlooked as templates for Lionheart’s murders.

Whilst the black comedy at the film’s centre is for the most part entertaining, look beyond it and the problems with Theatre Of Blood are really quite apparent. In terms of plot, this never ventures beyond the basic, with the story behind Lionheart’s killings often feeling like an afterthought rather than a tangible thread to tie everything together. What this means in practice is that Theatre Of Blood regularly becomes a collection of comedy-horror vignettes stitched together instead of a series of events that make up a narrative.

In terms of craft, the film also feels somewhat amateurish. Douglas Hickox’s direction has a rough-hewn quality for most of the film, rarely displaying much skill and leaning heavily on the performances of Price and the strong supporting cast to carry the film. The cast is also an area where Theatre Of Blood feels as though it could have delivered a lot more, with British comedy heavyweights including Arthur Lowe and Eric Sykes severely underutilised.

Theatre Of Blood ends up as an undoubtedly enjoyable film, particularly for those familiar with the wealth of Shakespearean plays from which it takes inspiration. However, even those relishing the creativity within the film’s heart are likely to find themselves hankering for something of greater substance. Whilst the throwaway entertainment this offers is perfectly fine if that’s what you’re after, expect anything more and you might come away feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Theatre Of Blood is ultimately great fun, but never anything more than that.

Theatre Of Blood is released on UK Blu-ray and Blu-ray Steelbook on Monday 19th May 2014.

Keep up to date with the Shakespeare 450 series so far.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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