“It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.”
- Vincent Price
|Original caricature of Vincent Price in THEATER OF BLOOD (1973) by Jeff York (copyright 2011)|
May 27th would have been the 100th birthday of Vincent Price. My favorite horror film star, and the greatest one ever, died in 1993 at the age of 82 and worked almost up until the day he died. There are many events and retrospectives planned to honor Price this year. I am hoping that the Gene Siskel Film Center or The Music Box Theater here in Chicago plan some kind of retrospective but I am not sure there is anything on their books yet. However there are plenty of tributes out there lauding Price in the year of his “Vincentennial”:
- Horror Hound magazine just named him the most important name ever in horror:http://www.horrorhound.com
- His boyhood home of St. Louis, Missouri is hosting a “Vincentennial” Celebration this month over nine days from May 19-28th. Read all about the festivities they have planned for that week:http://www.cinemastlouis.org/vincentennial
- There are many fan sites full of wonderful tributes commemorating his career. Start here with a complete retrospective of Price's work: http://www.vincentprice.org
It’s no wonder that there is so much devoted to him. The prolific Mr. Price starred in countless plays, TV shows and over 100 films in his seven-decade career. Many of those films have become horror classics and they showcase just how marvelous an actor and star he was.
In my youth, I first became aware of Price when he played the villainous Egghead on the old, campy BATMAN TV series in the sixties. He was hilarious and charming what with all his egg puns. (“Eggscellent, Caped Crusader.”) I sought out more work from him and soon discovered the plethora of Price movies on the late show. This same man who was so amusing as a “Special Guest Bat Villain” was absolutely terrifying and insidious playing straight villainy in his macabre movie roles. And I found in Price an actor who gave his all to whatever he did. He never acted like these roles were beneath him. Instead he made horror films into art.
|Vincent Price as Egghead on the BATMAN TV series from the sixties|
My favorite of all of his horror films is THEATER OF BLOOD (1973). I discovered it when I was attending college in Chicago. It was being shown at the old Varsity revival house theater up in Evanston then. (Today THEATER OF BLOOD is available immediately on Netflix, along with the other DVD’s of many of the other films mentioned below.) It immediately became one of my favorite movies, and my favorite Price performance. In the film, Price played Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearean actor who becomes outraged when he loses a critics’ prize for best actor. The distraught Lionheart attempts suicide but survives, and then channels his angst into a revenge plot - he decides to kill the critics who had so often butchered him in their reviews. He concocts elaborate deaths for them inspired by his beloved Bard. Fittingly, one critic gets his heart carved out in homage to Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh. Another critic is forced to eat his dogs in a pie inspired by the tale of Tamora, the queen who ate her children. In the role of Lionheart Price got to perform all sorts of soliloquies and he pulled a deft balancing act between the sublime and the ridiculous. It’s one thing to perform Shakespeare straight. It’s quite another to push it ever so slightly into ham. But Price was an expert actor and comedian in a way. He knew exactly where to push, to let us in on the fun, without playing outside the role.
In his early years, Price starred in all kinds of upscale dramas like THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939), THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES (1940), THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943) and the sublime LAURA (1944). But when he joined Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone in 1939 for the horror tale TOWER OF LONDON he found his true niche. By the fifties when he took the lead role in HOUSE OF WAX (1953) Price had hit his stride as the consummate leading man of horror.
|Vincent Price as Henry Jarrod in HOUSE OF WAX (1953)|
Price’s role as Henry Jarrod in HOUSE OF WAX established a prototype that Price would play often, that of the cultured and sensitive man driven to madness and destruction by societal villains far worse than he. Jarrod is a wax museum proprietor and artist whose only desire is greatness. He’s got the best showcase in town but when his business partner decides to burn down the place to collect the insurance money, Jarrod is believed to have vanished in the fire trying to save his artistic creations. But Jarrod resurfaces some time later with a new wax museum. Then his partner is found hanged – the latest victim of a nocturnal fiend terrorizing the city. Of course it turns out to be Jarrod committing the murders. He’s using the fresh corpses to make his newest lifelike creations. He’s the villain here but Price imbues Jarrod with such sympathy that you understand his motives and mourn his inevitable end.
Few actors in Hollywood could play pathos as well as Price. Despite his imposing height, handsome face and silky delivery, Price’s screen persona was one that connected with audiences. He wasn’t afraid to show vulnerability and it always made his characters sympathetic, even when he played monsters. As Price once said, “I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge.”
Price always radiated intelligence too. He was a highly cultured man, a gourmet cook, and a connoisseur of art, wine, history and literature. His urbane style showed in his every gesture, his carriage and his elegant vocal delivery. Perhaps it was those civilized manners or that sanguine voice of his, but somehow menace seemed even more terrifying when it came from such a gentlemen as Price. He was the quintessential Bond villain, before there ever was such a thing.
In the sixties he made a half dozen pictures with Roger Corman and brought to life some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works. Unfortunately the films were a mixed bag. For every brilliant interpretation of Poe’s legendary prose like HOUSE OF USHER (1960) there were thin parodies like THE RAVEN (1963) that hurt both Poe and Price. Today, the good is remembered more than the bad and USHER, along with MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964) are considered a brilliant cryptic triptych of Poe rendered by Price and Corman.
Price was everywhere during the sixties, doing numerous TV guest shots on everything from THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. to F TROOP, often spoofing his horror image or riffing on his bon vivant style. He also became a popular fixture on talk shows, further ingratiating audiences to him with his charming conversations about Hollywood, art and gourmet food. Audiences loved him and it allowed him to continue to star in big budget pictures. And Price used the opportunity to create some of his most brilliant and disturbing works. His turn as MATTHEW HOPKINS: WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968) is one of his greatest achievements. The role of Hopkins was an almost completely unsympathetic role. He’s a vicious bounty hunter of witches and warlocks in 1645 medieval England. Pious, brutal, albeit a complete charlatan, Hopkins trades mercy for money and sexual favors. At the age of 57, Price was startling in the incendiary role. And over the next decade Price would continue to reach new heights both in popularity and in polishing his reputation as an artist and risk taker.
Price’s penchant for playing good men driven to evil means by a cruel world would reach its zenith in a couple of roles that became worldwide sensations. In 1971 he took on the role of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. Price’s Anton Phibes was a surgeon, scientist, organist, and biblical scholar out for revenge upon the nine doctors he considered responsible for his wife's death. It was a great villain yet audiences cheered Phibes on as a hero. There was something relatable to them about the moralistic Phibes driven to extreme measures by the careless elite at the top of the medical community. Even though Phibes exacted comeuppance through horrifically detailed murders based on the nine plagues of Egypt he remained sympathetic. He was a moralist raging against authority in turbulent political times. Through Phibes, Price found himself amongst other anti-establishment icons of the era like Abbie Hoffman and Woodward & Bernstein. They were all topplers of kings, the true enemies of the people who had it coming.
Phibes was so successful that a quickie sequel was made in 1972. Then in 1973 came THEATER OF BLOOD with Price playing Lionheart, a variation on the Phibes conceit. Audiences worldwide adored it and critics, including the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, praised it as Price’s best film work to date.
Price remained as in demand and active as he ever was, doing TV, movies and specials throughout the next three decades. And along with his ubiquity he pulled in generations of new fans as they reveled in his voice-over rap at the centerpiece of Michael Jackson’s THRILLER video in 1982, and as the inventor of Johnny Depp’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS character in 1990.
|Vincent Price with director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on the set of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)|
In a career that spanned seven decades, Price starred in many of the silver screen’s most important horror movies. I would be remiss to not mention seminal films like THE INVISBLE MAN RETURNS (1939), THE FLY (1958), THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1958) and THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), all benefiting from the presence of Price. There has really been no actor like him, before or since. He brought intelligence, pathos, elegance, and commitment to a genre that many often sneer at. He was a great actor and artist. Now in his 100th year, is a good time to revisit his work on DVD and to celebrate the indisputable king of horror. Price lives forever immortal on celluloid and in the hearts of those who love him.