A cinematic pearl of great price stealthily stalked into New York area neighborhood theaters 45 years ago today, with an indelible star turn holding center stage. “Arguably Vincent Price’s finest single performance, certainly the on that called on all his varied talents as a comedian, aesthete, mellifluous speaker of verse, old-fashioned barnstormer and exponent of horror,” veteran critic Philip French wrote for The Guardian in 2014, “is Douglas Hickox’s classic black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), best of a string of horror pictures he made in Britain. He plays the full-blooded exponent of Shakespeare Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, an actor-manager of the old school (much like Donald Wolfit), who conspires with his daughter, Edwina (authentic RSC Shakespearean star Diana Rigg), to avenge himself on the London Critics Circle for a lifetime of insults. The film is the critic’s nightmare and the actor’s dream: a series of ingenious murders perpetrated on theatre reviewers in imitation of Shakespearean death scenes by the victim of their cruel notices.” For Victoria Price’s tributary 1994 Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, Rigg recalled: “What people don’t know unless they have seen the film, and tend to forget because of his horror movies, is what a great classical actor he would have been. Listening to him deliver some of those Shakespearean speeches, I remember thinking, ‘God, what a missed opportunity.’ He was wonderfully humble, sort of deeply impressed that I was at the National and doing these things, and I found it so sweet a way, because he was a very eminent man in his own right.”
Victoria Price further recounted: “To enhance the project further, the ill-fated critics were played by several of Britain’s finest actors: Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Lowe, Michael Hordern, Harry Andrews, Robert Coote and Dennis Price. Vincent’s London agent, Otis Skinner (Dick) Blodget, remembered, ‘When Vincent was doing that picture, he came here to dinner one night and I said, ‘How’s the filming going?’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t know what it’s like! Years ago, I had the position, especially at Fox, of working with the finest and the best. Then your career bounces around and lately I haven’t been. Since the horror films stopped being with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, since that time, I haven’t had really great performers to work with. And now here I am working with these ladies and gentlemen of the English stage – it’s wonderful!’ He went into paroxysms of honorifics about it.’ Indeed, after years of wading through the bottom of the AIP barrel, Vincent was ecstatic to be playing a modern character, a Shakespearean actor to boot, and to be in such elevated company. From the outset, Theatre of Blood promised to be a positive experience. What he didn’t know is that it would change his private life as well: for, playing the only female critic, was the inimitable Coral Browne.” Two years later, as it is well known, she became Mrs. Vincent Price, abetted during the summer 1972 London environs shoot by a matchmaking nudge from Rigg. Victoria Price wrote: “One night Vincent asked Rigg to accompany him to a charity benefit performance. ‘I thought, ‘My God, this man’s got stamina.’ After all, he was working from six in the morning. I suppose, in a way, he demonstrated his enormous relish for life. And I went with him to this do and Coral was there. I’m not sure if they had played their scene together in the film. In the interval, she and I both went to the lavatory and she said, ‘It’s a long time since I’ve fancied a man my own age, and I fancy Vincent Price.’ Well, in the car home, Vincent volunteered that it was Coral’s birthday the following week and he didn’t know what to do about it. So, I think they must have eyed each other. And I said, ‘Well, I think you can take her out to dinner. If you proffer an invitation, I think it would be looked kindly upon.’ And from then on, they never looked back. I think they fell into bed and I think it was a wildly sexual relationship. Incredibly sexual. I remember Coral saying that they had worked out their combined ages were 120-something, and when you saw these absolutely shagged out people on the set, it was really quite funny. And that was the start of it all.” So those horror-craving 1973 moviegoers who first experienced the outlandish Shakespearean laughs and shocks might not have suspected that behind the scenes a Bardian touch of inevitable romance played out as well. Theatre of Blood continues to play and slay – with demented R-rated intensity, mind you – on a delicious Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.