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Years prior to the start of the film, Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) was one of the self-styled stars of the Shakespearean stage, decidedly unloved by the critics of various papers. His performances in his final year, though playing to packed theatres, were panned at each and every opportunity, until finally they unanimously gave the Critics' Award to a new, uprising actor. This pushed Lionheart to the depths of despair, and in a singular act, he ended it all, jumping off a building while clutching the award which he felt was rightfully his.
The film opens with one of these critics being informed that a number of vagrants have begun squatting on a condemned building of his. Despite being warned by his wife that she had a dream of a pack of lions descending upon him, and the horoscope (for March 15th) claiming that it wasn't a good idea to be incautious, he runs off to the building, where he's confronted by the same vagrants who he was about to forcibly remove - and stabbed twenty two times, while the local constabulary looks on.
The perpetrator, of course, is Lionheart, who - having survived his suicide attempt, thanks to a kindly bunch of methanol-drinking homeless chaps - has decided to revisit his last run in the theater... and provide a very special command performance for each of the critics in turn.
In 2005, a stage adaptation was produced in London by the British company Improbable, starring Jim Broadbent as Lionheart and Rachel Stirling (Diana Rigg's daughter) as Edwina.
Theater of Blood contains examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Larding.
- Alien Lunch / Eat the Dog: One critic is forcibly fed his beloved poodles, during the Titus Andronicus scene.
- Asshole Victim: Each one of the critics, except Devlin.
- Black Comedy
- Bloody Hilarious: The decapitation scene.
- Bond One-Liner: Two from Lionheart: "I wonder if he'll travel well" (after sealing a man in a barrel of wine) and "Pity; he just didn't have the stomach for it" (after choking a man to death with a poodle meat pie).
- Camp Gay: Meredith Merridew. Lionheart disguises himself as one for one of the murders.
- Chatty Hairdresser: A Camp Gay version with an afro hairstyle to boot, which is then used to Squick the attending policeman away from his charge.
- Climbing Climax
- Crazy Homeless People: Lionheart's minions.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: One critic is quite easily manipulated into re-enacting the murder scene from Othello.
- Death by Irony: Each and every one.
- The Dragon: The 'Stage Manager'.
- Dropped a Bridget On Him: The 'stage manager'.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: "He was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit."
- Electric Torture: To death, mimicing Joan of Arc's elimination in Henry VI, Part I.
- Eye Scream: Devlin is threatened with this.
- Fate Worse Than Death: The aforementioned Crazy Jealous Guy goes to jail 'til the end of his days, having killed his wife. (It's implied, though, that his age and health won't let him survive prison for long.)
- Flynning: The Sword Fight, lovingly stolen from Romeo and Juliet, which contains trampolines and a balance bar just for the hell of it.
- Force Feeding: Mr Merridew is forcibly fed until he dies of suffocation. With pieces of his beloved poodles.
- Gory Discretion Shot: The part where a heart is cut out is very carefully blocked by the head of one of the vagrants; the decapitation scene does this, too.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Used for a joke in one of the murders. Lionheart commits the Henry VI inspired murder (specifically, based off the death of Joan of Arc) in his Camp Gay hair dresser disguise:
"Spare for no fagots, let there be enough..."
- Hero Antagonist: Devlin and the police.
- Hollywood Police Driving Academy: The police think they see Lionheart driving by, and immediately scramble into a traffic jam reminiscent of the Keystone Kops.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Snipe's fate.
- Jerkass: Each and every one of the critics, who mock Lionheart and his daughter whilst they are in the room, proceed to mock Lionheart's death, and really don't seem to care much for each other. When the first critic is murdered, one of them remarks that they've finally a headline, not a byline. Even Devlin, largely the Only Sane Man of the critics, refuses to admit to Lionheart's genius when his life depends on it, and openly mocks Lionheart when he dies for real.
- Large Ham: Oh, yes. One can tell that Price had far too much fun throughout the movie. One critic describes one of Lionheart's performances as putting him in mind of a ham sandwich.
- Literal Metaphor: "I am sorry to miss the meeting, but my heart is with you."
- Mad Actor's Beautiful Daughter: Edwina Lionheart who's really Daddy's Little Villain and is basically The Dragon to her father.
- Master of Disguise: Lionheart and the Stage Manager.
- Meaningful Name: True for several characters:
- Missing Mom: Nothing is said about Edwina's mother.
- Mr. Muffykins: A pair of the little buggers belong to Meredith Merridew, though they're at least not too yappy. They meet a suitably awful end.
- Not Now, Kiddo: "Hey, just go about your normal life, and leave the rest to us."
- Offscreen Crash: A cop hiding in the trunk of a car in an attempt to follow Lionheart ends up parked on train tracks. We hear him over the walkie-talkie to the other cops:
"I can hear a train whistle... (rumbling sound) I can definitely identify it as a train... (sound grows louder) T-R-A... KERRRR-UNNCH.
- Off with His Head
- The Ophelia: Sort of, in that Lionheart's daughter is pretty scarred from the supposed death of her father. Or, at least, appears to be.
- Poetic Serial Killer
- Pound of Flesh Twist: Not happening here. The critic's heart is messily removed, weighed (oops: two ounces over - let's put that bit back), and sent to the police in a neatly-wrapped box.
Devlin: It's Lionheart, all right. Only he would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.
- Romance on the Set: Coral Browne played one of the critics - and later married Vincent Price in real life.
- Shout-Out/To Shakespeare: Every death is staged to re-enact a famous play by the Bard. It helps (or hurts) that Lionheart desired to be known as a Shakespearean actor.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Lionheart. Not exactly a small name though.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: A lovely, calming theme plays while Lionheart and his main flunky surgically remove one critic's head.
- Spiritual Successor: To The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
- Stealth Pun: Inspector Boot notes that one of the murders in Titus Andronicus involves "an old queen" being forced to eat her children baked in a pie. When Lionheart re-enacts this scene, he chooses the Camp Gay Merridew for his victim.
- Straw Critic: The critics are generally this, although their reviews of Lionheart appear to have been pretty accurate.
- Sunglasses At Night: The 'Stage Manager'.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Lionheart's lead henchman with the hippy glasses, afro, and beard is actually his daughter Edwina in disguise.
- Tempting Fate: "Oh, there's only three of us left, surely the might of the British police force can protect us all."
- Too Dumb to Live: Despite knowing that there's a murderer out there who's following Lionheart's last season on stage, one decides to go into a wine tasting, asking the officer to wait outside. It gets even more foolish from there.
- Unintentional Period Piece: The hairdos and fashions make this movie so '70s it hurts.
- Villain Protagonist: Lionheart.
- Wicked Cultured: Lionheart, of course.
- Wig, Dress, Accent: The most obvious, hippy-esque flunky (the 'Stage Manager') manages to disguise himself as a hairdresser, a wine tasting host, a masseur, a policeman; Lionheart does even more.