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Vincent Price, Horror Icon - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

April 2011

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A velvetine voice, a sinister twinkle in his eyes, a talent to exaggerate his performance - the horror genre wouldn't be half as much fun without Vincent Price.

... and I'm not necessarily talking about the big number of (intentional) horror comedies he has made during his career, but rather the more serious (but often unintentionally just as silly) movies in which he hammed up his roles in his very own way and with a gusto that's hard to match - which made him the highlight in quite a few otherwise forgettable films.

Of course, serious horror fans will be quick to point out that Price was perfectly able to turn in the most subtle performances when the script demanded it, something I don't deny in the least - his performance in Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves) is nothing short of superb for example -, but when actually trying to remember any of Price's acting highlights on the spot, it's his funnier and hammier performances that immediately come to mind.

 

It's interesting in that respect that despite all the hammy and even campy performances he brought to the screen over the years, he considered himself an intellectual (without denying his camp appeal), and also worked as an art critic on the side, a sort of hobby of his. And speaking of hobbies, Price was also known to be an excellent chef, and he wrote quite a number of cookbooks after he had already enjoyed success as an actor.

Another interesting thing about Price's career is that while he is nowadays considered a horror icon and he seemed to be born to be one with his velveteen voice and his grande gestures, he for years tried himself in all sorts of genres, from period drama to film noir, and his first excursions into horror were not even among his more successful films.

But maybe it's time to start at the beginning ...

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Vincent Price, born Vincent Leonard Price II 1911 in St Louis, Missouri, had the good fortune to be born into a well-to-do family: His grandfather, Vincent Clarence Price, invented Dr Price's Baking Powder, which became the foundation of the family fortune, while Price's father was a successful candy manufacturer. The atmosphere in his family is best described as culturally enriched, and thus it's no surprise that Price found an interest in the fine arts early on in his life, an interest that was only supported by his family. Even in his teens, he travelled to Europe to visit the world's best museums, and when in Yale, he studied art history. After his graduation in 1933 he moved to London to study fine arts, and he earned a master of arts degree in 1935.

However, all his efforts made him realize one thing: He would never become a first-rate painter, and thus he eventually he gave his career a different spin, singing in amateur Gilbert and Sullivan operettas before moving to a professional stage playing a policeman in the gangster melodrama Chicago in 1935.

Success on the stage would ultimately manifest itself when, still in 1935, a leading man was needed who could speak German to play the part of Prince Albert in Victoria Regina opposite Helen Hayes - and Price got the part. The play became a phenomenal success and played for two years on Broadway and then toured the country - with Price on board.

Victoria Regina quickly established Vincent Price as a Broadway star, so it was no surprise that eventually, Hollywood - Universal, to be more precise - came knocking. Price was not quick to forget his roots, so he accepted a contract that bound him to the studio only half a year each year, while the other half he was free to appear on stage back in New York.

 


 

A Little Bit of Everything: Pre-Horror Price

 

Vincent Price's big screen debut saw him in Rowland V.Lee's romantic screwball comedy Service de Luxe (1938) opposite Constance Bennett, in which Bennett plays a professional problem-solver while Price is an inventor with a mind of his own. Of course, the two fall in love and get married in the end after all sorts of complications. Price wasn't exactly smashing, but he was ok in the film, that (from Price's point-of-view) had three problems (at least) though: It was too tailor-made for Bennett for Price to make the most of his role, Price's role was rather badly written, and the film as a whole wasn't very good. There is just one scene that might even be interpreted as a precursor of things to come that gives Price a chance to shine, and that's when he scares off his temporary fiancée (Joy Hodges) by pretending he's insane ...

 

In all, Service de Luxe was certainly not the breakthrough film Vincent Price might have hoped for, but that wasn't exactly his fault, but it put his name on the map at least, and while he, though rather good-looking in his early years, might not have exactly proven himself as a typical romantic lead, his slightly hammy acting style, precise old-world pronounciation and velveteen voice immediately suggested him to another genre: The period picture.

 


Thus in 1939, he, on loan to Warner Brothers, starred alongside Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz), a film about Elizabeth I of England, in which he played a scheming Sir Walter Raleigh - in which everybody paled next to Davis giving a precise old woman-performance though. Then, back at Universal, he was teamed up with Service de Luxe's director Rowland V.Lee once more for Tower of London, a film about England's Richard III's rise to power, which many quote as Vincent Price's introduction into the horror genre due to his co-stars, Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] in the lead and Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], but it's really more of a historic drama with a few macabre details tagged on.

(Price would years later play the lead in Roger Corman's [Roger Corman bio - click here] much more horror-heavy remake of the film, but more about that movie below.)

 


Price's first bona fide horror outing (if with sci-fi-touches) was 1940's The Invisible Man Returns (Joe May), in which Price plays the title character and thus gets very little actual screentime - but all the more attention was drawn to his voice, which already had its trademark velveteen sound. Unfortunately though, The Invisible Man Returns wasn't a particularly good film, more of a confused and confusing murder mystery with science fiction elements tagged on that was quite simply no match to James Whale's The Invisible Man from 1933.

Over the next few years, quite a few actors (and actresses) would try their hand (and voice) on the title role within Universal's Invisible Man-series, but it's quite telling that for the punchline at the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, Charles Barton), Vincent Price was chosen to lend the character his unmistakable voice once again.

 


The Invisible Man Returns did not make Vincent Price a household name in the horror genre though, quite the contrary, it would take years for Price to be featured in another genre movie, but he has kept busy in the meantime.

Interestingly, after the rather disappointing The Invisible Man Returns, Price was hired for a role in the original The Invisible Man's director James Whale's jungle adventure Green Hell (1940), a film that also featured Douglas Fairbanks jr, Joan Bennett, John Howard, George Sanders, George Bancroft, and Lupita Tovar in a small role. Unfortunately though, the film left a lot to be desired and didn't show Whale on top of his game.

 

Teamed up with Joe May, director of The Invisible Man Returns, Vincent Price made the much better The House of the Seven Gables (1940). Based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is is quite an interesting period piece that every now and again leans towards the dark and haunting. Sure, the film has a few issues but overall it's pretty decent, and Price gives a quite restrained performance as George Sanders' brother who is wrongly sent to prison for the murder of his own father.

 


For films like Brigham Young (1940, Henry Hathaway), Hudson's Bay (1941, Irving Pichel), The Song of Bernadette (1943, Henry King) and Wilson (1944, Henry King), it was back to period picture mode for Price, something he seemed to be cut out for, while with the World War II propaganda movie The Eve of St. Mark (1944, John M.Stahl), he did his duty for his country (in a way).

 



Vincent Price had his next opportunity to shine though in Laura (1944, Otto Preminger), and even though he only plays second fiddle in this seminal film noir supporting Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, his performance of a ruthless yet cowardly womanizer/gigolo is nevertheless quite impressive, maybe in part because it's so different from the roles Price usually tends to play - but he's still darn good in it.

 

After two more period pictures - The Keys of the Kingdom (1944, John M.Stahl) and A Royal Scandal (1945, Otto Preminger, Ernst Lubitsch) -, Price found himself reunited with Laura-co-star Gene Tierney not once but twice, in Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M.Stahl) and Dragonwyck (1946, Joseph L.Mankiewicz). While the former is a film noir, the latter is yet another period drama with Vincent Price playing a rich and ruthless landowner who's best described as a mock-aristocrat, but with its very dark atmosphere, it almost anticipates the roles Price tended to play in later years working for Roger Corman.

 



In between Leave Her to Heaven and Dragonwyck, Price played the role of a psychiatrist turned killer in Shock (1946, Alfred L.Werker), a film noir thriller with horror undercurrents in which Price tries to turn the witness of a murder he has committed insane. Even though the film was shot on the cheap and has its fair share of problems, it's still a pretty powerful genre piece, also thanks to another powerful performance by Price of course.

 


Though both Shock and Dragonwyck showed signs of Price's later greatness, they were not immediately followed up with more showcases for his talent, instead for the next several years, he was relegated once more to supporting or character roles in pretty much whatever there was, film noir - The Web (1947, Michael Gordon), The Long Night (1947, Anatole Litvak), The Bribe (1949, Robert Z.Leonard), The Las Vegas Story (1952, Robert Stevenson) -, period drama - Moss Rose (1947, Gregory Ratoff), The Three Musketeers (1948, George Sidney) with Gene Kelly as D'Artagnan and Price as Cardinal Richelieu, the Errol Flynn scripted Errol Flynn starrer Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951, William Marshall) -, musical comedy - Up in Central Park (1948, William A.Seiter) -, war movie - Rogues' Regiment (1948, Robert Florey) -, fantasy - Bagdad (1949, Charles Lamont) starring Maureen O'Hara -, Western - The Baron of Arizona (1950, Samuel Fuller), Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950, Charles Lamont) -, and of course comedy - Champagne for Caesar (1950, Richard Whorf), His Kind of Woman (1951, John Farrow).

It was only in 1953 that Vincent Price had his first big break in a film that would really alter the course of his career - but more on that further down ...

 


 

Television

 

In the late 1940's/early 1950's, a new mass-medium would rather quickly gain popularity throughout the USA and define anew the rules of moviemaking and of popular culture as a whole - and that medium was of course television. In the beginning, the medium was scoffed at by the Hollywood establishment, and hardly any A-lister would even consider appearing on television - and truth to be told, the A-listers didn't need to, there were still enough A-pictures made to take care of them.

However, TV seriously affected the B-movie industry, as it delivered comparable content to the audience's home for a much cheaper price - in other owrds, television was the death of the classic B-movie - but fortunately, TV didn't only take, it also gave, inasmuch as it was in just as much need of character actors, cowboy stars, and of course casts and crews that could work on rushed shooting schedules as the B-movie industry - so that somehow eased transition from one medium to the other for Hollywood professionals.

 

By the late 1940's, Vincent Price was a well-known Hollywood character actor, but not exactly a star, so he could hardly afford to scoff at the new medium - instead he embraced it, and worked for the new medium pretty much from the start, his first TV credit being an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol (Arthur Pierson) in 1949.

After that, Price would star in pretty much every other anthology series all through the 1950's and beyond, series including The Fireside Theatre (1951), Lux Video Theatre (1951, 1952, 1954, 1956), Lights Out (1952), Chesterfield Presents (1952), Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (1952), Gruen Guild Playhouse (1952), Robert Montgomery Presents (1952), Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1952, 1953, 1957, 1958), Summer Theatre (1953), The Philip Morris Playhouse (1953), The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater (1955), TV Reader's Digest (1955), the religious program Crossroads (1955, 1956), Climax! (1955, 1956, 1957), The Alcoa Hour (1956), Playhouse 90 (1956, 1957), General Electric Theater (1956, 1957, 1958), Matinee Theatre (1956, 1958), Shower of Stars (1957), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957), Jane Wyman Presents (1957), Startime (1960), The Chevy Mystery Show (1960), The United States Steel Hour (1960), and of course The Red Skelton Show (1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971).

In 1958, Price also shot Collector's Item (Buzz Kulik), a pilot for a proposed series that never came into being, which is remarkable for being the first collaboration between Price and Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here], with whom would evetnually (if for a short time) become the horror comedy dream team - but more about that below.

It's only in the 1960's, when Price's career as a bona fide horror star had really taken off (below) that he considerably toned down his TV appearances, but he would still do appearances in shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1965), F Troop (1967), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1967), Batman (1966, 1967), where he was the recurring villain Egghead, Daniel Boone (1969), The Mod Squad (1970), Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1971, 1972), Columbo (1973), The Bionic Woman (1976), The Love Boat (1978) and Time Express (1979). Price would also repeat his role of Cardinal Richelieu in another (made-for-TV-)adaptation of The Three Musketeers in 1960, this time starring Maximilian Schell as D'Artagnan. 

 

It's fair to say that most of these shows were below Vincent Price's talent, but on the other hand they helped keep his name in the audience's minds, something that Price was more than aware of. He never complained, either, but would give things an ironic spin when they got too silly.

 


 

A House of Wax, Flies and William Castle: Horror Part 1

 


When Vincent Price got offered a part in House of Wax (1953, André de Toth), it probably didn't sound all that special: It was a remake of a 20 year old film (Michael Curtiz' Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933 starring Lionel Atwill [Lionel Atwill bio - click here] and Fay Wray), and was extremely formulaic and a watered down effort compared to the earlier movie. On top of that, horror in general had lost a whole lot of popularity in the early 1950's, and while the film, was shot in the then very fashionable 3D-process, who knew the gimmick would catch on with the audiences (how little has changed in Hollywood 2011 compared to Hollywood 1953). Plus, the fact that director de Toth had only one good eye did not exactly spark confidence regarding his handling of threedimensional fare, either.

Now I'm not saying the project was doomed from square one, merely that it was just another assignment for Vincent Price, nothing he would get too enthusiastic about.

Fact is though, House of Wax became one of the biggest successes up to then for its production company, Warner Brothers.

Nowadays the film is considered a classic, but on closer inspection it's really not all that good. Sure it's a horror film that has all the expected elements in the right places - and that's exactly the film's shortcoming, there's nothing that exceweds the formula, no surprises, no plottwists that would put this film into a league of its own, and in terms of macabre details or sexual innuendo, the film remains remarkably (and disappointingly) tame when compared to the earlier, pre-code version.

So what made the film so successful?

Nobody can say for sure of course, but it's probably two things:

1) 3D - House of Wax caught the first 3D-craze just before its very height (and following steep decline), meaning it met an audience still hungry for 3D-fare and had the field pretty much to itself. Also the process was intelligently woven into the story, so the film had more to show than just the actors throwing objects at the audience.

2) Vincent Price - Sure, Price wasn't a newbie in the movies anymore, and while he was not a big star yet, it's a safe bet that a large part of the audience knew him from the movies or television already - maybe not by name, but his face, stature and voice were unmistakable enough to leave an impression. That said, it wasn't Price's relative popularity that drew the crowds to the theatres but his sinister performance that carried the film. This was a side of the actor he was not (yet) known for, but the character fitted the man with all his well-known characteristics quite perfectly (so much so that it would lead to typecasting before long). Sure, Price hammed it up a bit, but is a hammy villain not part of the appeal of old-fashioned horror movies?

 


House of Wax however did not immediately make Price a horror star. Sure, Columbia tried to rip off House of Wax's success in 1954 with the somewhat similar-themed 3D movie The Mad Magician (John Brahm), but it's quite simply an inferior movie, shot in black and white (compared to the other movie's lush colours), based on a story that has written rehash all over it (this time Price is a wronged magician seeking revenge instead of a wronged sculptor), and it's campy where House of Wax remained subtle - but maybe this is why Mad Magician is the (unintentionally) funnier movie of the two ...

 


Apart from Mad Magician though, Price's roles were once again all over the place, he was in the thriller Dangerous Mission (1954, Louis King), played the title role in the short Born in Freedom: The Story of Colonel Drake (1954, Arthur Pierson), played Casanova in the Bob Hope-vehicle Casanova's Big Night (1954, Norman Z.McLeod) - but remained uncredited for his efforts because of his political believes (again, very little has changed between Hollywood then and now) -, played a comic sidekick to Dale Robertson's lead in Son of Sinbad (1955, Ted Tetzlaff), was in the Mario Lanza-vehicle Serenade (1956, Anthony Mann), Fritz Lang's film noir While the City Sleeps (1956), and Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) starring Charlton Heston.

 


The next film Price could really come into his own was only produced in 1957, Irwin Allen's nowadays much-ridiculed all-star vehicle The Story of Mankind. Despite all the criticism heaped onto The Story of Mankind though, this is a quite enjoyable little movie - not that I really want to defend it, because most of the points of critique are accurate, like that it remains painfully undecisive whether it wants to be a comedy or drama, that it's depiction of history is somewhat questionable, and that it makes no sense hiring the three Marx Brothers and then not giving them a single scene with each other - but on the plus sice there's Vincent Price, who gives a hilariously campy and always tongue-in-cheek performance of the Devil that's pretty much a must-see. And though Price does not recieve top-billing on this movie, it's him who carries it.


Later, Irwin Allen would also hire Vincent Price for The Big Circus (1959, Joseph M.Newman), another all-star vehicle he wrote and produced - which isn't nearly as much fun as Story of Mankind.

 

While it was House of Wax that introduced Vincent Price to the horror genre with lasting impact, it was probably The Fly (1958, Kurt Neumann) that cemented his status as horror man - and he doesn't even play a villain in this one. However, it was a perfect vehicle for Price that came just at the right time, a period piece (one of Price's fortes) with a sci-fi-plot about over-sized animals (then still the craze of the day) and plenty of macabre undercurrents. In other words this film about a man (Al Hedison) who invents a teleporter and gets merged with a fly when he tests the thing on himself couldn't go wrong - and it didn't.

The Fly was successful enough to prompt a sequel, the cheaper and goofier Return of the Fly (1959, Edward Bernds), and it's proof of Price's appeal that of the main cast of the original, only he, who played a comparatively neglectable role, would be called back.

(A third film in the series, Curse of the Fly [1965, Don Sharp], even dropped Price from the story, starring Brian Donlevy instead.)

 



In between The Fly and Return of the Fly, Vincent Price made two films for a man who would not only further solidify his horror reputation but also properly get him in touch with the campier side of the genre: William Castle.

William Castle was not the most inventive or versatile of filmmakers, but he was able to direct decent old-fashioned and clichéed horror movies, films that were fun and the ideal enviroment for a horror actor like Vincent Price, a man who tended to ham it up, but who could also find humour in the campier side of the genre. The two films Price made with Castle were House on Haunted Hill (1959), an old dark house-style murder mystery complete with fake ghosts, and The Tingler (1959), an odd sci-fi horror tale in which benevolent but slightly mad scientist Price tries to locate and isolate fear, which apparently is a seperate creature in this film - but then fear escapes ...

 


For some reason though, Castle was convinced he needed something extra to make his horror flicks work, some sort of gimmick to sell it to the audiences, like having an actual (plastic) skeleton swinging over the audience's heads at the climax (House on Haunted Hill), or to wire selected seats in his auditorium to provide electroshocks at certain scenes to create a bit of a panic (The Tingler).

When reading about Castle's horror flicks nowadays, they tend to get overshadowed by the gimmicks he used to sell them - which is a downright shame, because stripped of all the gimmickry (which isn't available anymore nowadays, anyways), they are still very entertaining genre movies, and show Price at his hammy best.

 

After the very entertaining Fly- and William Castle-movies, The Bat (1959, Crane Wilbur), an old dark house mystery based on a play that had already been adapted for the big and small screen at least thrice before, was rather a disappointment, an under-budgeted film that lacked both panache and atmosphere, and that was also too stagey in direction to properly convince. But unbeknowest to Vincent Price, the best was yet to come ...

 


 

AIP's Edgar Allan Poe: Horror Part 2

 

Especially the second half of the 1950's marked the rise of production company AIP to one of the dominant providers of drive-in fare, thanks in no small part to its in-house director Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here], who always seemed to have the right idea about what's going to sell and how to sell it.

In 1960 though, he had an idea that was revolutionary at least by AIP-standards: Instead of investing money in another two films to fill yet another double bill, why not take all the money to make one bigger film, a horror film in colour (as opposed to the double features' black and white), in period sets, and with a star in the lead?

According to some reports, AIP-heads James H.Nicholson and Samuel Z.Arkoff greenlit Corman's proposal only reluctantly, but actually it made perfect sense: Only in very recent years, with films like Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Terence Fisher [Terence Fisher bio - click here]) and Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher), British production company Hammer had proven that there was still life in the gothic horror genre, you could do atmospheric gothics in colour (prior to Hammer, black and white was the predominant colour chart of the horror genre), and these films could be done on a budget. And most importantly, they proved that these films could be big international successes.

Sure, the idea was a bit of a gamble, but a calculable risk, and to minimize the actual risk involved, Corman chose some well-known source material that was in public domain, and since Hammer had just done pretty much everything else (Frankenstein, Dracula, the mummy, ...), Corman settled with Edgar Allan Poe.

As for the star for his movie, Corman settled on - you might have guessed it - Vincent Price. Sure, Price was not exactly an A-lister, but he was not only affordable but was alsorecognizable enough, had already a bit of a genre reputation, and of course, he fitted into period pictures quite perfectly.

 


The result of all of this would be House of Usher (1960), a film that was maybe not entirely faithful to Edgar Allan Poe's short story but was remarkable for its expert use of lush colours, its comparatively intelligent script, and to everyone's surprise, Roger Corman, who has been learning his job on drive-in movies, was more than able to create the proper macabre atmosphere, quite besides handing out the expected shocks.

As for Vincent Price: He made the role of Roderick Usher, head of a decaying family who's on the verge of insanity or even beyond, his own, as if he was born to play the character which gave him plenty of opportunity to go over-the-top, acting-wise, but also allowed him some quiet moments.

 


As mentioned before, House of Usher was considered a bit of a risk by the heads of AIP, but the success of the box office proved director Roger Corman right, so before long, AIP commissioned another Edgar Allan Poe-adaptation, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961, Roger Corman), and allowed only minimal changes to the basic formula - which was fairly easy, since Poe's short story of the same name was little more than a description of torture devices.

As House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum turned out to be an entertaining and atmospheric horror flick, it had Price once again at the height of his game, and it even featured a young Barbara Steele [Barbara Steele bio - click here], fresh from her success with Mario Bava's La Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday (1960) [Mario Bava bio - click here].

 


For Corman's next Poe-adaptation, Tales of Terror (1962), he changed the concept around a little bit, inasmuch as he didn't take just one story and brought it to the screen as a feature film but packed four of Poe's short stories into an anthology film consisting of three segments - with Price playing the lead in each segment, of course. Among other things, making an anthology film had also financial reasons, since AIP could hire a couple of name actors to star besides Price at much cheaper rates since they would each only be in one segment of the film.

The first segment is based on Poe's Morella and sees Price as a griefing widower who eventually sees his wife come back to life - to strangle him. The last segment, The Facts in the Case of M.Valdemar, sees Price brought back to life with equally disastrous results - Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] plays the hypnotist under whose influence Price finds himself in this one.

The crowning achievement of the movie though is its mid-segment, which is based on the Poe-stories The Black Cat and A Cask of Amontillado (which makes sense since these stories are rather similar in theme), basically because it sees Price in an extended drinking duel with Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here]. Now on paper, the very hammy and intentionally stilted acting style of Vincent Price does not go together well with the rather down-to-earth, proto-method way of Lorre, but on film this works like a charm, basically because you see two people on the screen who enjoy their trade and who have fun duelling each other, but also share a mutual respect for one another and not even once try to upstage the other one. And the result is one of the funniest sequences in horror history.

 


AIP and Corman quickly realized they had struck gold with the pairing of Price and Lorre, so they were quick to get them into another Poe-based movie, The Raven (1963), which differed from the Poe-movies so far inasmuch as it was a(n intentional) comedy, playing with the mainstays of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe-series to sometimes hilarious results. Truth to be told though, the film is a bit of a hit-or-miss affair, and while you clearly see the main castmembers - besides Price and Lorre also Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], Hazel Court and a young Jack Nicholson - enjoying themselves, the humour doesn't always hit the mark. This said the film is still enjoyable despite its shortcomings, and Price sure knows how to handle the humourous aspects of his role, but nothing in the whole movie is as hilarious as the drinking duel in Tales of Terror.

 


Price and Lorre would soon return in yet another horror comedy, Jacques Tourneur's Comedy of Terrors (1964), but this one wasn't nearly as much fun (or nearly as successful) as the earlier films and ultimately proved the demise of the Price-Lorre-team - unfortunately. Boris Karloff supported the two once again, as did Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here].

 


Roger Corman in the meantime cast Vincent Price in three more serious Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, of which The Haunted Palace (1963) is not actually a Poe-adaptation at all but based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, yet fitted with the title of a Poe-story that's vague enough so it might account for anything. In terms of atmosphere though, The Haunted Palace is 100% in line with Corman's other Poe-films. Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here] is also in this one by the way. As a whole though, the film is not a highlight of the series, basically because Lovecraft's concepts did not fare too well within the series' formula, and the formula as such was starting to show signs of wear.

 


Surprisingly, after the less-than-great The Haunted Palace, the Edgar Allan Poe-series hit an unexpected high with Masque of the Red Death (1964, Roger Corman), a film that was a rather faithful adaptation of not one but two Edgar Allan Poe-stories, the titular Masque of the Red Death and Hop Frog and that showed director Roger Corman at the top of his game, turning out an incredibly stylish gothic shocker (also thanks to cameraman Nicolas Roeg) that also shows traces of Ingmar Bergman's Det Sjunde Inseglet/The Seventh Seal (1957).

And Vincent Price?

As decadent Prince Prospero who's blind to his own downfall, he plays what he seems to have been born to play, and he does it with panache, naturally.

 


After the visually and narratively impressive Masque of the Red Death, Roger Corman seems to have missed a beat with Tomb of Ligeia (1964), a movie that was partially filmed in the UK - and a little change of scenery actually does the film good. Also, Corman puts in another flawless directorial effort, and Vincent Price is as good as was to be expected, it's just that the script (by the overrated Robert Towne), having very little to do with Poe's source material, is just a tad too silly to properly work once translated to the screen.

 


Rather unsurprisingly, Roger Corman quit Edgar Allan Poe after Tomb of Ligeia, as he figured the topic had been milked dry (and he was right in a way) - but AIP figured there was still some life left in the series, and commissioned The City under the Sea/War Gods of the Deep (1965) next, with veteran director Jacques Tourneur, who had seen better times, taking over the directorial reign. The film marked quite a departure from the old formula, since it was not based on one of Poe's horror stories but a macabre poem about a sunken city. Scriptwriters Charles Bennett and Louis M.Heyward however threw out most of Poe's original storyline to make space for a silly plot about an underwater city full of immortal smugglers with gill-man slaves. As a whole, the plot seems vaguely Jules Verne-ish but not like Poe at all, and the only element that connected City under the Sea to the earlier Poe-movies was (of course) Vincent Price as the lead baddie. His performance is as solid as expected, but there is little even he can do to save the movie ...

 


After City under the Sea, AIP decided to bury hopes to keep their Edgar Allan Poe-series alive without Roger Corman's involvement - but not completely. After all, the series as such had been successful, and they had Vincent Price on their payroll, so every now and again, the studio would fall back on good old Poe and try to squeeze a few extra bucks out of him with (both commercially and artistically) varying success:

  • In Europe, directors Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini came together to adapt three of Poe's stories for an anthology movie, Histoires Extraordinaires/Spirits of the Dead (1968), starring such name actors like Jane and Peter Fonda, Alain Delon and Terence Stamp, but no Vincent Price. When AIP brought the film to the USA in 1969 though, narration by Price was added as a surplus attraction.
  • Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves), maybe the best film Vincent Price was in, ever, was retitled The Conqueror Worm for its American release, just so it could be associated with a poem by Poe the film had absolutely nothing to do with. (More about Witchfinder General below, though.)

  • The Oblong Box (1969, Gordon Hessler) was at least a genuine Edgar Allan Poe adaptation with Vincent Price in the starring role (and Christopher Lee giving support), but the film is so confusingly scripted that it's hard to say if it actually has much to do with Poe. Price gives his usual solid performance but is lost in an aimless script not at all helped by a lazy directorial effort.
  • For television, Vincent Price also did the AIP-produced An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe (1972, Kenneth Johnson), in which he gave one-person-renditions of four of Poe's shot stories - but as much as these stories showcased Price's talents as an actor, they also proved that television was not the right outlet for a performance like this one, and after a while the show gets a bit repetitive.

 

From Villain to Horror-Comedy at AIP: Horror Part 3

 


For the first half of the 1960's, Vincent Price seems to have been subscribed to Edgar Allan Poe movies exclusively in people's minds - but he has made quite a few films besides those as well, some of them in AIP's employ, who knew right from House of Usher they had a star on their hands. So the studio was quick to put him into another vehicle, the Jules Verne-adaptation Master of the World (1961, William Witney [William Witney bio - click here]), which like House of Usher was scripted by Richard Matheson, and which reunited Price with Charles Bronson, who had also been in House of Wax.

 



Next it was off to Italy for a couple of films, the peplum Nefertiti, Regina del Nilo/Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile (1961, Fernando Cerchio) starring Jeanne Crain and Edmund Purdom, and the pirate movie Gordon, il Pirata Nero/Rage of the Buccaneers/The Black Buccaneers (1961, Mario Costa) starring Ricardo Montalban. In the early 1960's, it wasn't uncommon for American actors who were not or no longer A-listers to go to Italy to make a few movies for what was called career recovery. This had to do with the crumbling Hollywood studio system on one hand and the blooming Italian film industry of the 1960's on the other, an industry that was in dire need of American former matinee idols and character actors to get some international appeal for a reasonable price. Vincent Price's career sure was on the rise after films like The Fly, the William Castle films and of course House of Usher, but he was nowhere near being that star yet as which he's seen nowadays - you have to remember of course that at that point of Price's career, the Poe-franchise had not yet been serialized.

 




Back in the USA, Price starred in the wonderfully weird Thomas De Quincey-adaptation Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962, Albert Zugsmith), a film that combines old fashioned adventure motives with a very 1960's-style drug trip. The film was released by Allied Artists, which also produced Convicts 4 (1962, Millard Kaufman), a star-studded prison movie starring Ben Gazzara, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Broderick Crawford and Sammy Davis jr. It was not one of Price's more memorable movies though.

 

Tower of London (1962), a remake of the 1939 film Price was in (see above) reunited Vincent Price with Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here] - not with AIP though - for a film that is in equal parts period picture and horror film about Richard III of England's descent into madness. The film, produced by independent producer Edward Small for Admiral Pictures, suffered from an apparently low budget but is saved by a wonderful (and wonderfully ham) performance who really gives his all in this one.

 


Admiral Pictures also produced the rather obscure yet nevertheless entertaining Guy de Maupassant-adaptation Diary of a Madman (1963, Reginald Le Borg), in which Price plays a benign judge turned sculptor who then turns murderer being possessed by an evil spirit - or is he really just a madman as the title suggests?

 

Another Admiral Pictures was Twice-Told Tales (1963, Sidney Salkow), which collects three adaptations of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (among them House of the Seven Gables, earlier adapted with Vincent Price in 1940 - see above). Unfortunately, the film is a bit on the boring side on one hand, and tries a bit too hard to ape the style of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe-adaptations on the other.

 



Speaking of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe-adaptations: Also in 1963, Vincent Price made a cameo appearance in AIP's Beach Party (William Asher), uttering nothing but the words "Give me my pendulum, I feel like swinging" - an obvious allusion to his then recent Pit and the Pendulum - which is the funniest moment in the whole movie.

 

For the Italian-American co-production L'Ultimo Uomo della Terra/Last Man on Earth (1964, Sidney Salkow, Ubaldo Ragona), Vincent Price returned to Italy once more. The film is the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's I am Legend, about the last man left alive on earth with the rest of humanity having turned into vampires - and he goes about staking vampires by the dozen, until in his own death he realizes he has become a monster while the vampires these days are what's considered normal ...

The film sure enough has its flaws (among other things it is too slow-moving and talky), but also its virtues, like a wonderfully restrained performance by Vincent Price, and unlike later versions of the story, it doesn't give up its main message in favour of a pointless action plot.

 


If it were the films House of Wax, The Fly and House of Usher that made Vincent Price a horror star, it is probably AIP's Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965, Norman Taurog) that firmly redirected his career towards (genre-)comedy - something which Vincent Price had a natural talent and a predilection for, I might add.

Sure, Tales of Terror had its fun moments and both The Raven and Comedy of Terrors were outright horror comedies, but with both of these movie, horror filmmaking still outbalanced the comedy - not so with Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, a James Bond-spoof with Frankie Avalon as an unlikely secret agent and Vincent Price as his hilarious titular nemesis. Now I wouldn't exactly call the film a masterpiece, but it was AIP's most expensive so far and it became a smash hit at the box office.

How much of the success was due to Vincent Price rather than Frankie Avalon is proven by the fact that Avalon was absent from the TV-spin off that was to advertise the movie, The Wild Weird World of Doctor Goldfoot (1965, Mel Ferber), which came out approx. 2 weeks after the movie opened (Tommy Kirk replaced Avalon in that one). Also, the sequel to Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, the Italian-American Le Spie Vengono dal Semifreddo/Doctor Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966, Mario Bava [Mario Bava bio - click here]) did bring back Vincent Price but pits him again former rock star Fabian and the Italian comedic duo Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia. The film is decidedly less than great though!

 

Vincent Price's transformation into a genre comedy star was only a gradual one though, especially in the late 1960's, he was still more or less subscribed to serious roles, like the Spanish-West German co-production La Casa de las Mil Munecas/House of 1,000 Dolls (1967, Jeremy Summers), a film about white slavery in which he plays a brothel owner, or the adventure flick The Jackals (1967, Robert D.Webb).

 


And then there was of course the British-American co-production The Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves) co-produced by AIP and British Tigon, which turned out to be an impressive piece of period horror set in England at the time of the witchhunt and plagued by political turmoil, with Price quite possibly giving the performance of his career, a ruthless witchhunter who's only after his own advantage. What makes the film so great is that it's dead-serious - and has a script that for a change deserves to be treated that way -, and it gives Price a rare oppostunity to give a restrained performance, and this way he is allowed to show his full range as an actor. To put it bluntly: If Vincent Price deserved to be remembered for only one film, it would be this one.

 

After an excursion into the Western genre with More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr), Price returned as a witchhunter in Cry of the Banshee (1970, Gordon Hessler), but this film doesn't come anywhere close in quality to The Witchfinder General and should probably best be forgotten. Same goes for Hessler's Scream and Scream Again (1970), a horror-sci-fi-espionage thriller that actually brings together horror stars Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee - but in a rather shoddy fashion.

 


In the meantime, Price's comedic star continued to rise, thanks also to appearances in several comedy shows on TV like Batman (1966 - '67), Get Smart (1969), numerous appearances on the The Red Skelton Show from 1956 to 1971, or later The Brady Bunch (1972). On top of that, Price was also in one of the later Elvis Presley comedies, The Trouble with Girls (1969, Peter Tewksbury), which by the way also starred fellow horror star John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here].

 


However, all of this was only of marginal interest for Price's comedy career compared to a handful of films he did for AIP in Great Britain in the early 1970's.

The first of the films I'm talking about is The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, Robert Fuest), which on the surface actually reads like nothing special, just more of the same: To avenge the death of his wife (Caroline Munro [Caroline Munro bio - click here]), Dr. Phibes (Price) kills all the doctors who he thinks have let her down and looks to the biblical 10 curses of the pharaos for inspiration. However, it's the way the film was made that made it into an instant cult item: It's extremely stylishly directed, features a host of British comedy and character actors for Price to kill, and it's pervaded by the kind of dry macabre humour you for some reason can only find in Great Britain.

 


The Abominable Dr. Phibes was an instant hit with the audiences, so it took no longer than a year to release its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rides Again (1972, Robert Fuest), which is a bit of a letdown after the first movie because it is basically a rehash of the first movie with a few plot elements changed around and a romance plot tagged on - and yet it didn't nearly match the first movie in terms of black humour and sheer panache.

 


But just when you thought the horror comedy formula of The Abominable Dr. Phibes was milked to death, Vincent Price would prove you wrong with Theatre of Blood (1973, Doublas Hickox): This time around, Price plays a hammy actor (not much of a stretch there) who wants to avenge himself on his critics by killing them in ways suggested by Shakespeare. Of course, the concept is the same, but Price is once again surrounded by a wonderful cast of British actors, all of whom have inventive and hilarious death scenes, and Price simply relishes in playing the role of the ham actor - a role he was born to play, maybe.

 

However, the next film based on the The Abominable Dr. Phibes-formula, Madhouse (1974, Jim Clark), a co-production of AIP and British horror house Amicus [Amicus story - click here], proved that the formula could fail just as well. Basically, this film takes the fun out of (onscreen) killing. This time around, Price plays an ageing horror star whose co-stars are slaughtered by someone. Could it be a personification of his on-screen alter ego Doctor Death?

What's wrong with the film is that it director Jim Clark doesn't trust the blackly humourous elements of his plot enough, and he isn't nearly as stylish and inventive a director as Robert Fuest or Douglas Hickox, either. The over-reliance of clips from older AIP-Price-films doesn't help too much either, I suppose.

 

Madhouse put an end to the British-lensed serialkiller comedies Abominable Dr. Phibes-style, and maybe it was just as well. But it also marked the ending (by accident, not by design) of what I would call the classic Vincent Price-period which started with House of Wax (and some might say it's already a transition piece). The reason for this cannot be found so much within Price himself but with changing audience tastes: In the mid-1970's, genre blockbusters like The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin) and Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg), but also instant cult items like Texas Chansaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) revolutionized audience expectations in the genre, and thus the genre was rejuvinated, which meant for actors of the last horror cycle that they were no longer as much in demand ...

 


 

The Living Legend

 

Vincent Price did not need to worry about the changing of the guard all that much, for various reasons:

  • He was not a one-trick pony, besides being an actor, he was also an art critic writing for various publications (art was actually his first love) and an accomplished chef who in Great Britain even had his own short-lived cooking show on television, Cooking Price-Wise (1971). He also published a few cookbooks, and his quite prominent name certainly did not hurt the sales.
  • He possessed both talent for and affinity to comedy, which paired with his quite distinctive looks would get him many character guest spots in TV and movie comedies.
  • His distinctive voice and precise pronounciation provided him with tons of voice work on film and records.
  • He had a semi-regular spot on Celebrity Squares since 1967, and thanks to his likeable persona would keep the spot until 1980.

Most of all though he had this incredible legacy to look back on - and there was hardly any actor who was so eager to pay hommage to his own (horror-)legacy, and of course there were always people more than willing to invite him to do so.

 


The first, and maybe also unlikeliest who made use of Price's services was hard rocker Alice Cooper in 1975, when he hired Price to do some narration on his Welcome to My Nightmare-album and later gave him a guest role in his TV-special Alice Cooper: The Nightmare (Jørn Winther), a surreal horror musical in which Price plays the Spirit of the Nightmare, leading Cooper through a world of horror. Of course, the thing is not to be taken wholly seriously.

The collaboration seems to have been satisfactory for both parties, since later that year, Price lent his voice to a live performance by Cooper that later made it into the theatres as Welcome to My Nightmare (David Winters). Price's voice can also be heard on The Strange Case of Alice Cooper from 1979.

 

While Price's collaborations with Alice Cooper were at least semi-serious, he went for outright laughs in a horror-themed episode of the Muppet Show in 1976, and his guest apperance was among the best of the show's first season.

 


The Monster Club (1981, Roy Ward Baker) was not only Vincent Price's long-awaited return to horror cinema, it was also an attempt by British horror house Amicus [Amicus story - click here] to revive their series of omnibus movies - a string of likeable horror anthologies the studio did from the mid-1960's to the mid-70's -, but unfortunately the film only proved that the format was dead on arrival. Donald Pleasence [Donald Pleasence bio - click here], John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here], Stuart Whitman, Richard Johnson, Britt Ekland and Patrick Magee co-starred.

 


House of Long Shadows (1983) reads like the epitomy of an instant cult classic, as it stars not only Price, but also John Carradine once more and that British horror duo, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and it was directed by British schlock maestro Pete Walker and based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers of Charlie Chan-fame - and yet the film is a grave disappointment, nothing but an old-fashioned old dark house-tale that remains totally predictable throughout ... and worst of all, it's dead boring.

 

Of much more interest is Vincent (1982), an early claynimated short by later star director Tim Burton that is basically a hommage to Price - and is narrated by Vincent Price himself.

 


Somewhat less respectful than Burton's film is Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984, Ray Cameron), a somewhat loud comedy that's essentially a showcase for British star comedian Kenny Everett. And speaking of loud comedy: In 1985, Vincent Price voiced a character not very imaginatively named Vincent Van Ghoul on the animated TV-series The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo.

 

The best known contribution Price made to the horror genre in the first part of the 1980's was not done on the big or small screen at all (at least not immediately), but consisted of a bit of voice-over work on a song for an as of yet only fairly well-known black singer, Michael Jackson. The song is of course Thriller, the title track of the album which eventually wound up becoming the highest selling album of all times (at least for a time), and the song itself was eventually turned into a 15 minute horror videoclip by director John Landis - without Price's direct involvement though.

 


 

Fade-out

 



It was somewhen in the mid-1980's when Vincent Price's onscreen appearances became fewer and farther between - for no particular reason other than he was getting a bit on in age (after all, he turned 70 in 1981).

Some of his appearances are hardly worth a mention or feed merely on his iconic status like his turns as host in the anthology movies Escapes (1986, David Steensland) and The Offspring/From a Whisper to a Scream (1987, Jeff Burr), or he's relegated to pointless supporting roles but placed prominently in the credits, like in Dead Heat (1987, Mark Goldblatt) starring Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo and also featuring Keye Luke, Dennis Hopper's somewhat failed Catchfire/Backtrack (1990) starring Hopper himself, Jodie Foster, Dean Stockwell, John Torturro, Fred Ward, Joe Pesci and Charlie Sheen, and The Heart of Justice (1992, Bruno Barreto) starring Dennis Hopper, Eric Stoltz, Jennifer Connelly, William H.Macy, Dermot Mulroney and Bradford Dillman.

 


Of more interest, at least acting-wise, is The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson) from 1987, basically a drama about two old sisters, played by screen-legends Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, reminiscing and wondering what life still has in store for them. Now that sounds not awfully exciting, but the brilliant acting of Davis, Gish, Price of course, and fellow veteran Ann Sothern, makes it totally worth your while.

 


Whales of August would have been a fitting farewell for any actor, and it actually was the last film of both Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern.

Price on the other hand got his own farewell with Edward Scissorhands by Tim Burton in 1990. True, the film was technically not Price's last, but it beautifully summed up his career nevertheless, featuring him as an old inventor whose last accomplishment is an artificial man - Johnny Depp in the title role - whom he fails to finish before his death and who thus is left with the titular scissorhands. The movie works quite so well because it on one hand has a nostalgic streak to it, reminiscent of the many gothics Price has been in, on the other hand, thanks to Burton's directorial style, is firmly rooted in the now. And despite its horror-theme, it is a film without malice - and what more could an actor wish for from a hommage to his own career?

 

Vincent Price died in 1993 from lung cancer and emphysema in Los Angeles, California. He was 82 years of age. But of course, true horror stars never die, and thus a great many of his films are continually reissued on DVD and play on TV all the time, his likeness is used on many a horror-themed TV-special, horror-themed paraphernalia bearing his image is still produced and  sold to this day, and there is hardly a fan of old-school horror who will not feel a certain warmth every time Price's name is mentioned ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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