The Horror Honeys: Blood Will Have Blood...

Blood Will Have Blood...

A Guest Honey Classic Review of Theater of Blood from Lauren 

No one writes better murders than William Shakespeare. Edgar Allan Poe comes in a close second, but I still give the edge to old Will. In the course of more than 30 plays, Shakespeare managed to stab, poison, hang, burn, drown, blind, rape, and mutilate heroes and villains alike. In Titus Andronicus alone, people are buried alive, limbs are severed, and children are baked into pies to be consumed by their loving parents. Deaths by sword and dagger abound, described in lurid detail; blood flows onto the floorboards, screams echo to the balconies and corpses litter the stage. Those that survive a Shakespearean tragedy must be scarred beyond measure. Just think about Horatio standing there surrounded by the bodies of the entire Danish royal family when Fortinbras comes in. The Final Girl never had it so rough.

With so much murder and mayhem in the Bard’s plays, it comes as no surprise that at least one film took advantage of all that blood. Theater of Blood (1973) stars a leering, sneering and fabulously overacting Vincent Price, with Diana Rigg as his deranged daughter, and a whole bevy of British characters actors (many of them with Shakespearean chops) as the intended victims.

Theater of Blood casts Price as ham actor Edward Lionheart, a man who apparently commits suicide following the critical drubbing of his ‘Season of Shakespeare’ by a group of sniping critics. But Lionheart isn’t as dead as he appears, and returns two years following his demise to exact horrible revenge on the critics who eviscerated him. He does this in true Shakespearean fashion, modeling every murder after a sequence in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies or histories.

Theater of Blood marries the rhetorical brilliance of Shakespeare with its distant cousin, the B-horror film. Horror films have typically been treated as low-art: lurid supernatural melodramas trading in easy gimmicks, buckets of blood, and heaving breasts. Critics rip on them as classless while lauding Shakespeare as the foundation of all that is highbrow. So what does Theater of Blood do? Takes its’ blood and gore straight from the highbrow itself, translating the Bard’s words into bloody deeds. The film introduces an opposition between the legitimate theatre and the schlock horror film and places the two in a macabre and bloody marriage, then proceeds to literally murder the critical establishment that tries to keep them apart. If you think that leaving a man’s headless corpse in bed with his wife is fodder for Eli Roth, try reading Cymbeline.

We should remember that large sections of Shakespeare’s plays were written not for the aristocrats sitting in the wings, but to the groundlings mulling around in the dirt. If the groundlings got bored, they had a tendency to start throwing fruit, so playwrights tried to keep them happy. The coarse humor, sexual innuendo, gore and violence were there so that the uneducated masses that attended the theatre could appreciate the play. Shakespeare’s plays are also drawn from traditional art forms – revenge tragedies, adaptations of folk tales, well-known stories and old romances – that would be recognizable to most theatergoers. What does all this mean? Well, Shakespeare wrote genre stories, full of sex, violence and betrayal. Shakespeare trades as much in what we consider low art as he does in the eloquence of the high; his affinity with B-horror films lies within his work as popular art.

The casting of Theatre of Blood plays into the relationship of Shakespeare and horror. Vincent Price is one of the most instantly recognizable B horror actors. Critic Dexter Devlin (Ian Hendry) explains to Lionheart’s daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) that much of his criticism of her father was a result of Lionheart’s unwillingness to do anything other than Shakespeare his entire career. This reflects on Price himself who, despite an early career as a leading man, made his name in horror films and never stretched his acting as far as Shakespeare…until now. The Shakespearean actor (good, bad, or indifferent) and the ‘ham’ horror actor come together in the person of Price. He’s flanked by one of the stars of the legitimate theatre: the resplendent Diana Rigg, there to give a touch of class to the proceedings. That combination, odd as it may seem, makes Theater of Blood the perfect marriage of the horrific and the highbrow.

With Price’s name dripping red from the marquee, the opening credits for Theater of Blood begin to roll. The credits play over murder scenes from silent film versions of Shakespearean tragedies. The caricatured costuming and stylized acting of the silent era seem not in keeping with the nuance of language and performance we are accustomed to in Shakespeare, but the credits are used to introduce the false binary of horror and art. The extremity of emotions in silent film acting matches the extremity of emotions in Shakespeare; Theater of Blood has a cinematic precedent.

The film then begins with the murder of the first critic, George Maxwell (Michael Hordern). His wife tells him not to go to work that day because she’s had a bad dream about lionesses escaping from the zoo. The language parallels Calpurnia’s argument in Julius Caesar when she tells her husband not to go to the Senate: ‘a lioness hath whelped in the streets.’ The first murder then follows a parodic version of Caesar’s murder.

We might be horrified by Maxwell’s murder, but it’s no worse than what Shakespeare wrote. Caesar is stabbed in the Senate, heroically damning his best friend for killing him; Maxwell is stabbed by meth addicts in a squalid tenement. The guardian of high art is literally being pulled into the squalor of schlock horror, and Shakespeare goes right along with him. The death highlights Shakespeare’s brutality; it is really not the dragging down of Shakespeare at all, but recognition of the playwright as a writer of horror. In the glorious Senate or in a rat-infested tenement, it’s still a man being stabbed fifteen times.

All the subsequent murders are satirical versions of what Shakespeare wrote. This is a horror movie, after all, so we get everything from consumption of one’s own children to drowning in a vat of wine. At one key moment, Devlin says, “Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.” This is precisely what the movie is doing, as murders are recreated to fit the film’s own ends. But the relationship is mutual: the film manages to respect both the Shakespearean tradition and the horror film by drawing its inspiration, its language and its emotions right from the Bard. Like Shakespeare, it plays to the groundlings and aristocrats alike.

At the end of Theater of Blood, Lionheart takes a page from both King Lear and King Kong, clasping his daughter to his chest as he climbs with her to the top of his burning theater. He rails in iambic pentameter and enacts one of the most iconic moments in horror movies at the same time. It is the true marriage of so-called high and low art; the union of horror and Shakespeare. “Blood will have blood,” says Macbeth before one of the most violent encounters in all of literature. No horror maven was bloodier minded than William Shakespeare. 

Your Guest Honey this week: Lauren Humphries-Brooks has a long name and a bunch of degrees, all of which have adequately prepared her for a life of extreme laziness. Lauren spends most of her time obsessing over classical horror films, Vincent Price, and Englishmen, not always in that order. The rest of the time is spent wreaking vengeance on those who have wronged her.