Vincent Leonard Price Jr. (1911-1993) was an American actor who made over a hundred feature films in a variety of genres, including historical drama, mystery, film noir, and even comedy, but he is best known for his roles in horror films. A graduate of Yale with a degree in art history, he later studied abroad in London, where he kindled his love of theater and later performed onstage opposed Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina. This led to a five-play contract with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Eventually he was put on contract at Universal as a character actor, playing romantic leads and scoundrels in equal measure. But he never abandoned the stage, returning to it every chance he got.
In fact, it was during his performance in the 1941 play Angel Street (the American version of Gaslight) playing the cruel Jack Manningham, pushing his wife Helen into madness, that he found his true calling playing villains. Speaking about that role, Price told one interviewer “I came out for my curtain call and the audience just hissed. I knew I’d found my niche.” He secured a few more villain roles and turns in minor horror movies. Later, in the early 1950s, Price would become wildly successful in the genre, leading to some of his most memorable roles and performances for the next twenty-odd years.
A world traveler, art connoisseur, and gourmet chef, Price was famous for his warmth, sophistication, and charm when he wasn’t chilling the blood or inducing shivers with his saturnine features and distinctive velvet-smooth voice in the movies, on television, or on the radio. He remains one of the most popular masters of horror, thanks to largely to his ability to play sympathetic villains, or as he put it, “I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.” The five movies listed below are testaments to that. If you only know Price from the spooky voice-over in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” you are missing out on an entire career of ghoulish performances that brought Price to that liminal place in pop culture history in the first place. These movies are, in my opinion, the Vincent Price-y-ist of all and cannot be missed if you call yourself a fan.
5. House of Wax (1953)
Price plays a sculptor, Henry Jarrod, who is revered for his wax figures depicting famous figures from history. However, his business partner wants Jarrod sculpt more sensationalistic displays, like Jack the Ripper, but Jarrod is an artist and refuses to debase himself. The wax museum is then torched in the name of commerce, along with Jarrod, who is doused in kerosene and left to perish in the flames. Only, he doesn’t perish; instead, he shows back up some years later, with his hands ruined, sporting two sculpting assistants, including a mute Charles Bronson, and—surprise, surprise—a new house of horrors exhibit. The thing is, despite his ruined hands, his wax dummies are better than ever. How on earth does he do it?
I think you know. We all know. It’s not much of a mystery, but that’s part of the fun, watching the horror dawn on our hapless protagonists. The movie itself was a remake of the 1933 Michael Curtiz potboiler Mystery of the Wax Museum, starring Lionel Atwill. House of Wax was originally intended as a quick-turn around to capitalize on the nascent 3-D process, a strange alchemy that included an engaging script and inspired direction by director André De Toth, who had only one eye. Price later quipped, “It’s almost my favorite Hollywood story. Where else in the world would you hire a man with one eye to direct a picture in 3-D?” Warner Brothers did not expect the reaction it got from audiences who flocked to see it. The movie had the advantage of being a horror movie, early in the 3-D craze, that was actually well shot, well directed, and well-acted. Those elements would not all be present in the majority of the subsequent 3-D movies of the 1950s. This early classic 3-D movie was an incredible success, in part because of the new startling technical process, but also because of Vincent Price’s deranged curator of the Wax Museum whose life-like exhibits hold a terrible secret. This movie was a smash hit and put Price on the map as the go-to guy for urbane madmen and melodramatic villains, which formed the bulk of his career and legacy. House of Wax is ground zero for Price fans.
4. The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971)
The film opens as a murder mystery, with several prominent doctors being killed in weird and gruesome ways that end up mimicking Biblical plagues. These fiendish murders are orchestrated by a brilliant concert pianist, thought to be dead. The evidence mounts and the madman is revealed, with some grim and grisly goings on in between.
The plot owes more than a little thanks to Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1909) and in particular the various movies depicting the story, such as Lon Chaney’s classic version from 1925. There’s even a scene where Dr. Phibes is unmasked as he plays the organ. Hmm…where have we seen that before? This is distinctive in that the movie is set in the 1920s to take advantage with the craze in Egyptology that was sweeping Great Britain at the time.
Just a few years later in the decade, we’d get a new kind of masked killer that was inarticulate and very nearly sub-human, a force of nature, an unkillable thing. But playing ghoulish, if not always sophisticated, murderers and fiends was something Price excelled at for years. Dr. Phibes was one of his best, and certainly one of his most famous turns in this vein. It’s also one of the last times such a murderous maniac would have a shred of sympathy applied to him, as Price seemed to be the only actor at the time who could walk that edge. The role of Dr. Phibes was so successful, it was reprised for a sequel and attempted a third time, in spirt, with the less successful Theatre of Blood (1973).
3. Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The Satanic Prince Prospero is planning an elaborate annual revel at his castle, even as his subjects are dying at the hands of the Red Death. He abducts a young woman from the local village, and conscripts her father and lover into his service, essentially sparing their lives from the Red Death. He has everyone else in the village killed. No mercy. Back at the castle, Prince Prospero deals with the mundanity of his wastrel existence, providing entertainment for his rich and idle guests, and attempting to seduce the young woman, even as the two men from the village are being groomed to fight to the death as an amusement for the revelry to come. Hop-Frog, the dwarf, plots a grim party trick to get back at one of the nobles who struck Esmerelda, his dancing partner that involves putting on an ape suit for the masquerade. Prospero wants to indoctrinate the peasant girl into his Satanic cult, but Prospero’s mistress sets up a plan to get rid of her so she can take her place.
Lots of ins and outs and courtly intrigue keep this period story capering along, and while the actual Poe material only shows up in the final act, the rest of the movie contains some of Roger Corman’s best work to date; vivid and startling use of color, the symbology of the Tarot, and a dream-like quality to much of the movie add to the feelings of dread and horror. And then there’s Price in the mix, too, playing Prospero as merciless and cruel, that sly smile now reading as sinister. And yet, he seems to genuinely care about this peasant girl he rescued from the ravages of the plague. You want to like him, and then he does something terrible and you remember that oh, yes, he’s not redeemable, not at all.
From 1960 to 1964, Roger Corman and Vincent Price produced seven (of a total of eight films) based loosely—some would say, “merely suggested by”—the works of Edgar Allan Poe. This is the seventh of Roger Corman’s low-budget AIP quickies based on the eponymous short story with a nice chunk of “Hop-Frog” thrown in. Veteran screenwriter Charles Beaumont delivered the first draft and R. Wright Campbell provided the second pass; his version incorporated “Hop-Frog,” which turned out to be a great addition. Like all of the movies in this series, the script plays fast and loose with Poe in order to wring the most dramatic and salacious material out of them, as these films were ostensibly aiming for some of the gothic bodice-ripping market share held by Hammer’s horror films. Corman’s directing is deft and interesting and he stretches his limited budget to the breaking point. The resulting special effects are mostly just camera tricks, but they aren’t a complete distraction and overall, the movie showcases Price’s screen presence and charisma. He obviously loved the material and it shows in his performances.
2. House of Usher (1960)
Philip Winthrop arrives at the doorstep of the House of Usher looking for his fiancée Madeline Usher, to take her back to Boston to marry her. However, her brother, Roderick, played by Price, objects to the marriage and forbids it and gives as an excuse a family history lesson of all the horrible people in his family tree. Philip ignores all of that poppycock and agrees to spirit Madeline away the next day. Unfortunately, Madeline dies that night and Roderick and the servant have her entombed—rather interred, in the family crypt beneath the house. Phillip is about to leave when the butler mentions that Madeline suffered from catalepsy and they open her coffin to find it empty. Madeline is loose in the catacombs, Roderick has checked out, and Phillip is left to contend with all of that and more.
In 1959, American International Pictures took a big risk. They’d been producing low-budget, quick-turnaround double features of a decidedly lurid and exploitational nature, and for nearly a decade, they were in the chips. But as that marketing strategy began to wane, Roger Corman convinced them to try a different tactic: instead of producing two black and white features, each shot in 10 days, let him make one feature, in color, shot in a widescreen anamorphic process, in 15 days. They rolled the dice, and Samuel Z. Arkoff crossed his fingers. Corman spent fifty thousand bucks of his $300,000 budget to get Vincent Price, the most AIP had ever paid an actor before, and it began a relationship that Corman liked to downplay as a business transaction, but in reality, was a career high point for both him and Price. The movie was House of Usher and it saved AIP from financial ruin. There is a line in the movie that goes, ‘The house lives. The house breathes.’ Price went to Roger Corman during the production and asked what the line meant. Corman replied, “It means that we are able to make this picture.” Price said, “I understand totally.” And that was that. Price embraced the dialogue and the movie did something that was a rarity for an AIP release: it made money and garnered critical acclaim.
House of Usher was also the beginning of a collaboration with screenwriter Richard Matheson, who was writing scripts for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1959-1964) during this same period. As such, this first script cleaves the closest to Poe’s original story, adding only a romantic interest for Madeline as a point-of-view character for the audience, thus allowing Roderick the chance to fill him (and the viewers) in on the family’s history. The combination of Corman, at his most creative and inventive, Price, at the top of his game, and Matheson, lean and hungry, is what makes these movies a joy to watch and re-watch. Corman made good use of his budget, wringing every dollar he could, and taking full advantage of the Panavision process and color film stock to create vivid scenes that looked like images from lucid nightmares. Production designer Dan Haller did a lot with very little, reusing and re-combining old sets and equipment as needed. You can’t tell and it doesn’t really matter, though, because all of the films in Corman’s Poe Cycle hang together as an intriguing counterbalance to Hammer’s horror movies. These movies were a showcase for Price and despite the lack of budget and breakneck shooting schedule, they all really hold up thanks to his memorable performances.
1. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Englishman Francis Barnard, played by John Kerr, arrives at the estate of his brother-in-law, Nicholas, played by Vincent Price, to investigate the mysterious death of his sister Elizabeth, played with her usual zest by Barbara Steele. When a vague explanation fails to explain her death, Francis decides to investigate the peculiar goings on. Phillip and the household are convinced that his dead wife is haunting the house, but Francis isn’t. As Phillip descends further and further into madness, the family doctor confides that she died of fright, like one does in these situations. The truth is pretty gruesome, and it involves a flashback to the Patriarch of the family Sebastian Medina, a torturer for the Spanish Inquisition, who tortured and killed his wife and best friend for an adulterous affair.
I will leave you to discover the rest, but suffice to say, Price’s metamorphosis in this movie is a testament to his acting ability and most fun to watch. And third act is a legitimate nail-biter, with lots going on, including chases through dungeons and of course, the swinging axe-bladed pendulum, all supported by an excellent score by Les Baxter. The actual Poe short story doesn’t appear until the end of the third act, at which point the audience has been led by the nose through a story that is equal parts fantastic and phantasmagoric.
This is the second Poe adaptation directed by Roger Corman with a screenplay by Richard Matheson, following the unexpected success of House of Usher (1960), and while the first film was a critical smash (and considered a high point in Corman’s career—talk about peaking early!) Price is only one part of the small ensemble cast, albeit quite excellent. In The Pit and the Pendulum, we are treated to a full range of macabre reactions from Price, hitting his stride with the material and kicking off some of the best movies of his career.
Matheson sometimes strayed far afield with his free-wheeling adaptations of Poe’s works, but his scripts were always quite watchable and utilized as much of the style and language that he could shoehorn in to fit the needs of a 90-minute movie. Price, as always, lent a certain gravitas that elevated his performance and the material. Watching these movies, it’s hard to reconcile the inventiveness and care that went into them with the schlock and grind of Corman’s later movies.