Vincent Price

[24 January 2008]

By Emma Simmonds

[The appeal of horror films is that] they’re not about the ordinary everyday world around us. They’re about a world that’s deep inside of us, a world of impulses and instincts that we’ve been taught to suppress…The impulses that we don’t dare admit; that sometimes we don’t even know we have: animal cruelty, brutal violence and blood lust – they’re tamed and caged. Sometimes they prowl around the cages that we’ve built for them and then there comes a time, in-between our sleeping and our waking, when they whisper to us they want to be set free but, well, we don’t set them free. I think maybe that’s why the pictures are successful because they do set them free.
—Paul Toombes (Vincent Price), Madhouse

—It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.
—Vincent Price

Come now my pretties, do the monster mash. It won’t hurt. I promise…
—Vincent Price, “The Monster Mash”

What a thrill it is to watch a classically urbane gent cooking up ever more fiendish methods with which to dispatch foes. Oh, to be boiled in wax, when the alternative is being clawed at by vagrants or force-fed dog pie. Has there ever been a more irresistible screen villain than Vincent Price in all manner of tormented and dastardly guises?

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. For those unfamiliar with Price’s work (is that possible?), he is indeed a “scream legend” (to appropriate MGM’s apt subtitle). Famed additionally as something of a culinary enthusiast and revered art historian (authoring several volumes on both subjects), he was a ubiquitous and unique cultural presence for over five decades until his death in 1993.

Born into wealth in 1911 – his father owned The National Candy Company, his grandfather was a pioneer in the introduction of baking soda—Price embraced academia though nevertheless pursued a parallel career as an actor: first and throughout on stage, later in film and later still in television and radio.

He was also renowned as a ‘personality’, gamely appearing numerous times on Hollywood Squares and on The Muppet Show, which exacerbated his camp reputation. This rather undermined his work as a serious performer, as did his eventual commitment to the (often critically ill-considered) horror genre.

However, it would be, to use a Coenism, the “acme of foolishness” to dismiss Price as a mere ham, as he was an actor of range—for example he once played Oscar Wilde in a highly acclaimed one man show—and was certainly capable of subtlety.  Yet his more heightened, deranged performances (several examples can be found within this set) have seared themselves on the collective consciousness.

This was fuelled by his insistence on playing up to his audience’s expectations, both on and off-screen, so that he became something of a self-perpetuating myth. His final cinematic performance was appositely that of the creator of Edward Scissorhands in the Tim Burton movie of the same name; a mad scientist for a new generation in the tradition he helped shape.

In House of Wax (1953, not included in this set) and the Phibes films, Price’s own face was a laboriously constructed mask for the monstrous deformity concealed beneath; his iconic features a living metaphor for the beast within. The dark-side is displayed more obviously in Madhouse, where in his embodiment of Dr. Death and the actor, Paul Tombs, who portrays him, a mere layer of paint is all that stands between the two conflicting sides of his character; between reality and his dedication to macabre fantasy. And in Witchfinder General he dons the robes of real-life villain Matthew Hopkins in a more contained performance.

Of course, in any discussion of the appeal of Price, it would be horribly remiss of me to neglect to mention his most famous attribute: his voice, whose tones chilled and charmed in equal measure. Possessing the deceptively soothing quality of an avuncular storyteller, his delivery was also wonderfully ominous. This voice, disembodied or otherwise, seemed to affect a slow descent into madness. He applied this extraordinary tool to such varied projects as The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and the popular songs “Thriller” and “Monster Mash”.

This fabulously designed box set comprises seven films spanning the years 1962 – 1974 (a period in which he had comfortably settled into his horror niche) and is a fitting tribute; a diabolical slice of Price. The pictures run the gamut of superb serious horror (Witchfinder General); expertly executed revenge themed nonsense (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood); portmanteau supernatural storytelling (Tales of Terror, Twice Told Tales); and finally fun cash-ins (Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, Madhouse). A disc of extras completes the collection.

In chronological order, the set gives us: Tales of Terror (1962), a trio of ghostly shorts based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, with horror supremo Roger Corman orchestrating and Price cast as victims rather than villains. In the first, he plays a broken man, haunted by the memory and later the poltergeist of his dead wife, the vengeful spirit “Morella”. A frightening, traditional ghost-house story it makes a suitably chilling opener.

In “The Black Cat” he is destined for a sticky end, playing (to great comic effect) a pretentious wine-taster and love-rival of Peter Lorre. Lorre and Price make a thrilling double act with their contrasting physical appearances and acting style: Lorre’s rosy rotund curves and reptilian drawl are pitched against Price’s fierce sharp lines and, in this instance, preposterous confidence.

In the finale, “The Case of M.Valdemar” Price takes the title role of a terminally-ill man whose soul is cruelly imprisoned in the hinterland between this world and the next by duplicitous hypnotist Basil Rathbone (in rude villainous fettle). Dr. James (David Grankham) sums up the situation amusingly when he says “the death-bed is no place for lunatic experiments!” No doubt this is true, but it’s an entertaining watch regardless. Overall, the film lacks the consistent brilliance of, say, the similarly-structured Dead of Night (1945) but is a good example of how to tackle portmanteau story-telling.

Twice Told Tales (1963) reprises the format, though the stories are now taken from a Nathaniel Hawthorne collection. An inferior sequel, the tales are less engaging and the supporting performances are often rather flat. Despite this, Price brings his usual vitality to proceedings.

The first couple of stories deal in weird science. In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, two friends discover a restorative spring which not only has the power to turn back the years, but also to bring life to the dead. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, Price plays Rappaccini, father of the tragic Beatrice (Joyce Taylor), whom he has cruelly experimented on in order to keep her chaste; replacing her blood with acid so that she unfortunately possesses a deadly touch.

The final act, “The House of the Seven Gables”, sees Price as Gerald Pyncheon, returning to his family home where several male family members have perished before him; victims of a supposed curse. Determined to uncover the family fortune, Pyncheon’s greed leads him inexorably toward the same fate.

Witchfinder General (1968), though based on fact and set in the bucolic English countryside, inducts us into a strange world of howling damsels and duplicitous villagers with a dashing hero, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), pursuing dastardly witch-identifier Matthew Hopkins (Price) to avenge his fiancée’s honour.

The film is accompanied by a fascinating feature, and an informative commentary in which Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove explain how Price’s more restrained and genuinely unsettling performance (Richard Squires in the feature describes it as a “tightly coiled spring”) was elicited by director Michael Reeves, who disliked Price’s acting style. His intention had been to cast Donald Pleasance but had Price foisted upon him by the studio. The young petulant director taunted his star into reining in his more overtly dramatic impulses.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) is a triumph of impressive sets and imaginatively executed death sequences. Price plays the titular Phibes, the organ grinder of this madness, enacting revenge on the medical team who operated unsuccessfully on his beloved wife (whom he keeps in suspended animation in his lair). The sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (1972), promisingly transposes Phibes’ plotting from England to Egypt, though is disappointingly shoddy by comparison and can be viewed as an entertaining debacle at best.

Theater of Blood (1973) reprises the multiple-revenge theme of the Phibes films, but injects new life into the concept with a superior script and stellar cast. Price plays murderous thespian Edward Lionheart, seemingly returning from the grave to enact vengeance on the critics that dogged his career. Hilariously bad taste, it gives Price a chance to inhabit a number of Shakespearian fiends as an excuse to knock-off a series of familiar British faces and, like Phibes, it is a damning indictment of the competency of Scotland Yard, with Lionheart and his gang of tramps running rings round hapless British coppers. Also notable for an excellent performance by Diana Rigg as Lionheart’s devoted daughter, the pair make a wonderfully unusual screen team.

Madhouse (1974) (tagline: If Stark Terror Were Ecstasy… living here would be sheer bliss!) has been described as Price’s Sunset Boulevard, since it utilises a series of clips from his back catalogue. On the whole rather shambolic, it is perhaps most memorable for uniting Price with one of his peers, Peter Cushing (known principally for his Hammer horror work). Price plays Paul Toombes, a horror veteran famed for a series of films featuring the character Dr. Death. When women associated with Toombes start dying in ways conspicuously akin to those featured in his films, he finds himself under suspicion. Plagued by fainting episodes, which coincide with the crimes, Toombes begins to question whether he could possibly be responsible for the murders.

Extras are assembled on the “Disc of Horrors”, with three featurettes provided. The first, Vincent Price: Renaissance Man, provides reasonable biographical information: insight into Price’s upbringing and career, and the occasional noteworthy anecdote. For example, we are told that Price came home aged 12 with his first purchased work of art, remarkably a Rembrandt etching, bought for $37.50, which he proceeded to pay off in instalments.

In Working with Vincent Price, writers and Price aficionados relay others’ accounts of working with Price. Apparently, Roger Corman praised him for possessing the ability to go to the first primal fears of childhood in his performances; the sense of awful despair in the absence of one’s parents. Price is presented as a well-liked individual who became firm friends with many of his co-stars including Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Diana Rigg. This second featurette is a disappointingly budget inclusion, this could have been vastly improved by interviews with collaborators, imparting their own experiences.

In The Art of Fear, horror experts briefly discuss the films of the set.  It contains some interesting observations but the films are deserving of more extensive analysis. Overall, these extras seem hastily tacked-on and fail to adequately convey a sense of the devilish and debonair Price.

The actions of Price’s maniacal alter egos—as Madhouse explicitly recognises—are our darkest desires made manifest, and then some. He elevates films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, partly due to the zeal with which he attacks even the most absurd scenarios. Onscreen, he can be found on several occasions setting, and invariably perishing in, blazes.

Rather than such material being anathema to a man of dash and fine breeding, Price ensured that he will forever be associated with wicked offings and projects injected with more than a syringe full of silliness. That poise, stature and celebrated learning can find itself juxtaposed with the gruesome and ridiculous is an odd conspiracy, which makes Price a delightful incongruity.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/vincent-price/