Thursday, May 5, 2011

IN PRAISE OF PRICE

“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”:


  • 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 
The poster for St. Louis' Vincentennial Celebration planned for later this month
  • 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.

Eggscellent indeed.

6 comments:

  1. I had never really seen a Vincent Price film other than his appearance in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS at the end of his career. I certainly knew who he was, having seen his later appearances on the TV series MYSTERY!, and having heard his voice on THRILLER. But until this weekend, I had never seen the work that made Price, well, priceless, in the world of horror films.

    Better late than never, I watched THEATER OF BLOOD and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, courtesy of instant viewing on Netflix. Both films are clearly rooted in the time periods in which they are made. You need to forget the modern movie-making conventions of animation, flashy visuals and special effects; and concentrate on what the focus of a film should be: the acting, the facial expressions, the dialogue and the storyline.

    In THEATER OF BLOOD you could see Price just reveling in the Shakespeare soliloquies, as he switched emotions from diabolical intent, to sadness, to loving kindness, to anger & rage, and back again. And how many ways can you kill someone? Truly he spent some time considering it. Each death was a custom-made affair.

    In THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, he is at his smoothest and most debonair. And most deadly. I’ve never seen such a classy way to invite guests to a murder, or two. And who cares if by today’s standards the special effects are quite primitive. It doesn’t take long to suspend your belief in that, when behind your back Price is about to scare the sh** out of you. Or maybe something else. What an elegant way to die.

    In these films sometimes I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream, but I do know this. Vincent Price made murder an art form.

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  2. Dear Fan, glad you were inspired to watch a couple of Vincent Price's films. THEATER OF BLOOD is not only a horror movie, it's a black, black comedy! (BTW which of the deaths did you find the most gruesome? I found the doggies one just awful.) And it is such a marvelous performance by Price. I wish he had gotten an Oscar nomination for it. Shame the Academy never honored him with one. (SIGH)

    And those special effects were not great in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL but you're right, it's the mind games and the insidiousness of the host that make it truly frightening. Price rocked that role!

    Indeed Price made them scary and funny. That's quite an accomplishment!

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  3. Most gruesome? Paws down...the Poodle a la king. What almost sent me over the edge was when Lionheart (Price) turns it up a notch by helping his victim get his dinner down a little faster. It was at that moment when I realized how ahead of it’s time THEATER OF BLOOD was. Clearly shades of the horrifying SE7EN to come over 20 years later.

    In contrast to his many diabolical and macabre roles, it’s also good to remember, as you have mentioned, just what an endearing, funny and classy man he was. Here is one of my favorite clips...Vincent Price educating a Mister Kermit The Frog on mastering the craft of horror: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQALLGsn-Fk.

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  4. Indeed, Big Fan! What was so shocking about it too was the fact that the Robert Morley character was played as a buffoon up until then, and for him to suffer such a horrible death, well, that was the height of THEATER OF BLOOD's macabre sense of humor. Dang!

    And thanks for the adorable clip from THE MUPPET SHOW. I remember fondly Price's turn hosting then. Now you just need to rent some BATMAN and your Price tour has run the gamut from A to Z!

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  5. Hi Jeff - love your Vincent entry! I'm a long-time Vincent fan and contributor to a book of essays on Price from Midnight Marquee Press. I am also blogging my way through a book I'm writing on classic horror-comedies and included mentioned (and linked to) your Price entry (especially the awesome caricature - as a veteran comics pro I appreciate that as well) in my remembrance of Vincent's birthday today. You can see it at http://scaredsillybypaulcastiglia.blogspot.com/2011/05/happy-100th-birthday-vincent-price.html

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  6. Hey Paul, thanks so much for commenting here! And for the wonderful call-out and link on your blog. I really appreciate that. So glad you especially liked the caricature. I also really like your blog and am now following you.

    And indeed, Happy Birthday to Vincent Price today! Let's raise a glass of blood to his memory everyone. (tee hee)

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