Terror, Dolls, Madhouses: Three for the Price of Price

Three Vincent Price projects from American International.

Now on Blu-ray are three American International Pictures starring Vincent Price, all with jolly commentaries to sweeten the appeal for the actor’s fans.

The earliest film on offer, Tales of Terror, features three Prices for the price. He stars in three stories, all elaborated by screenwriter Richard Matheson from tales by Edgar Allan Poe. The movie is one of several Poe/Price pictures made in the early ’60s by producer-director Roger Corman and, like the previous ones, benefits immeasurably from Daniel Haller’s Gothic designs, Floyd Crosby’s expressionist widescreen photography (complete with a squashed and woozy dream sequence), and Marjorie Corso’s lush costumes, all in Pathe color, and scored with Les Baxter’s rich spookery.

In the ghostly and cobwebby “Morella”, Price plays a moody bastard who provides poor sympathy for his long-estranged daughter (Maggie Pierce) and keeps his mummified wife (Leona Gage) for company. It’s all very clammy and unhealthy. The morbidly comic “The Black Cat”, ingeniously combined with “The Cask of Amontillado”, finds Price hamming deliciously as a poncy oenophile who crosses a belligerent if clever sot (Peter Lorre, equally on point) over the latter’s wife (Joyce Jameson). “The Case of M. Valdemar” finds Price restrained and chilling as the victim of a hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) with designs on his wife (Debra Paget). David Frankham stands around as a handsome hero.

Matheson’s narrative additions are consistent with his interest in neurotic husbands and the failure of masculinity, and these suit Poe nicely as well. No story outwears its welcome, and there are two commentary options. Tim Lucas provides a detailed history while the track with David Del Valle and Frankham is a friendly, anecdotal chat. Corman gives a short interview with more background.

The next movie says House of 1000 Dolls on the cover, House of 1,000 Dolls on the spine, and House of a Thousand Dolls on the screen, so take your pick. Under any title, Del Valle’s gossipy commentary with fan David DeCoteau is more entertaining than the movie. Harry Alan Towers’ Spanish-German co-production, set in Tangier and shot in Spain, is a functional “white slavery” melodrama of sexy girls hypnotized into prostitution, leading to sundry corpses amid much running around. The brothel is the house of 1,000 dolls and a bunch of swarthy minions. Only one “doll” (Diane Bond) has any gumption and threatens to make the story unpredictable, but the script can’t allow that.

Price and Martha Hyer are classy and underused as a couple whose magic act fronts for kidnapping. George Nader is the two-fisted American hero, with Sancho Gracia a two-fisted Spanish hero. Maria Rohm simpers, Ann Smyrner looks pretty, Wolfgang Kieling skulks as a supposedly French cop, and Herbert Fux skulks even more as a shabby shutterbug who’s not long for this plot. The widescreen photography of Manuel Merino looks great on Blu-ray. The English soundtrack (with some actors clearly dubbed) has a distractingly hollow ambiance with weird “crowd” noise. Director Jeremy Summers had better success in a long career on British TV.

Price’s final AIP film is Madhouse, an English co-production with Amicus. Its intriguing premise finds horror star Paul Toombes (Price, with many clips shown of his Corman films) having a breakdown after being accused of decapitating his girlfriend, and more victims fall (including brazen Linda Hayden) when he goes to England for a TV series. Each brutal murder throws everyone into a tizzy for a minute before carrying on as usual. Could the killer be his charming old friend (Peter Cushing), the sleazy producer (Robert Quarry), the cuckoo ex-starlet (Adrienne Corri) who gibbers in the basement with her spiders as though in a different film, or yet another red herring?

With a ready cast, director Jim Clark manages a handful of stylish moments in a tale both predictable and senseless. Among its astounding conventions, somebody’s always changing into a killer’s get-up and running amok at the precise moment Toombes is having an amnesiac fugue, almost as though he’s projecting his unconscious will on the killer. (Now there’s an idea.) It’s nearly rescued by a barmy ending whose inexplicability crosses into the surreal. Del Valle explains in commentary and a making-of how a novel by Angus Hall was shucked for screenplay revisions by two writers, then had dialogue rewritten by Quarry, then was re-edited several times. Result: a colorful mess that’s always almost better.

RATING 6 / 10