Vincent Price’s career offers an interesting study in choices. He was born the child of a wealthy family in Saint Louis, Missouri; his grandfather invented a type of baking powder and his father was the president of the National Candy Company. From his fortunate beginnings he began his career as a legitimate stage actor, with a breakthrough performance opposite Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina.
Price began his movie career playing it straight as well, doing perhaps his best work as the charming moocher Shelby Carpenter in Otto Preminger’s 1944 Laura (as Judith Anderson says of Shelby, “He’s no good, but he’s what I want,” which could also stand as the motto for some of the films in this collection). Price got into horror films in the ’50s, and that proved to be his true niche—in fact, he’s probably better known today for the series of B horror pictures he made for Roger Corman and others than for anything else in his career.
Seven of Price’s horror films are included in the Vincent Price Collection II, which offers a first-class presentation of films that, while not exactly gems of the cinematic art, can still be quite enjoyable. These are B-movies, folks, so don’t come looking for Citizen Kane. Instead, sit back and enjoy, in the spirit of a teenager at a drive-in with a bunch of your friends and a curfew that is but a distant memory, or a kid curled up in front of the TV watching the creature feature long past your bedtime.
The real gem of the collection is The Last Man on Earth, a black and white Italian production based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. Although Matheson was sufficiently unhappy with the film to change his credit to “Logan Swanson”, The Last Man on Earth is far more faithful to his novel than the more recent film versions The Omega Man (1971) or the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend (2007), both of which manage to completely miss the point. Price, cast as the last “normal” person in a world in which a plague has transformed everyone else has been transformed into vampiric, zombie-like creatures, completely carries the film, with his distinctive voice put to particularly good use in the film’s many voiceovers. The Last Man on Earth is also interesting to film historians because of its influence on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, whose shuffling “slow zombies” that bear a remarkable resemblance to the vampiric creatures of The Last Man on Earth.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) is a William Castle production, full of the usual gimmicks and boo scares, but it knows what it is and offers a good time to viewers. The setup is familiar: a group of strangers must spend the night together in a spooky old house, in this case in order to win $10,000 from an eccentric millionaire (Price). Of course, there’s something else going on, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun, which is enhanced by the presence of several reliable character actors (Elisha Cook, Carol Ohmart) and exteriors shot at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ennis House in Los Angeles.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the last of Corman’s Poe adaptations, is one of his better films. Besides Price’s acting, The Tomb of Ligeia benefits from a script by Robert Towne and Paul Mayersberg (who went on to write the screenplays for Chinatown and The Man Who Fell to Earth, respectively), outdoor shooting at Castle Acre Priory in England, and sumptuous costumes and sets. Another bonus: dual roles for the classically-trained English actress Elizabeth Shepherd.
The Return of the Fly (1959) is a sequel to the much better 1958 film The Fly, and suffers from obvious budget restrictions as well a the disappearance of Price from the screen for much of its running time. On the plus side, it was shot in black and white, which makes the silliness of the series premise (a teleportation device that can mix genetic materials from different species to produce remarkable hybrids) a bit more palatable. The Return of the Fly begins 15 years after the close of the previous film, with Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) picking up the line of experimentation that resulted in the death of his father, while coercing his uncle Françoise (Price) to fund his work. Needless to say, things do not always go as planned (it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, you know).
Balancing horror and comedy within the same film is a tricky proposition, and The Comedy of Terrors (1963) completely fails in this endeavor. Too bad, because it must have seemed like a can’t-miss proposition at the time. A film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past) with a script by Richard Matheson and starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone—what could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit, it turns out—the film’s attempts at comedy are grating and misogynist (Joyce Jameson is reduced to flashing her cleavage, singing badly, and generally serving as the butt of the joke) and the result is an unfunny mess, with Price stuck acting like a Don Rickles-like insult comedian towards the other characters. Even Matheson noted that this film didn’t connect with contemporary audiences, although because it was so cheaply made it didn’t lose money either.
The Raven (1963), another of Corman’s Poe films, is a much better horror comedy and also much more fun to watch. It opens and closes with the sonorous tones of Price quoting from “The Raven”, but in between has very little to do with Poe’s poem. Lorre, a wizard transformed into a raven by the evil Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff), enlists the assistance of retired sorcerer Erasmus Craven (Price) to get back to his human form. Jack Nicholson has a small role as Lorre’s doting son, and Hazel Court and Olive Sturgess have supporting roles as Craven’s wife and daughter. The highlight of the film is a tongue-in-cheek magic duel between Price and Karloff, Harry Potter-style, that is charming despite the very low-tech special effects employed by Corman (visible “levitation” wires, optical printing).
To some, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1973) qualifies in the so-bad-it’s-good category of guilty pleasures, but to me it’s just bad. Nonetheless, the film and its central character have their fans, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t have a good Blu-Ray of the film for their viewing pleasure. The plot, such as it is, picks up with Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp) heading off to Egypt to resurrect his wife. Along the way, Phibes murders several people in campy/gruesome set pieces, and also plays the organ. If that sounds appealing, then this is the film for you.
The Vincent Price Collection II comes with a generous package of extras. Five of the seven films include one or more commentary tracks, providing all kinds of background information for Price fans and horror buffs alike. The House on Haunted Hill has a commentary by film historian Steve Haberman, The Return of the Fly by actor Brett Halsey and film historian David Del Valle, The Raven by Haberman, and The Last Man on Earth by Del Valle and author Derek Botelho, but they’re all topped byThe Tomb of Ligeia, which has three commentaries, by producer/director Roger Corman, actor Elizabeth Shepherd, and film historian Constantine Nasr.
Several of the films have introductions and outros recorded by Price for Iowa Public Television, and they’re a real delight even in their lo-fi state. There’s also a brief video explaining how these pieces came to be—basically, they asked, and he agreed. The discs also include a number of smaller delights, including stills galleries, brief interviews with Richard Matheson, promotional materials, trailers, and featurettes on Price’s career and these films. Finally, there is a 32-page booklet with an essay by Del Valle and lots of pictures from the films. As is often the case, the extras make a strong case for purchasing the collection, even if you are not crazy about all of the films included.