After being humiliated at a coveted awards ceremony, Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) is seen committing suicide by diving into the Thames from a great height. Unbeknownst to the public, Lionheart survives and is rescued by a group of vagrants. Two years later, on March 15th, Lionheart sets out to exact vengeance against the critics who failed to salute his genius, killing them one by one in a manner very similar to murder scenes from Shakespeare's plays.
Lionheart’s adoring daughter Edwina is arrested as the chief suspect, forcing the actor to reveal himself. In the final drama, he orders chief critic Devlin to give him the coveted award in order to spare his life. Devlin refuses, and Lionheart plans to put out his eyes with red-hot daggers, as with Gloucester in King Lear. His contraption gets stuck, however, just as the police arrive to save Devlin. To thwart them, Lionheart sets fire to the theatre, and in the confusion, one of the vagrants kills Edwina with the award statuette, unwittingly casting her in the role of Cordelia. Lionheart retreats, carrying her body to the roof and delivering Lear's final monologue before the roof caves in, sending him to his death.Vincent Price ... Edward Lionheart
Diana Rigg ... Edwina Lionheart
Ian Hendry ... Peregrine Devlin
Harry Andrews ... Trevor Dickman
Robert Coote ... Oliver Larding
Michael Hordern ... George Maxwell
Robert Morley ... Meredith Merridew
Coral Browne ... Chloe Moon
Jack Hawkins ... Solomon Psaltery
Arthur Lowe ... Horace Sprout
Dennis Price ... Hector Snipe
Milo O'Shea ... Inspector Boot
Eric Sykes ... Sgt. Dogge
Diana Dors ... Maisie Psaltery
Joan Hickson ... Mrs. Sprout
Renée Asherson ... Mrs. Maxwell
Madeline Smith ... Rosemary
Brigid Erin Bates ... Agnes
Charles Sinnickson ... Vicar
Tutte Lemkow ... Meths Drinker
Declan Mulholland ... Meths Drinker
Stanley Bates ... Meths Drinker
John Gilpin ... Meths Drinker
This film was reportedly a personal favourite of Price, as he had always wanted the chance to act in Shakespeare, but found himself being typecast due to his work in horror films. Before or after each death in the film, Lionheart recites passages of Shakespeare, giving Price a chance to deliver choice speeches such as Hamlet's famous third soliloquy ("To be, or not to be, that is the question..."); Mark Antony's self-serving eulogy for Caesar from Julius Caesar ("Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears..."); "Now is the winter of our discontent..." from the beginning of Richard III; and finally, the raving of the mad King Lear at the loss of his faithful daughter.
The film is sometimes considered to be a spoof or homage of The Abominable Dr. Phibes: correspondences with the earlier film include a presumed-dead protagonist (who is a professional performer) seeking revenge, nine intended victims (one of whom works directly with Scotland Yard and survives), themed murders rooted in literature, a young female sidekick. etc.
Today, Theatre of Blood is critically acclaimed, maintaining a 96% "fresh" approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus "Deliciously campy and wonderfully funny, Theater of Blood features Vincent Price at his melodramatic best.".
Theatre of Blood was rather exceptional in that it was filmed entirely on location instead of staging scenes inside a movie studio. Lionheart's fictional hideout, the "Burbage Theatre", was actually the Putney Hippodrome in London, built in 1906, which had been vacant and dilapidated for over a decade before being used in the film. It was later demolished in 1975 to make way for housing units. The Hippodrome was also used in director Hickox's previous film, Sitting Target (1972) with Oliver Reed and Ian McShane.
Lionheart's tomb is an actual monument in Kensal Green Cemetery. It belongs to the Sievier family, and shows the sculpted figures of a seated man, one hand placed on the head of a woman kneeling in adoration, while the other holds the Bible, its pages opened to a passage from the Gospel of Luke. This monument was altered for the film by plaster masks of Price and Rigg substituting for the statue's real ones, the Bible became a volume of Shakespeare and there is a suitable engraving at the front with Lionheart's name and dates.
Peregrine Devlin's impressive Thames-side apartment was in reality the penthouse flat at Alembic House (now known as Peninsula Heights) on the Albert Embankment. The property became the London home of novelist and disgraced politician Jeffrey Archer.
The film was adapted for the stage by British company Improbable, with Jim Broadbent playing Edward Lionheart and Rachael Stirling, Diana Rigg's daughter, playing the role her mother essayed, Lionheart's daughter. The play differs from the film in major ways as the critics are from major British newspapers (examples including The Guardian and The Times) and is entirely set within an abandoned theatre. The play remains set in the 1970s rather than updated to contemporary times.
Another change is the removal of most secondary characters including police, as well as reducing the number of deaths. The killings based on Othello and Cymbeline are omitted as they would have to take place outside the theatre and rely heavily on secondary characters, such as the critics' wives. The name of Lionheart's daughter is changed from "Edwina" to "Miranda" to enhance the Shakespearean influence. This adaptation ran in London at the National Theatre between May and September 2005 and received mixed reviews.
Vincent Price was introduced to his future wife Coral Browne by Diana Rigg during the making of the film. Browne recalled in a television documentary Caviar To The General in 1990, that she had not wanted to make "one of those scary Vincent Price movies" but she was persuaded to take the part of Chloe Moon by her friends Robert Morley and Michael Hordern, acknowledging that the film thus had a very strong cast. Rigg introduced the couple, ignorant of the fact that Price was married.