The Masque of the Red Death

Vincent Price: The Poe Cycle

The Vincent Price Collection might best be titled “Part 1: The Poe Cycle”, allowing for Price’s classic horror films not included here. However, these six films are, indeed, six of Price’s very best.

The Vincent Price Collection
Shout! Factory
8 October 2013

To refer to this Blu-ray collection of horror films as “The Vincent Price Collection” is most assuredly something of a misnomer, considering the fact that, in spite of the veteran actor’s long association with the most terrifying of film genres, he had been a very successful character actor for 22 years prior to the release of the oldest film in this collection. In fact, by the time House of Usher was released in 1960, Price was already almost 50 years old and had over 80 credits on screen alone (he was also an accomplished stage actor).

Perhaps a renaming and rearrangement of this package could have resulted in a more accurately titled and representative collection for the fans. For example, this collection includes four of the eight popular films from Roger Corman’s “Edgar Allan Poe Cycle”, along with two later films. This collection might have been best titled “The Vincent Price Collection part 1: The Poe Cycle”, allowing for later releases to cover Witchfinder General, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and many of Price’s classic horror films that were not included here (such as The Last Man on Earth, House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill and Tower of London). However, while this four-disc set might not be the career retrospective implied by the title “The Vincent Price Collection”, this is far from an unfocused release from Shout! Factory, as these six films are, indeed, six of Price’s very best.

The collection kicks off with 1961’s The Pit & the Pendulum, as adapted by the incredibly prolific Richard Matheson (author of everything from Spielberg’s Duel to The Legend of Hell House to the basis for The Incredible Shrinking Woman). Under the otherwise B-Movie direction of Roger Corman, The Pit & the Pendulum somehow manages to become a visual treat. There’s an excellent use of matte paintings in this film, especially in the long shots of the title pendulum-and-pit room where many of the deeply disturbing moments in this film take place. The majority of Matheson’s screenplay is a speculative elaboration on the events leading up to Poe’s original short story with only the final act actually adapting the literary work itself.

The Pit and the Pendulum is well-acted by Price, who gives us a much friendlier and kinder man than the horror master’s reputation might suggest. His character of Medina struggles with the possibility that his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) may have been buried alive after seemingly dying of fright. As chilling as that possibility certainly is, the film takes almost a full hour of its 80-minute screen time to truly get going and become the horror film it promises to be.

Once the frights begin, the film is truly terrifying and disturbing. Steele is beautiful and scary as Elizabeth, while Joseph Kerr (in the role of her investigating brother Francis) is sincere and eager throughout his screen time. This is still Price’s film, of course, and as such, The Pit and the Pendulum reminds the viewer that the brilliance of Price is not that he is consistently frightening but that he is capable as the everyman character thrust into disturbing and impossible scenarios.

This first disc also gives us the first instance of what is possibly the best of the many Blu-Ray extras on this set, the wraparound introductions and closing statements that Price recorded in the early 80s for most of these films for Iowa Public Television. In truth, the bumpers are predictably not the best visual quality (having been shot on video for a PBS affiliate thirty years ago), but video quality aside, these segments are excellent. Sure, these often resemble the cheesier “host segments” from horror TV anthologies like The Vampira Show and USA Up All Night with Price’s almost Crypt Keeper-esque tongue-in-cheek humor and wry smile all set against the interiors of an old Gothic mansion.

This soon vanishes as the tuxedo-clad actor begins to tell behind-the-scenes stories in his voice and words (scripted from interviews the creators collected over the years). These intros and outros are absolutely priceless for Price fans, and the older Price appears to be having a great time doing these rarely-seen clips. The Pit and the Pendulum also features a commentary track by Corman, the theatrical trailer, and a rarely-seen prologue for the film. Unfortunately, the film quality isn’t what you would expect from a high-profile Blu-Ray release. Visible scratches, dust, and even the occasional film splice can be seen on the transfer, and while that may be a treat for grindhouse fans, it’s not quite what film buffs would expect from a full 1080p, high-definition disc purchase.

The same occasional film quality issues are seen in the second film in this collection, Poe’s own The Masque of the Red Death (1964), also directed by Corman, but with the screen credit going to Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell. While The Pit and the Pendulum gave us a multi-layered and varied Price, in The Masque of the Red Death, Price is at his most menacingly evil as Prince Prospero, callously chewing out his praise for “The Lord of the Flies, the Fallen Angel, the Devil!” amongst other nightmarish diatribes. As in Poe’s poem, Prospero is the elitist lord who holds an isolated party (the title Masque) in his castle as the peasants outside suffer and die from the plague meted upon them (the title “Red Death”), however, like the previous film, the writers of this screenplay greatly elaborate the events of the source material and establish a long prologue and even epilogue to the poetic proceedings.

The Masque of the Red Death is among the most colorful (no pun intended) of Corman and Price’s Poe collaborations, and there are moments of lavish beauty in many of the scenes here. There is also a great deal of psychological horror to behold as the evil Prospero sets his affections upon the beautiful Christian peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher). The film seems to occasionally miss the point of the original poem, focusing less on the comeuppance of the elitist prince and more on the Satanism that makes him deplorable for much less real-world reasons, such as his bone-chilling disregard for human life.

While the film can be beautiful, it is also very dated and looks old, both in the “they don’t make films like they used to” kind of way and the fact that the dust, scratches, and visible splices give that same grindhouse appearance that marks and mars the Blu-Ray transfer. Price’s intro and outro cannot be watched separately and must be watched with the entire film, and the menu can’t be accessed while the film is being watched. The disc also contains an interview with Corman and a commentary by author Steve Haberman. Be warned, however, the trailer for The Masque of the Red Death gives away the entire film and serves less as a preview than a short film version of the entire film.

The next film is the 1963 entry in the Poe Cycle, called The Haunted Palace, which is a fascinatingly unique example of the Poe Cycle, considering the fact that it wasn’t based on Edgar Allan Poe’s work at all. Although it does borrow its title from Poe’s poem, The Haunted Palace is actually an adaptation of the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by none other than H.P. Lovecraft. This wasn’t the only time that a non-Poe story was attempted to be passed off by American International Pictures as part of the Poe Cycle, but in this case, the misdirection is completely unnecessary.

The Haunted Palace is a tale of intergenerational possession, immortality, and gothic horror, all surrounding an ancient house that had been transplanted from England to the United States. This, incidentally, is the film’s claim to the title The Haunted Palace, as this rebuilding element is one of the features in Poe’s poem that was later incorporated into his story The Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting amalgamation (adapted by Beaumont into a 90-10 mix of Lovecraft and Poe) is a tense and dramatic tale of terror that fits perfectly into this gothic style that Corman adopted for his cycle. This also marks the second (and final) time that Price “appeared” onscreen with an actor named Creighton Tull Chaney, better known by his stage name Lon Chaney, Jr. Although in their first shared film “appeared” may be a misnomer as Price played the anything-but-visible Invisible Man against Chaney’s signature role as the Wolf Man in 1948’s Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein.

While the same “mostly-clean” but occasionally scratchy frames also pockmark this print, the Blu-Ray transfer is high definition enough to reveal a number of flaws in the effects. For example, even the outdoor scenes of this third film were shot in-studio… and one can easily see the wrinkles in the backdrop that makes up the “skyline”. The Haunted Palace’ special features include the Price intro and outro, an audio commentary, another interview with Corman, a theatrical trailer and a still gallery.

Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” was later expanded into The Fall of the House of Usher which was adapted in 1960 by Matheson for the direction of Corman as House of Usher. This fourth film in the collection was the first film in the Poe Cycle, which calls into question its placement. This anachronism is further fed by the Price intro and outro, which ends with Price describing the next film in the series… “The Vincent Price Collection” which was presented earlier in the set. This placement may be due to the fact that House of Usher is among the very best of Price’s films.

Here Price plays Roderick Usher, a man so isolated in the title mansion that his hair and skin have turned white. Usher’s isolation is shattered by the appearance of Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon in an excellent performance), the groom-to-be of Usher’s equally cloistered sister Madeline (the beautiful-cum-terrifying Myrna Fahey). While on the surface, the film is a gothic drama relating to the effects of isolation, insanity and hereditary evil, just under the surface is the menace of the (possibly) supernatural that brings about the title “Fall”.

House of Usher is another treat for the eyes with gory effects, gothic scenery, and terrifying twists and turns. Further, Price steals his own show in the acting territory. His performance here as the misguided but well-intentioned Roderick Usher reminds the astute audience that Price is much more than simply a “horror actor”. In fact, in many of his best and most famous horror films, such as The Fly and The Last Man on Earth, Price doesn’t play the villain at all but the dashing hero. Here, Price becomes the amalgam of all of his roles, playing the depressed and tortured big brother who truly, deeply, believes that everything he does, even the most horrific things, are the best choices he can make.

House of Usher’s special features include commentary by Corman and another by historian Lucy Chase Williams, an entrancing audio-only interview with Price conducted by historian David Del Valle and a still gallery.

The Price intros and outros are some of this collection’s best extras. Ironically, the one film in this collection that does not have an Iowa Public TV host segment by Price contains the bonus documentary “Introductory Price: Undertaking the Vincent Price Gothic Horrors”. This account of the creation of the Iowa Public Television bumpers is presented and introduced by Duane Huey, the producer who supervised their creation.

The best thing about this documentary is its detailing not only of the creation of these cool wraparounds but also the real Price behind the intentionally dark and campy characterization of himself that he presents in these clips. Price comes off as gentlemanly and affable, never treating this project like something minor or “just for television”. This narrative is additionally valuable due to its outtakes which feature the serious actor breaking into laughter and joking with the cast and crew.

The film that “Introductory Price” shares a disc with is one of Price’s masterpieces, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, an entrancing and disturbing tale of elaborate revenge and shocking suspense. Price portrays the title character as something of an enigmatic cyborg Frankenstein’s monster with the genius of Doctor Frankenstein himself. The title Doctor is a menacing but romantic genius who shares more than a passing resemblance to the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is much more than your typical monster movie and, in fact, marks a dramatic shift from the previous four films in this collection. No scene in this film looks like it was shot in the studio and this realistic and natural approach makes the more unbelievable elements even more disturbing. What’s more, Director Robert Fuest does more than add a visual lavishness to the picture — he also interprets the screenplay by James Whiton and William Goldstein into a dark symphony of malignant terror. The evil genius of Jigsaw from the Saw film franchise is undeniably inspired by Dr. Phibes himself with actual tricks and traps from this film faithfully (if unoriginally) adapted for the Saw films (note the key surgically implanted into a patient and the time-limits placed on impossible situations). Price’s grotesque performance alone must be seen to be believed.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is probably the best all-around film in this collection and looks absolutely fantastic in this full 1080p widescreen Blu-Ray transfer. This third disc also contains the theatrical trailer, director and historian commentary, and a vast treasure trove of a still gallery.

With The Abominable Dr. Phibes shifting the paradigm of this collection, the path is paved for the final film in the collection Witchfinder General. This shift also renews the theory that a more fully-focused collection might have better stood as “Part 1” of a series of Price collections, considering the fact that aside from the over-arching genre itself, Phibes shares little with the other films in this collection, including Witchfinder General.

This sixth film in the collection was shot in 1968 by then-22-year-old director Michael Reeves for Tigon British Film Productions but co-produced by American International Pictures, who released all of the Corman Poe films (to great success). This is the obvious reason that A.I.P. retitled the film The Conqueror Worm, after Poe’s poem of the same name, in spite of the fact that the film has nothing to do with Poe’s poem or any other of Poe’s work. This didn’t stop Iowa Public Television from licensing the film for their Poe presentations and hiring Price for the wraparound for this film. The US release also includes a brief voiceover of Price reading parts of Poe’s piece over the opening and closing credits for a dubious relation to the Corman Poe Cycle.

In actuality, this is a drama (albeit violent and bloody) based on the historical novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett based, in turn, on the real-life murderous witch-hunter of the Oliver Cromwell era. While the screenplay by Tom Baker and Reeves himself further fictionalizes the life of Hopkins, the true events of the arbitrary “witch” execution are as disturbing on the page as they are on the screen.

Hopkins proves to be among the most bloodthirsty and cruel of all of Price’s characters. There is little or nothing of the occasional camp that Price often employed (he was never afraid to “send himself up” over the years), nor is there any of the complexity of Price’s Roderick Usher. Price’s Hopkins is purely cold and evil, greedy and self-serving. Reeves proved to be an amazing visionary with the camera, especially for such a younger director, and utilizes natural light as often as possible to showcase his actors and actresses in the raw.

This is especially true with Ian Ogilvy as roundhead Richard Marshall and his beautiful betrothed Sara (Hilary Dwyer). Witchfinder General is almost as violent as they came back in 1968 but also uses the nearly neon-bright fake blood that we saw in films like Dawn of the Dead. For the intentional comic-book look of Dawn of the Dead this worked beautifully but for a serious historical horror drama from 1968 England, it can be distracting and even silly.

On the other hand, Price’s performance is excellent, as are the romantic roles presented by Ogilvy and Dwyer and Reeve’s direction is remarkably impressive. As well-done as the final product actually is, and it is, this is definitely not for the squeamish. Blood, cruelty, violence, torture, murder, nudity and very realistic, blood-curdling screams are all ingredients in this disturbing tale.

Witchfinder General is also too scratched and grainy to be considered Blu-Ray quality truly, however, the bonus features are as lavish as the production to the point that any stray special features were shoved into the last disc for the viewing pleasure of the public. These include the final introduction and final comments by Price, still gallery, commentary by Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove, a documentary, the theatrical trailer and a collection of Price trailers for films not included in this collection.

The best features on this disc, that rival the entire collection, are the interviews. Price’s daughter Victoria Price gives a great insider view of the man himself and talks about who he was as a father and what it was like to grow up with a master of terror for a parent. The 1987 interview entitled Vincent Price: The Sinister Image was conducted by David Del Valle and goes into great depth with Price about much of his career (with a slight refocus on his horror films). This hour-long interview with Price is worth every second of the time it takes to watch and gives us a real look at this classic actor in his own words. His remembrances of co-stars like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and so many others and his in-depth behind-the-scenes stories of the making of so many of his biggest films are enchanting and often feel like a favorite uncle regaling the audience with cool stories that never get boring. Del Valle also writes a 24-page book for this package with deep knowledge of the films and several pages of glossy promotional materials for these films.

Much like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, “The Vincent Price Collection” leaves the audience wanting more, perhaps in more entries into the potential series of discs. Shout! Factory has proven excellent at finding and collecting bonus features from around the world, from multiple eras. But much like their 2013 release “The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection“, less attention to true, clean, unblemished high-definition transfers is paid than is truly due to these classic films. The films themselves and their impact, as well as the bonus features that give great focus and revelation to the star of this package, make the whole thing worth enjoying. That said, fans who are forking over their hard-earned $80 for this package can be forgiven for wanting perfection in the film transfers.