Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart (Vincent Price), had thought he was the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. Abetted by his daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg), Lionheart sets about murdering, one by one, a group of critics who had both ridiculed his acting throughout his career and declined to award him their "Critic's Circle Award for Best Actor", which Lionheart felt was merited by his final season of performances in various Shakespearean plays; humiliated in the aftermath of the awards ceremony, he attempts suicide and is presumed dead. Unbeknownst to the critics, and the police, Lionheart survives the suicide attempt and is adopted into a community of meths-drinking vagrants who do his bidding. The manner of Lionheart's revenge on each critic is inspired by deaths of characters in the plays of Lionheart's last season of Shakespeare. In most cases the critic is first duped by Lionheart's acting initially to "play the part" before Lionheart's murderous intentions are revealed, followed by a forced recantation and an ironic, humiliating and grotesque dispatch of the critic. The first victim is butchered by a group of tramps on March 15 (the Ides of March), in a reenactment of the death of Julius Caesar. The next is speared and his corpse dragged behind a horse, the fate of Hector at the hands of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida. The Merchant of Venice is reworked so that Shylock gets a pound of flesh (a critic's heart). Other murders include: a drowning in a butt of wine, based on the murder of the Duke of Clarence in Richard III; the wife of one critic, who was drugged to sleep soundly, awakens next to her husband's decapitated body, as Imogen awoke to find the headless body of Cloten in Cymbeline; quasi-cannibalism — the effeminate Meredith Merridew is tricked into eating his "babies" (his beloved poodles) just as Queen Tamora was fed the flesh of her two sons, baked in a pie, in the climax of Titus Andronicus; one critic is tricked into believing his wife has been unfaithful, driving him to smother her in a jealous rage (i.e. Othello) and spend the rest of his life in prison; the sole female critic (played by Coral Browne, shortly to become Price's third and last wife) is electrocuted by hair curlers as Lionheart recites a passage in which Joan of Arc is burnt at the stake, "Spare for no fagots [bundles of sticks], let there be enough..." (from Henry VI, part 1). Many of the deaths are patterned to the weaknesses of the critics - the one that got his heart ripped out showed lusty behaviour earlier, the one drowned in wine is an alcoholic and a gluttonous person choked on pie while being force-fed. Each critic can be seen to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins, with punishment fitting the particular sin. Some are more convincing and frightening than others.
A "duel" scene features Lionheart and the chief critic, Peregrine Devlin bouncing around on trampolines while slashing at one another with rapiers, in the manner of the swordfight between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Lionheart uses this appearance to establish that he did indeed survive his suicide attempt, and thereby get his daughter, the police's chief suspect, released from custody and surveillance, to be falsely presumed the innocent daughter of a madman. Lionheart spares Devlin, who recognizes him and whom he needs to inform the police, as he intends to save Devlin, as head of the Critic's Circle, for last anyway.
The audience and sometime-participants in the mayhem are methylated-spirits-drinking vagrants, who saved Lionheart from drowning after his attempt at suicide by leaping into the river. As the cheap but toxic methylated spirits have damaged their senses, Lionheart finds them easy to manipulate to help him murder the critics. After the principal series of killings, one of these meths-drinkers is disguised as Lionheart as a diversion to lure the police away while the remaining critic Devlin is kidnapped. Police capture the drunk and using the lure of hard alcohol, get him to divulge the whereabouts of Lionheart. The film ends following Lionheart's attempt to force the remaining critic, Peregrine Devlin, to present him with the "coveted" Critic's Circle Award for Best Actor. Taking the blinding of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear as inspiration, Lionheart has arranged a contraption containing two red-hot daggers, which are poised to blind the critic should he refuse to recant and whom he will release otherwise. Devlin stands his ground despite the menace and refuses to change his original choice for the award. The slow-moving contraption is released; however, police sirens are heard outside and the device becomes stuck temporarily. Lionheart sets fire to the theater to thwart the police, who save Devlin just in the nick of time. In the confusion, one of the group of vagrants kills Edwina (i.e. the Cordelia-like devoted daughter), hitting her over the head with the award. Lionheart retreats, carrying Edwina's body to the roof and delivering Lear's final monologue just before the roof caves in and plunges, flaming, to his death. To this, Devlin comments "Yes it was a remarkable performance, but he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit."
THEATRE OF BLOOD
DOUGLAS HICKOX (1973)
METRO GOLDWYN MAYER