Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Cruella coming to theaters and Disney+, we’re looking at some of our favorite extravagant and over-the-top villains from film history.
Yesterday marked the 110th birthday of Vincent Price, thespian, art lover, gourmet cook, baking powder scion, classy gentleman, and king of the hams. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a good actor: Price could turn in a wonderfully sympathetic performance when he wanted to—or a genuinely chilling one, as in the 1968 folk-horror classic Witchfinder General. But subtlety, shall we say, was not his specialty. What made Vincent Price an icon was his talent for playing to the back row, a skill he picked up as a stage actor. Price loved the theater and returned to it whenever possible, even in roundabout ways like his deliciously campy role in the flea-bitten horror comedy Theatre Of Blood.
By the time Theatre Of Blood was released in 1973, Price’s career had come full circle: He got his start on the London stage while studying abroad in the 1930s, and in the late ’60s he returned to England for a series of starring roles in British horror movies including The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Scream And Scream Again, Madhouse, and the aforementioned Witchfinder General. By that point, Price had channeled his natural brio into the screen persona he’s known for today, as a wickedly debonair aristocrat with a mellifluous voice and, more often than not, sinister intentions. And he’s rolling his “r”s and punching his “p”s with more relish than a ballpark hot dog in this film, best described as a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatterfest by way of a saucy British sex comedy.
Price stars as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor so demented and petty, he fakes his own death and acquires a Mansonesque band of gibbering misfits to help him pull off the most melodramatic revenge scenario this side of—well, this side of a Shakespeare play. Two years earlier, Lionheart was so incensed about being passed over for an award that he decided to kill every member of the critics’ circle who snubbed him before staging a do-over in an abandoned theater where critic Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) has to rewrite history and present him with a Best Actor statuette—or else. The anti-critic sentiment in the movie is strong, with Devlin’s colleagues sketched as malicious snobs who take their own insecurities out on others. (“He went from a byline to a headline,” one quips after being informed of another’s murder.) But Theatre Of Blood is a tongue-in-cheek favorite with critics all the same, perhaps because actors come off looking even more delusional than the critics do.
But while there’s plenty of cheeky amusement to be had watching cartoonish caricatures of theater writers being offed in ghoulish set pieces based on Shakespeare plays—one columnist meets his end by having a pound of flesh cut from his chest à la The Merchant Of Venice, while another is drowned in a vat of wine like the Duke Of Clarence in Richard III—Theatre Of Blood wouldn’t be such a treat if it wasn’t for Price and his penchant for self-parody. Price is having the time of his life strutting around the stage, putting his heart and soul into reciting some of the Bard’s most eloquent soliloquies while dressed in outrageous satin capes, ridiculous fake beards, and tacky prosthetic noses. There’s fencing, there’s classical music, there’s charmingly fake-looking gore and hilariously weak karate, but most of all there’s Vincent Price, both embodying and spoofing the sophisticated image that made him famous. It’s worth the price of a rental to hear him draw out the words “ham sandwich” all on its own.
Availability: Theatre Of Blood is available to stream free with ads on Tubi, but that version is dubbed into Spanish, which obscures Price’s performance. We recommend renting it on iTunes or Amazon instead.