Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of Vincent Price
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman
Born in St. Louis on May 27, 1911, iconic actor Vincent Price retained a special fondness for his place of origin, and that love is now reciprocated with Vincentennial, a celebration of his 100th birthday in his hometown. Price was not only a notable St. Louisan but one of the 20th century’s most remarkable men. To do full justice to the range of his accomplishments, Vincentennial features not only a 10-day film festival but also a pair of exhibits, a stage production, two publications, and illuminating discussions by Price experts and film historians. We decided to do a special edition of Top Ten Tuesday here at We Are Movie Geeks in honor of the many great films that Vincent Price starred in, and after we had assembled the list we realized that all ten of these films will be showing at the upcoming Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival. For all the details about Vincentennial visit www.vincentennial.com
10. LAURA (1944)
“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died”, is the first line, intoned by a somber Clifton Webb, of LAURA (1944), a glossy and gripping story of murder among the elite. Vincent Price often said that his favorite of the films in which he appeared was director Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir, and most movie buffs who don’t like horror are quick to agree. As noirs go, it’s less a dark and dirty crime drama than most, more reliant on character and script, but it really is a classic and Price’s oily supporting performance is nothing short of sublime. The film pits gruff police detective, Mark McPhereson (Dana Andrews) against smug and cultured columnist, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). McPherson has been assigned to investigate the murder of Laura Hunt (a simmering Gene Tierney). Through a series of interviews conducted with potential suspects, McPherson builds his profile of the dead girl – all the while falling under the spell of her striking portrait. But the puzzle unravels when the murder victim materializes in a bizarre twist of fate that forces McPhereson to re-think his entire case. Vincent Price plays Laura’s fiancee, silver-tongued do-nothing gigolo Shelby Carpenter who gets mixed up in the mystery and is too charming for his own good. LAURA has an incredible adult script (the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar) with a fascinating story filled with unnerving plot angles, twists galore and hints of necrophilia and homosexuality. The film’s dialogue is particularly well done: intelligent, humorous at times, and enhanced by the snappy delivery and exchanges between all the actors. David Raksin’s grand musical theme has become a standard.
LAURA will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival at 7:00pm on Tuesday, May 24th at Brown Hall on the campus of Washington University. Admission is free.
9. THE TINGLER (1958)
During the 50’s and 60’s one man was known in Hollywood for gimmicks that made his thrillers unique. That man was producer/director William Castle. He was a master of promotion refer to as ‘ballyhoo’Ã‚Â. Castle began his career making low budget ‘B’ pictures for Columbia. In 1958 he left the studio to make MACABRE. Castle came up with a gimmick to attract people to the theatre. Each person who purchased a ticket was issued an insurance policy for $1000 against death by fright. And for good measure he hired ‘nurse’ to patrol the lobby. For his next picture he cast Vincent Price in 1959’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Of course Castle needed a different gimmick, Instead of insurance, he presented this film in ‘Emergo’. At one point in the film a skeleton would swoop over the audience. Columbia was aware of the big box grosses for these inexpensive films and welcomed Castle back . For his return he came up with ‘Percepto’ to hype THE TINGLER. Once again Price starred, this time as Dr. Warren Chapin who’s studying the effects of fear on human beings. He believes a creature he dubs ‘The Tingler’ emerges from the spine at times of extreme terror. Only a scream would suppress it. Also in the cast as his aide David was Daryl Hickman, whose brother Dwayne ( TV’s Dobie Gillis ) would costar with Price in DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINES in 1965. For most of the film Price plays the role of a kindly physician until he conducts a fear experiment on his cheating spouse. Later Price has a wild, crazed scene during an experiment on himself. In order to experience pure fear he injects LSD that David Picked up at a pharmacy! Later he must wrestle with a slithering Tingler that he had extracted from a deceased woman. The highlight of the film is near the finale when that Tingler gets loose in a film showing an old silent film (perhaps inspired by the real Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax in L.A. ). The screen goes blank as the shadow of the creature crawls past while Price implores the audience to scream for their lives. Then ‘Percepto’ begins as patrons in certain wired seats get a slight electric jolt. In 1993 Joe Dante directed MATINEE, a lovely tribute to these popcorn flicks featuring St. Louisian John Goodman as a Castle-inspired character. If that peaked your interest, don’t miss a chance to experience this bit of showbiz history. And you’ll have even more admiration for Price as he delivers this loopy dialogue with a straight face.
THE TINGLER will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film at 9:30pm on Friday, May 20th and again at Noon on Saturday May 21st at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. These screenings will feature a version of the gimmick ‘Percepto’ perfected by The Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein and will feature an introduction and post-film discussion by Mr. Goldstein. Ticket information can be found HERE
8. THEATRE OF BLOOD (1972)
In the early 1970’s Vincent Price’s career was at a high point. The Doctor Phibes films were unexpected hits. How would he capitalize on these? In 1973 he took on a role in a film with a similar plot structure. In fact, many fright film fans consider THEATRE OF BLOOD an unofficial finale in a Phibes trilogy. Produced by United Artists rather then American International BLOOD differed from the Phibes film in that it was set in modern times and boasted one of the most prestigious casts that Price ever worked with. Price portrays Edward Lionheart , a stage actor thought to be dead , who returns to murder the critics that denied him a thespian award. Many of Britain’s finest stage and screen actors appear to be having a blast as the victims. The members of the Critic’s Circle are Michael Hordern, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Arhur Lowe, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, and Ian Hendry (his character is the only critic who has some sympathy for Lionheart ). Diana Rigg plays Lionheart’s daughter Edwina, a movie make up artist. Hendry and Rigg were both part of the TV series ‘The Avengers’, he in the first episodes as Dr. David Keel and she achieving worldwide fame later as Emma Peel. Speaking of TV, in 1989 Ms. Rigg would take over hosting duties from Mr. Price on the PBS ‘Mystery!’ series. In later years Price would refer to BLOOD as his favorite horror film for several reasons. The ingenious script has Edward dispatching the critics in murder scenes inspired by deaths in Shakespeare’s plays. This gave Price a chance to recreate several of the classic roles. He also gets to assume several disguises: a bobby, French chef, swishy hairdresser, and a masseuse who tricks Hawkins into believing his wife ( played by the British Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors ) is having an affair a la ‘Othello’. Price may also have had a soft spot for this film as he met the woman who would be his last wife, Coral Browne. The film has some great comic relief from Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes as investigating officers who seem always two steps behind Edward. The film has great location work ( nothing was shot on studios sets ), brisk direction, and a witty script that blends suspense and humor. Vincent Price is a delight in this, perhaps, his last great horror film.
THEATRE OF BLOOD will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival in a 35mm print at 2:30pm on Saturday, May 21st at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. Ticket information can be found HERE
7. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)
Even though Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND has been filmed three times (officially), only one of the film versions worked with a script by Matheson himself (though billed as -‘Logan Swanson’Â). Originally a Hammer Film property (how great would that have been?), Matheson’s script was eventually sold to Lippert Productions and made cheaply in Italy with an Italian cast and crew, as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964). For its bankable American star, Vincent Price was cast as the lead. Price was at the peak of his popularity from a series of brilliant Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman (the producers wisely emphasized the horrific elements of Matheson’s story with Price’s image in the advertising). But in LAST MAN Price delivers one of his best performances as the only ‘human’Â left after a biological plague has decimated the population. Whether he’s dealing with feelings of loneliness and grief, or simply displaying human pettiness, Price imbues the film with a sense of quiet despair. Price appears in nearly every frame of the film, and dominates the story with his great persona. Today, despite its low budget and black & white cinematography, with its remarkable opening scenes of death and desolation, and of Price nightly withstanding the siege of ‘vampires’, the film is viewed as a highly influential (George Romero cites it as an inspiration) and memorable version of the famous tale.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival in a glorious 35mm print at 7pm on Friday, May 20th at the Hi-Pointe Theatre with an introduction and post-film discussion by Richard Squires, creator of the Web site The Vincent Price Exhibit (www.vincentpriceexhibit.com). Ticket information can be found HERE
6. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
The unique touch of cult director Robert Fuest is evident throughout THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) and its equally entertaining sequel DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972). The bizarre, absurdist set design, the operatic musical score, and the grand performance by star Vincent Price all combine to create a truly surreal horror masterpiece. It is a testament to Price’s epic screen presence that he dominates the film without uttering a single word of dialogue! (Neither does his assistant, the beautiful Vulnavia). It’s true that he does speak offscreen through a microphone, but he carries both films by expressing his character mostly through action and facial features. Whether he’s playing his pipe organ with great flourish, displaying his whimsical glee at the fate of his enemies, or grimly resigning himself to the burning obsession which drives him, Price, even hidden underneath HOUSE OF WAX-inspired makeup–showcases yet again his ability to dominate a film. He is also obviously having great fun here under the guidance of Fuest, whom Price called “one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.” A further multitude of riches await the fan in DR. PHIBES as well. Caroline Munro, in what must surely be her briefest film role ever, plays Phibe’s dead wife, and is shown only in still photos wearing snazzy 1920s outfits or as a lifeless body. The SAW film series owes DR. PHIBES a great debt, as several of the death sequences (especially the climactic ones) are very intricate mechanisms in which the victim decides his own fate. The film was also the only screen pairing of Price and the great Joseph Cotten, even though the men were lifelong friends from their days in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company.
5. CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR (1950)
Many works of fiction have been said to be ahead of their time. In the world of motions pictures few are more prophetic than the 1950 comedy classic CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR. By that year, mind you, quiz shows were popular on radio and that young upstart television, but by the end of the decade these programs would inspire a national craze ( and a scandal later depicted in Robert Redford’s film QUIZ SHOW ). CAESAR foreshadows all this while showcasing some delightful performances by actors generally not known for big screen comedies. The plot centers on an unemployed genius Beauregard Bottomley played by one of Hollywood’s most celebrated leading men, Ronald Colman. He was best known then for roles in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, LOST HORIZON, and RANDOM HARVEST, but today he may be best known as the vocal inspiration for cereal pitch man ( er..bird ) Toucan Sam. Beauregard shares a modest LA bungalow with his sister Gwenn played by Barbara Britton ( who later co-starred in TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North) who teaches piano and the film’s title character Caesar, a parrot with a taste for booze ( his exclamations, such as “get loaded!”,and “How about a short one?” are provided Looney Tunes’ man of a thousand voices Mel Blanc ). One evening the Bottomleys view a few minutes of a game show on a TV in a store’s window display. It’s ‘Masquerade for Money’ sponsored by My Lady Soap ( the soap that sanctifies ) and hosted by Happy Hogan ( Hmmm wonder if Stan Lee saw this? That name was given to Tony Stark’s driver/bodyguard in his Iron Man comic book stories a decade alter ) played by Art Linkletter who would soon have a huge TV hit with his transplanted radio show People Are Funny. Beauregard dismisses it until the unemployment office sends him to the My Lady Soap headquarters for a job interview with the company president Burnbridge Waters by Vincent Price. Price had been making films for twelve years, but this film shows a zany, comic style not yet seen on screen. When Waters concentrates he goes into a trance and almost becomes a wax figure. He’s arrogant, pompous, and dismissive especially with his squad of yes men ( which include Ed Wood regular Lyle Talbot, who played Lex Luthor in the serial ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN and Commissioner Gordon in the serial BATMAN AND ROBIN, and John Hart who would replace Clayton Moore as TV’s Lone Ranger for one season). Leaving Waters’s office after losing out on the job and being insulted, Beauregard decides to go on the My Lady sponsored quiz show. There he easily answers the questions, but refuses the prize money. He wants to return on the next show and go double or nothing. Waters is delighted when this turns into a ratings ( and soap sales ) bonanza, but is horrified when his questions cannot stump Beauregard, who intends to keep earning money until he owns the company. A rattled Waters sends Hogan out to romance info from Gwenn and he hires intellectual femme fatale Flame – Neill played by Celeste Holm ( the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma had won a supporting Oscar for GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT three years ago and was about to be seen in ALL ABOUT EVE ) to distract Bottomley. I don’t wish to reveal much more or spoil the film’s great humor and surprises. The main reason to see is the delightful performance of Mr. Price. His droll wit would come through in his later work, but here he’s a whirling dervish of mirth-an inspired comic villain. A few years later Price and Colman would spar again in Irwin Allen’s campy THE STORY OF MANKIND, but here in CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR the laughs are intentional., and very, very plentiful.
4. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)
The famous AIP Corman-Poe series of films concluded with a great one-two punch: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, both released in 1964. Corman had wanted to do RED DEATH immediately after the success of the first film in the series, HOUSE OF USHER. However, he had second thoughts when he realized the similarities between the story elements for RED DEATH and Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL, which had just been released a few years earlier. Since he did not want to appear to be copying Bergman, he decided to delay the project. This was a fortuitous choice, as THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH benefited from the wait by acquiring a larger budget, location shooting in England, and Corman’s experience on the previous Poe pictures. Drawing not only on Bergman, but also on the work of Hitchcock and German expressionist films, Corman created one of his greatest cinematic works of art. Working with the outstanding cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (later a unique & talented director in his own right), Corman used subdued primary colors (blue, yellow, white) to create a nightmarish quality that permeates the film. The color red does not appear until later, which makes its use all the more shocking. The sets (allegedly left over from bigger productions like BECKET and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) are amazing, and enhance the atmosphere even further. Shooting in England also allowed Corman to draw on the talented pool of actors there, such as Jane Asher, Patrick Magee, and Hazel Court. The real star of RED DEATH is, of course, Vincent Price, portraying the personification of evil, Prospero. Aside from the grand and sometimes witty dialogue, Price imbues Prospero with subtle shades of character. We can sometimes glimpse the depths of depravity lurking just underneath the urbane princely exterior, or the nearly hidden stirrings of conscience that he constantly subjugates to the power and corruption of his devil-worshipping personality. Of all the Corman-Poe films, RED DEATH was not Price’s favorite (he liked LIGEIA more), because he felt the story strayed too far from the original Poe material (even though it also contained elements from Poe’s Hop Frog). But in terms of sheer cinematic perfection, with its tone of impending dread, use of color, great performances, and visual style, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH remains Corman’s masterpiece.
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film in a spectacular 35mm print at 8pm on Sunday, May 22nd at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. This will include an introduction by Roger Corman, a clip reel of career highlights, a Lifetime Achievement Award presentation to Mr. Corman, and a post-film interview with the director about his storied career conducted by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog. Ticket information can be found HERE
3. THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)
The final entry in Roger Corman & Vincent Price’s six-film cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was never a favorite to kids because of its lack of overt horror elements and its focus on gothic romance. The years have been very good to LIGEIA, now considered to be the most ambitious and mature film in the series and Price himself is on record as saying it was the best of his eight Corman collaborations. Price played British aristocrat Verden Fell, who believes his wife Ligeia, who’d committed suicide, will return from the grave and that her spirit has entered a cat. He meets Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd), her spitting image, and the two marry, opening the doorway for Ligeia’s revenge. Corman and crew returned to England after filming the previous entry, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH there, filming LIGEIA at the crumbling Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk, and the film benefits from the lack of stagy, claustrophobic studio sets that marked the rest of the series. In fact, the first twenty minutes takes place in the bright outdoors and that Fell has a medical aversion to sunlight seems appropriate, almost like they were cleverly building on what had gone on in the previous films. Elizabeth Shepherd was a beautiful and talented actress who had been hired to replace Honor Blackman on “The Avengers” TV series as the first Emma Peel but was fired and replaced with Diana Rigg before audiences were able to see her in action. Her Rowena is more fleshed out than any female character in the Price/Corman/Poe series. Unlike the morose, downcast women of the earlier films, Ms Shepherd wears a smile throughout much of the proceedings that grows more sinister as the story progresses, though her character isn’t immune from the same fate as most Poe women. It’s mostly a two-person drama and Ms Shepherd holds her own against Price, who’s at his most anguished. Screenwriter Robert Towne, who would go on to win an Oscar nine years later for CHINATOWN, provided a genuine, if suggestive, ghost story with a sense of realism missing from the earlier Poe films. Corman employed Arthur Grant, longtime director of photography for many Hammer horror films, including THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and Grant utilizes the English countryside in ways he did not for Hammer.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film in a spectacular 35mm print at 8pm on Saturday, May 21st at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. With an introduction by Roger Corman and a post-film interview with the director about his collaborations with Price, conducted by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog. Ticket information can be found HERE
2. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
It’s likely that Vincent Price never delivered a better performance than the one he gave in WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), the fact-based story of infamous witchhunter Matthew Hopkins and the barbaric acts he practiced in mid-17th century England. Price completely jettisoned his usual campy theatrics in favor of an appropriately low-key, sinister, and menacing depiction of a purely evil man who hides behind a mask of religious allegiance. Price plays Hopkins as an unmerciful fiend with a genteel manner and an appetite for torture, especially burning. The movie is cruel in its violence but also intelligent and effective and Price is relatively restrained in a complex role as a man who whose mission is to achieve confessions and take the lives of those marked as Satan’s helpers. Price regarded his performance here as the finest of his horror movie career. Director Michael Reeves and Price famously battled on set over the actor’s approach to playing Hopkins, and Price eventually agreed that Reeves was a genius and his insistence that Price subdue his performance was the right one. Reeves was just 25 when he directed WITCHFINDER GENERAL, his fourth film, but was no stranger to working with major horror stars. He previously had helmed CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) with Christopher Lee, THE SHE-BEAST (1966) with Barbara Steele, and THE SORCERERS (1967) with Boris Karloff. Price and Reeves were scheduled to re-team the following year for THE OBLONG BOX but Reeves was found dead of a barbiturate overdose in February of 1969 (some sources claim it was suicide). WITCHFINDER GENERAL is an extremely sadistic movie, but its details are based on fact. The Civil War in 17th century Britain was horrific and left people hungry and desperate. Accusing a neighbor of witchcraft had the instant benefit of claiming the property they left behind. Locals were eager to help Hopkins, even when he asks that the daughters of the men he imprisoned be brought to his bedchamber. The real-life Hopkins lived a long life and died of natural causes but the film gives him a bloody death, even though it’s unsatisfying to its young hero (played by Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy) who ends the film with the haunted refrain “You took him from me!”. When American International released this film in the U.S. in 1968 they changed the title to CONQUEROR WORM and tried to pass it off as one from their Edgar Allen Poe series by adding a few lines from the author’s abstract poem of that title. WITCHFINDER GENERAL is not only one of Vincent Price’s very best films but the black-hearted Mathew Hopkins is one of cinema’s most frightening villains.
1. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1962)
Not much of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story which shares its title is on screen besides the eponymous torture device, but thanks to a deft screenplay by Richard Matheson, a pitch-perfect performance by Vincent Price, sure handed direction by Roger Corman, and the inspired casting of Barbara Steele, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is an epic helping of gothic grand guignol that deserves its place on the top of this list. Vincent Price’s Don Medina is a much more lively than his Roderick Usher form the previous year. Price was often accused of overacting, but his frantic scenery-chewing was the correct style for this material. The casting of the otherworldly Barbara Steele shows that American International was properly impressed with her horror debut in the previous year’s BLACK SUNDAY (as they should have been), the Italian film they distributed and this was her stateside debut. Steele is something to behold in THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, slinking and smirking like a deranged cat around the torture chamber, driving Price and the audience to delirium. Steele wasn’t long for Hollywood though. She fled the set of an Elvis film the next year and returned to Europe where she starred in a string of unparalleled gothic horrors. Corman’s camera stays in time to the berserk performances of his two horror stars, as he experiments with odd lens techniques and hallucinatory framing and you’d never guess that THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was shot on for only $200,000 as it is consistently dazzling to look at with spooky color camerawork by Floyd Crosby and imposing art design by Daniel Haller. Stock footage of the climactic torture sequence would later find its way into the 1966 spy spoof DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE, which also starred Vincent Price as well as GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (also 1966). THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a fantastic and fascinating viewing experience that just keeps getting better with age.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM will play at the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival at 5:00pm on Saturday, May 21st at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. Ticket information can be found HERE