Collins’ Crypt: More Vincent Price Is Always A Good Thing

Scream Factory's new Vincent Price collection digs deeper into the master's filmography.

I am pretty sure that the first full Vincent Price movie I ever saw was House on Haunted Hill, which I watched around the time of the remake's release in 1999. I knew who he was by then, of course, but I honestly can't recall ever seeing any of his features (cameos in the likes of Edward Scissorhands notwithstanding) prior to that day. In the six or seven years between that and the start of Horror Movie A Day (now a book!) I watched a few more, like the original Dr. Phibes and at least one of the Poe films, mostly courtesy of TCM who would often air marathons of either his movies or of Roger Corman's. But it wasn't until HMAD that I really dug deep, watching several a year, going as far back as 1940's The Invisible Man Returns and 1946's Shock, and up to 1987's From a Whisper to a Scream (aka The Offspring), which unless you count Scissorhands was his last horror picture, as best as I can tell.  

But the sweet spot, the time that made him into the horror icon he is and always will be, is in the '60s and first half of the '70s. That's where the Poe/Corman film cycle began (with 1960's House of Usher), and ended with the twilight era of AIP classics like Phibes and Theatre of Blood (plus the underrated Madhouse, which teamed him with Peter Cushing). Perhaps not too coincidentally, that's the period where the three volumes of Scream Factory's Vincent Price boxed sets have focused; a few pre-1960 titles have been offered like House on Haunted Hill and The Return of the Fly, but otherwise they've stuck to this golden era, using the bonus features to fill in gaps of his 50+ year career in Hollywood. It would probably take over a week to go through any one of the sets (the first of which is now out of print, so I'd advise picking up the other two before you miss out on those as well), thanks to the copious amounts of commentary tracks, legacy specials, and occasional new interviews with Corman and other surviving players from these classics. This has been a terrific reversal of fortune for films like Haunted Hill and Last Man on Earth, both of which were previously sentenced to budget pack prisons before Scream Factory rescued them with terrific transfers and supplemental material.

The first two volumes focused on the bigger titles: pretty much all of the Poe ones, Phibes and its sequel, Witchfinder General, etc. This new Volume III goes a little beyond that scope, offering five films that aren't as well known (and in one case, isn't even in the horror genre), but showcase Price's many talents, letting him go full blown evil in Cry of the Banshee and Tower of London, but showing off his romantic and charming side in Diary of a Madman (Master of the World, a sci-fi/adventure, casts him as the villain, but it's a villain who wants world peace, placing him somewhere in the middle). The bonus features continue showing off that range, with a pair of episodes from Science Fiction Theatre (a pre-Twilight Zone anthology) in which he appeared, plus the usual commentaries and interviews where Price's love of art and cooking come up just as often as his horror film work.

The films are, on average, less horrific than Phibes or the Poe films, with only Cry of the Banshee settling into full blown horror movie territory. Price stars as a witch-hunting magistrate who leads an execution of several witches during a ritual, leading the head witch, Oona, to seek revenge by killing his family members one by one. It's got a surprising amount of bloodshed and nudity (even a minor rape scene), making it one of the more explicit of Price's films, and it should be noted that he gets top billing but it's almost more of an ensemble, focusing on his sons for large chunks of the runtime (not in much focus is a young Stephen Rea, making his debut as one of the nameless villagers - see if you can spot him). Witchfinder General it is not, but there's something rather amusing about seeing him class up such borderline exploitative fare, though to get the full experience of that you have to make sure you watch the longer director's cut version (not hard, that's what the disc defaults to). When the film was released in 1970, AIP cut a few minutes, replaced the score, and (most dastardly) replaced Terry Gilliam's animated credit sequence (!) with something more bland, which probably didn't help its reputation any.  That cut is provided as well, but you should have no use for it beyond some curiosity; it's hardly the best film for anyone involved anyway, but at least watch director Gordon Hessler's original version before passing judgment.  

Price gets more screentime in Diary of a Madman, which was almost certainly inspired by Psycho but also fits nicely into the actor's canon of "dead wife" movies. Price is Simon Cordier, the local magistrate (again!) but also a sculptor and collector of fine art (mirroring the real-life Price), and it is this latter hobby that leads him to strike up a relationship with Odette Mallotte (the lovely Nancy Kovack). As it turns out, she is already married and perhaps not the most honest and trustworthy woman in the world, which I guess makes it OK when (spoiler) Price slashes her up in a scene that you'd never ever be able to convince me wasn't "paying homage" to Psycho's shower scene. Like Psycho, our hero character seems harmless, but there's a psychological element at play - he's been cursed/possessed by a malevolent spirit! The movie is actually being told as flashback after Cordier's death (his story is told from the titular diary), so there isn't much suspense to what happens to his character, but it's a total delight to watch Price play murderer and innocent victim in the same scene (even shot) throughout the film, like when the spirit takes over and murders his little tweety bird, after which Cordier snaps back to his old self and begins wondering where the bird is. The film is from 1963, so Price had already become a horror icon and thus probably leaped at the chance to play something a little more unique (with the art stuff likely thrown in to sweeten the deal) - it's actually kind of strange to see him slashing away with a knife. Most of his murderous characters just settle for the one stab, or he has outlandish murder traps to do them in like in the Phibes films - this is full blown Michael Myers-level up close and personal work. And he does it in the same movie where he coos at a little bird!  It's my favorite movie on the set, easily.

But I say that only because An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe isn't really a movie, but an hour-long television special in which Price tackles four of Poe's best known tales as one-man shows. Presented in four segments, you get Price placed in a small but elaborate set, with a fine costume (designed by his wife Mary Grant) and the sheer joy of watching him launch into almost complete-text versions of "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Sphinx", "The Cask of Amontillado", and "The Pit and the Pendulum". He is terrific in all of them, naturally (though he seems to be trying to get through "The Sphinx" as quickly as possible), though special mention must be made of "Amontillado", where he plays both Montresor and Fortunato, with director Kenneth Johnson using lighting and reverse angles to allow the viewer to see both characters (sort of like when Stephen Colbert would debate himself on his show). I can't imagine anything that would have delighted me more than to see these performances live on stage, but this presentation (in standard def, it should be noted) is the next best thing, and since only "Pendulum" got a full length Price film, it's great to see his take on these tales, as if to sort of complete his Poe output (he did get to play Fortunato in Tales of Terror, but the segment was merely borrowing parts of "Amontillado" for a "Black Cat" chapter).

And then there's Roger Corman's Tower of London, which casts Price as King Richard of Gloucester and is the only one of the films I had seen before, though I couldn't remember much about it (other than the novelty of seeing a young Joan Freeman - best known to this slasher nut as Tommy Jarvis' mom - as one of the minor characters). I suspect part of that reason is because I originally watched it thinking it was a horror movie, which it really isn't - the Shakespeare influence is apparent throughout (Richard III most obviously, with some Macbeth thrown in for good measure) as the ghosts are more psychological than scary, and without any real hero to speak of it's not particularly as exciting as his other collaborations with Corman. Interestingly, Price played a smaller role in the original Tower of London from 1939, where Basil Rathbone played Richard, so even though I don't love the movie I might track that one down someday just to compare. It's not bad by any means, but it gets more than mildly repetitive as Price systematically murders anyone who might cost him his "right" to be King - for 90 minutes we see him kill someone, then their ghost shows up and issues premonitions and taunts, driving him to kill someone else, restarting the cycle. Price gives it his all (he seems to be quite happy delivering more Shakespearean dialogue than normally given), and Corman's underrated skills as a director are on display, but it never really pulled me in like the best of their collaborations, and the finale was far too ambitious for their budget, making it end on a shrug as well.

But even though the films aren't all perfect, I'm glad I saw them because it's just more time enjoying the work of this gifted and endlessly appealing actor. I love Cushing, Lee, Karloff, etc. as much as any horror fan, but for my money, none are as fun as Price. Whether he was playing a villain or a hero there was almost always a sense of mischief to his performances, not to mention full commitment every time. Watching him class-up lesser films is something we don't get to see with most of our modern horror icons (can't blame them, even the worst Price movie has a better script than most have to work with nowadays), and sets like these, that are filled with stories of what a consummate gentleman he was, only deepen my appreciation for him. Here's hoping for a Volume IV (with Theatre of Blood and a restored The Bat, perhaps?), in the hopes that with every new release, someone who shared my ignorance from ten or so years ago can discover this one-of-a-kind talent and be as endlessly entertained by him as I am.

Comments