"Revenge should have no bounds."- Hamlet: act iv, scene vii
During the waning years of the late 1920s, S.S. van Dine unveiled with the publication of The Bishop Murder Case (1928) the only perspicacious stratagem from his entire oeuvre, in which an imperceptible entity knocks-off members of New York City's intelligentsia with varying methods modeled on nursery rhymes – but it was Agatha Christie who popularized this plot device a decade later in one of her most popular novels, And Then There Were None (1939). Killers who patterned their crimes after nursery rhymes became a trademark of her work and some of her notable contemporaries followed suit, e.g. Jonathan Stagge's Death's Old Sweet Song (1946) and Ellery Queen's Double, Double (1950).
|"Alas, poor Yorick!"|
It's one of those simple, but clever, ploys that stuck around when the light from the golden epoch of the detective story began to diminish and modern interpretations can be found in a movie like Se7en (1995) or in the mini-series Messiah: The Horrowing (2005) – tho' none of these newfangled representations can hold a candle to the alternative, campy masterpiece that is Theatre of Blood (1973).
In this early slasher, Vincent Price, inimitable and sublime as always, drapes himself in the theatrical costumes of Edward Lionheart, one of the staunchest Shakespearean actors to ever come onstage, who threw himself into a river after suffering a public humiliating at the hands of a group of critics at an award ceremony. The body was never recovered and the devoted actor was presumed dead, but as Price remarked on an episode of The Simpsons, "You should know that the grave could never tame me!"
Unbeknownst to the world at large, a group of filthy, hard-drinking and drugged-up vagrants hauled Lionheart from a watery grave and adopted the thespian as one of their own – even going as far assisting him in extracting revenge on the circle of critics who unjustly maligned him for years with their poisonous pens. The gruesome murder of each critic is modeled on a death scene from one of Shakespeare's many plays with one or two rather horrific, but clever, variations.
This bare plot outline hints at a rather standard fare as far as serial killer flicks are concerned, but what makes this movie work is the fact that the actors were friends or at least well acquainted with one another – and Vincent Price evidently had the time of his life bumping-off one after another of his real-life friends and the feeling was apparently mutual. You've never seen a more eager group of potential victims enthusiastically tugging at the Sword of Damocles that is suspended above their heads, as if they're idolatrous followers of a charismatic cult of personality who's handing out bottles of cyanide laced lemonade, which rubbed off on me fairly early on the movie. I don't have much resistance when it comes to enthusiasm and I am easily contaminated with the darn stuff. And then again, it's Vincent Price who's doing the killing. Getting yourself murdered at the hands of punitive basket case will definitely put a damper on your day, but when that loony, knife-wielding madman turns out to be Vincent Price you can at least put your mind at rest that you're going out in style.
But the coup de grâce is the campy, but exhilarating, manner in which the gruesome murders are set-up and portrayed on screen. I don't think words will do these scenes justice, but one of them involves a meticulous decapitation of a man while a romantic tune plays in the background and the demented character actor ensnarls another victim by disguising himself as a gay hairdresser with a huge afro – even flirting with the uncomfortable cop whose job it was to the protect the prospected victim! But the cartoony fencing scene that involved trampolines and summersaults easily overshadows every other scene.
With a less talented cast, this fabulous, blood drenched picture could've easily deteriorated into a horribly cheesy and silly precursor of the slasher movies from the 1980/90s, but the chummy players elevated this movie from a campy blood fest into an extremely watchable slaughter party. Shortly put, murder was never supposed to be this fun, but it was, and thankfully nobody was considering for even a single second to apologize for his or her behavior.
By the way, from what I understood, not every critic was charmed by the premise of this movie. The critics targeted and dispatched to an early grave were thoroughly unlikable and they made it impossible not to align yourself with the homicidal Lionheart, which was kinda the whole point of the movie. It's not entirely unlike a macabre comedy of manners which pokes (with a sharp blade) fun at stuffy critics with illusions of grandeur, but I guess self-deprecating humor is an acquired taste.