The Friday Afternoon Movie: Vincent Price Double Feature: Theatre Of Blood and Witchfinder General

It’s the Friday before Halloween. Very exciting. In that spirit, the FAM has a Double Feature for your weekend. Today we present two films: one a horror movie and another a horror movie of a kind but both sort of forgotten classics that play to the man’s strengths as an actor.

First up is 1973′s Theatre of Blood directed by Douglas Hickox and starring Price and Diana Rigg. The rest of the cast is a host of distinguished British actors: Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Joan Hickson, Robert Morley, Milo O’Shea, Diana Dors and Dennis Price. Price plays Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart who, by his own account, was the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. Others are not so sure, especially a group of critics who give an annual award for such achievements, specifically the “Critic’s Circle Award for Best Actor”. When they give the award to another, Lionheart attempts suicide. He survives, however, unbeknownst to his detracters, and is taken in by a group of homeless meths-drinkers. Ridiculed throughout his career by these people and denied their highest honor, Lionheart, with the help of his daughter Edwina, exacts his revenge, murdering each critic, one by one. Each murder is based on the deaths featured in the plays of Lionheart’s last season of Shakespeare before his alleged death, many of them chosen to exploit the weaknesses of their victims, and the critics can be seen to correspond with the Seven Deadly Sins.

Theatre of Blood was one of Price’s favorite movies, mostly because it allowed him to act in Shakespeare, something his long string of B-movie horror casting had kept him from doing. It did not seem to bother him, or many other people at the time, that it very much resembled The Abominable Dr. Phibes which had come out two years before, in which Price plays an organist who takes revenge on the doctors he blames for the death his wife, with the help of his assistant Vulnavia, using the Ten Plagues of Egypt as inspiration. Regardless of these similarities (each film is great in their own right) it is a pleasure to watch Price dig into his role as Lionheart, especially when he is acting out his scenes from Shakespeare before each gruesome murder. It also manages to be a fairly funny film, with each slaying taking on an air of absurdity. The sight of Price disguised as an effete, hipster hairdresser —complete with sunglasses and afro — being a particular highlight. In many ways this is the more traditional of the two performances featured here, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Our second film is more historical drama than horror movie, but it is, indeed, horrific. Released in 1968 and directed by Michael Reeves (who would die a year later, at the age of 25) Witchfinder General (renamed Conqueror Worm in the US to tie into Price’s run of Roger Corman directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations) stars Price as Matthew Hopkins a real life witch-hunter who operated in the Eastern counties of England in the 17th century, during the English Civil War. With his sadistic assistant John Stearne (also a historical figure) played by Russel Roberts (whose voice was overdubbed by Reeves using actor Jack Lynn, as Reeves felt Roberts’s voice was too high-pitched) he travels through England extracting forced confessions from the accused in exchange for money and, it turns out, the sexual favors of the countryside’s young women. He makes a mistake, however, when he reaches Brandeston, Suffolk and executes the town priest, John Lowes, for conspiring with the Devil and takes advantage of his daughter, Sara (who Stearne later rapes), for Sara’s husband, Richard Marshall, a soldier in Cromwell’s army, is not the forgiving type.

Price is absolutely fantastic in this one. His depiction of Hopkins contains none of the hammy overacting found in many of his traditional horror roles and, as such, he comes off as truly evil. His performance was due, in some part, to his contentious relationship with the director. As originally written in the script, Hopkins was meant to be an ineffective leader, a buffoon of sorts. Reeves has Donald Pleasance in mind for such a role but was informed by American International Pictures that Price, their contract star, had to be placed in the role instead. Having rewritten the role for him, Reeves never got over it and made Price’s life as miserable as he could on set. The two clashed repeatedly throughout the filming and it was only after he had seen the finished film that Price realized what Reeves managed to get out of him, calling it “one of the best performances I’ve ever given.”

Despite the tension between the two men during the production, when Price saw the movie the following year, he admitted that he finally understood what Reeves had been after and wrote the young director a ten page letter praising the film. Reeves wrote Price back, “I knew you would think so.” Years after Reeves’s death, Price said, “… I realized what he wanted was a low-key, very laid-back, menacing performance. He did get it, but I was fighting him almost every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted, I would have cooperated.”

In the US, where it was released uncut with additional prologue and epilogue narration by price to establish the aforementioned Poe connection, (though without the added nudity meant for the German release), it made little impact, being shown mostly in drive-ins and grindhouses. In the UK, however, where 4 minutes were removed due to violence, it shocked critics, many of whom dismissed it as sadistic though, by modern standards, of course, it is fairly tame. It’s not particularly concerned with being entirely historically accurate, but it does manage to capture the paranoia that must have been present during that time and the hypocrisy that, no doubt, proliferated among those who rooted out so-called witches.

And here we are, dear readers, at the end of our Vincent Price-a-thon. A sad day. No doubt, there will be those who would have wished to have seen other films here, but there will always be another time for those; Vincent’s catalog is vast, after all. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at his career. Until next time, then.

One Response to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: Vincent Price Double Feature: Theatre Of Blood and Witchfinder General”

  1. slivia Says:

    “I owe that jumped-up plow boy a seein’ to!”

    History, torture and fightin’. Sucks one in.