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CAMP DAVID MAY 2011: A TRIBUTE TO THEATER OF BLOOD

By • May 19th, 2011 •

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David Del Valle will be introducing his filmed interview with Vincent Price at this even on May 25th in St Louis. He will also have the pleasure of doing an on stage Q&A with Vincent’s daughter Victoria. Any fans in the St Louis area are invited to attend as this program is being presented without charge.


HELLO, I’M BUTCH: A TRIBUTE TO THEATER OF BLOOD

The most defining moment for me in what may well be Vincent Price’s signature film, THEATRE OF BLOOD, comes towards the end of the second act when Coral Browne arrives to get her hair done with a policeman in tow, since half of her Critics Circle has been gruesomely dispatched by a very irate actor named Edward Lionheart, played to perfection by Vincent Price. Coral as ‘Miss Moon” seems to have missed her appointment at first, or so says the rather gay-looking young man (Diana Rigg in drag) complete with a shaggy moustache on duty at the reception booth.

However ‘Butch” is available and it appears to be her lucky day because “Butch is very chic, does Princess Margaret’s hair, and chicks like that.” Miss Moon is persuaded, and at that moment, ascending a spiral staircase is Butch, a rather tall man with a fuzzy Afro hairdo wearing a white blouse emblazoned with very Tom of Finland male nudes. “Hello, I’m Butch. Hey, dishy-dishy hair, can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

The film is overwrought with black humor and gay humor like this.

During her appointment, Miss Moon has her hands tied as Butch remarks, “This is something new from ‘Gay Paree,'” for what will become her final hairdo. “Oh, I wish you would let me do something camp with the color, Darling, I mean, like flame with ash highlights.” Price then proceeds to fry her to oblivion while quoting the Bard’s ‘Henry IV, Part One.’

The real genius of Antony Greville-Bell’s screenplay is how seamlessly he weaves Shakespeare’s most violent moments with clever bits of homage to Vincent Price’s long career onstage and in films. For example, the first time we see Price he is made up to look like a policeman. Vincent’s very first appearance on a stage was that of a policeman in the play CHICAGO. “I won that role by being the only one around at the time in London that really knew how to chew gum.” His reputation as a gourmet cook is exploited in the sequence where he exacts his revenge on another one of the nine critics; this time it’s Robert Morley playing a flamboyantly gay reviewer, in pink suits with two poodles, both wearing bows in their hair. “This is your dish, Meredith Merridew.” Price is faux-French with a goatee. The two actors would later appear on Vincent’s televised cooking show COOKING PRICEWISE, which aired in the UK not long after this film wrapped. Morley is disgustingly done-in by revising the text of Titus Andronicus so that Queen Tamora is now a decidedly different Queen, devouring large portions of poodle pie until he chokes to death on his “babies.”

Antony Greville-Bell only wrote three screenplays (the other two being THE STRANGE VENGENCE OF ROSALIE and PERFECT FRIDAY), both quite different in design from this film, which is without question his best work. At first glance the concept for THEATRE OF BLOOD does indeed look like a cash-in on Price’s former success with THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES and its sequel, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, since both films deal with revenge –this time around in exceedingly spectacular ways. But these films, as directed by Robert Fuest, bear little resemblance to what would follow, since Fuest’s visual sense always came first, creating an Art Deco fantasy landscape where little if any blood is actually shed on camera. He perfected this on the hit TV series THE AVENGERS, which never duplicated any real violence or bloodshed during its long and successful run. If Robert Fuest had directed THEATRE OF BLOOD the result would have been visually stunning but it would not have had the Jacobean cruelty Douglas Hickox gave the proceedings.

One of the delights to be found in THEATRE OF BLOOD is of course the elaborate ways in which Lionheart uses Shakespeare’s text to exact his revenge. The only one of the celebrated actors not to be put to death was Jack Hawkins, who is instead made to follow Othello’s lead and strangle his wife played by the much loved Diana Dors,( one of the UK’s reigning sex symbols of the 50’s, she remained a favorite by turning to character acting with great success). There is a six degrees of separation at work here because Hawkins, who was battling throat cancer at the time of filming, had his larynx removed so it was necessary for an actor to dub his voice for film work. The actor chosen for this job was Charles Gray (widely known for his role in the ROCKY HORROR SHOW as the narrator as well as the Bond villain in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER).

Charles was also a close friend of Coral Browne, having appeared with her on stage and screen. Charles Gray was most certainly introduced to Price during the making of this film. The three of them would work together less than two years later when Gray joined Vincent and Coral for what would be their first appearance on stage together in the West End performing Jean Anouilh’s ARDELE at the Queens Theatre. This Production, while lavishly produced with these three respected actors, should have been more successful than it was, especially with the lukewarm reception Price received from the critics. It would take the life of Oscar Wilde to finally place Price back into the,spotlight of the theater world he abandoned so many years ago for Hollywood.

I had an opportunity to question Vincent Price about this film during our time together in San Francisco where he was being honored at the Palace of Fine Arts. He was staying at the Clift Hotel for the duration and invited me up to his suite for one of our many taped interviews regarding his career. A portion of this interview is available on my DVD, VINCENT PRICE: THE SINISTER IMAGE. For many years Price always cited TOMB OF LIGEIA as his personal favorite, however time can alter many a perception so that afternoon he amended that by making THEATRE OF BLOOD his most enjoyable experience in filmmaking.

“I always knew something wonderful would happen to me before I turned 65,” he said. When Price made the film in 1973 he was at a crossroads both professionally and personally as well. His contract with American International had long since soured to the point of no return; MADHOUSE had been a disaster, which was a shame since the concept of a horror version of both ALL ABOUT EVE and SUNSET BLVD. was enticing to be sure. His off-screen hostility to actor Robert Quarry could have been an asset if the powers at AIP had not rushed the production with shoddy production values, not to mention cutting the film during its editing stage until it made little sense.

“I didn’t want to do THEATRE OF BLOOD at first since I had just been offered a summer season at the Rep Theatre in Missouri. They offered me a chance to play Becket in Elliot’s MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL as well as O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. This always seemed to happen to me when I had a chance to return to the real craft of acting, something to feed the soul.” Price had to decline the engagement in order to make the film. His apprehension melted away when he finally sat down and read the screenplay. “The script was absolutely brilliant with wonderful dialogue. I simply could not wait to play this character of Edward Lionheart. I mean, what actor would not jump at the chance to give back some of his own to the critics?”

The cast of THEATRE OF BLOOD was also a factor in Price’s enthusiasm for the project. Hickox had assembled the crème-de-la-creme of the British stage for extended cameos as the nine critics Edward Lionheart dispatches with the aid of the Bard’s text. Aside from Coral Browne and Robert Morley there were also Jack Hawkins, Arthur Lowe, Dennis Price, Robert Coote, Harry Andrews, and Diana Dors. Vincent’s co-star was Diana Rigg, whom Price adored from the very first meeting. “Diana is one of the best actresses in England as well as being a great deal of fun to know…She worked in drag during portions of our film, during the scene where I murder the lady that was to become my wife, Coral. Diana came on set wearing these tight trousers with a large sock stuffed in her pants. I roared with laughter, as did the crew. They loved her, as do I.”

The father/daughter chemistry between Price and Diana Rigg helps establish his character as more sinned against than sinning even in his most gruesome moments of mayhem. Her death scene towards the end, taken from Lear, is quite moving as she lies in Price’s arms reciting the lines she had played ten years before under the direction of Peter Brook with the great Paul Scofield as Lear.

Price would go on from this project with the support of his new wife to finally return to the stage where he would triumph with his magnificent one-man-show DIVERSIONS AND DELIGHTS, playing Oscar Wilde, the role his late friend Laird Cregar also played back in the forties.

Both men were under contract to 20th Century Fox at the time. Vincent did the eulogy at Cregar’s funeral and then replaced his friend in DRAGONWYCK playing the Gothic character he would later perfect in HOUSE OF USHER. Price had enjoyed a resurgence in his career after the success of these eight Corman Poe films, which firmly established him in the film world as the new master of the macabre.

It would however be the unexpected critical success of THEATER OF BLOOD some ten years later to restore his confidence as an icon Vincent remained over the moon during the duration of the filming of THEATRE OF BLOOD, for here he was, at last surrounded by his peers, all respected actors in the theater, being directed by a young and talented man, with brilliant dialogue allowing him the opportunity to speak some of Shakespeare’s most profound lines while basically being Vincent Price as well. His soliloquy from Hamlet, spoken in front of all these wonderful actors while billowing curtains fly around him as he moves outside along the railing of the high-rise offices of the Critics Circle, is a tour-de-force beautifully played by one of America’s most underrated actors. In this moment, both the personal and profession lives of Vincent Price became one, allowing his audience who had remained faithful for five decades to finally see him reach beyond the cardboard castles of Roger Corman’s Poe-scapes into a Brave New World of both Gods and monsters.

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10 Responses »

  1. A wonderful piece on one of my favorite movies. Bravo!!

  2. I was fortunate to attend Vincentennial’s showing of the movie, Laura, last night. What a treat it was, to view this film on a large screen, and to hear the audiences’ reactions to Cliffton Webb’s dialogue. He really had some great, funny lines, and since I’d only ever seen Laura in the comfort of my own home, it was eye opening to see it with an audience, all appreciative of Classic movies, and of Vincent Price and his career.

  3. I made my high school boyfriend that me to see Theater of Blood. I loved this film but have always adored all Price films…Laura…Leave Her to Heaven. He always caught my eye, even as a little kid.

  4. Lovely article. My favorite Vincent Price movie with a brilliant ensemble. I never realized until the end that Diana Rigg was in drag.
    Price is one of those old school professionals who never made a bad performance. I enjoy him in everything even if the movie itself isn’t so good, he is always good.
    Another Price movie which I adore and watch every Halloween is “Comedy of Terrors”.

  5. Dishy, dishy! One of the best articles about one of my most loved Price films. Wonderful David, as always!

  6. I would very much like to purchase a DVD of Vincent Price in his performance of Oscar Wilde in “Diversion and Delight”. Is there one available?

  7. Is Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde in “Diversions and Delight” available on DVD?

  8. As far I as know the stage production of Diversions and Delights was never taped for the public. Vincent mentioned that one of his performances was taped and I know he was approached to do it during the run. He toured all over the country with it and it is a tragedy if this landmark performance perhaps his greatest is lost to the ages…….

  9. My British father was always up for a good English horror film, or Monty Python for that matter. Consequently, I saw “Theatre of Blood” when it aired on Canadian television sometime in the mid-’70s. The incredible Diana Rigg, the sight of whom induced in me puberty, was, of course, a total bonus.

    Frankly, I had no idea Vincent Price could act, but he was a versatile and interesting performer (so is Christopher Lee, for that matter) and seemed in interviews to be a genuinely nice man with eclectic tastes.

    Of course, as a Canadian born in the ’60s, his stint on a weird kids’ show called “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein” was my introduction to his body of work

    It’s fitting his swan song was in “Edward Scissorhands”.

  10. I love the behind the scene photos. Where did you get them?

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