Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) is a mediocre stage actor who, upon being denied the Critics Circle Award, attempts suicide, is rescued by a bevy of homeless men, and plots an elaborate revenge on the nine critics who panned his performances. Since he refused to do anything but Shakespeare, the killings are copied from the Bard’s plays, in particular the ones Lionheart received bad reviews for. For example, a man is hacked to pieces like in Troilus and Cressida. It’s up to head critic Peregrine (Ian Hendry) and a pair of policemen to figure out his game and stop Lionheart before he, his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), and his mob of loony cohorts kill again.
The similarities to The Abominable Dr. Phibes are obvious. They’re both classy slasher movies that revel in Technicolor gore. Unlike Phibes, Theatre doesn’t have to work as hard to shoehorn in ways of killing people. The victims are also easier to dislike, for example the guy who is lured to Lionheart’s lair by Edwina pretending to be an actress needing a mentor; moments after she tells him his best friend died, he’s groping her thigh. Unlike the Phibes victims, the critics are grouped together at various points throughout the movie, and I found them all to be interchangeable stuffy old gents besides Miss Moon (Coral Browne).
Along with being highly campy, there’s a pretty big queer vibe going on. First and foremost there’s the stereotypical gay critic (Robert Morley) who is fed his prize poodles; his punishment from Titus Andronicus is described as: “A queen eats her children baked in a pie.”
Then there’s Edwina, who spends much of her onscreen time passing as a man. (Though she is somewhat traditionally masculine, I can’t believe the first time I saw the movie I actually thought she was a guy.) Then there’s the scene when Edward pretends to be Butch, the gay hairdresser. He calls Miss Moon’s guard “baby” and compliments her “dishy hair.”
Despite the brutality, the movie often has a goofy, cheerful tone. There are even silly one-liners like “Pity. He didn’t have the stomach for it.” However, I still feel a little sad when I watch it. Vincent Price was a good actor (he himself did Shakespeare) but he was best known as the nutty guy seeking revenge in campy horror movies. The role of Edward Lionheart symbolizes his career in some ways. BUT from all accounts he loved it, he was great at it, and he had a ball doing it. And yes, the whole cast is great, not just him. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something funny, gory, and delightfully ’70s.