Vincent Price, That Horror Maestro!
By Kristin Battestella
Who doesn’t love Vincent Price, honestly? Here’s a quick list to begin your infatuation.
The Fly – VP supports his brother David Hedison (Live and Let Die) and sister in law Patricia Owens (Seven Women from Hell) as the subdued straight man to the sweet, 1958 colorful, high tech, mad scientist lab hysterics here. Though the French angles are limited to a few names and words; other fine touches like buzzing in the scoring, mid century décor, and debates over science versus religion, the sacredness of life over human intelligence, and the horrors of meddling with it all keep this version fresh. Early talk of teleportation and transporting food ideas and how they could solve world’s problems still say a lot, along with the fun and dang decent-if loud- special effects. I never knew there was so much suspense in catching a little fly! Even if modern audiences may find this film tame or hokey now in comparison to Croneberg’s remake or other contemporary science fiction horror, there’s a great build up of hidden what you don’t see to the insect reveal- and the fly work still looks good. Distorted bugview camerawork and tiny shockers just do wonders: ‘Help me! Help me!’
House on Haunted Hill – Master of horror Vincent Price stars as Frederick Loren- a bored millionaire throwing a party for his young, jealous, and greedy wife Annabelle (Carol Omhart)- complete with a haunted house, plenty of scotch, and revolvers in mini coffins as favors. Five financially challenged guests must spend the night locked in the haunted house, and those who survive until morning will walk away with $10,000. While that’s hardly a lot of money today, and other aspects of the film have not stood the test of time, Vincent Price is near perfection. The husky voiced veteran proves his worth here. The multifaceted actor chews up Loren and thoroughly enjoys the cheeky interplay and reminiscing about poison. With a cast of other now relative unknowns, director William Castle succeeds in reaching his audience. These guests are indeed regular, desperate people who need to endure this house for money – average Joes like you and me. Although it is firmly placed in its fifties mentality, Castle and writer Robb White touch a greedy, timeless concept – what would you do for $10,000?
The Tingler – Director William Castle bemusingly warns the audience of his latest theatrics of the day to open this 1959 parasite horror funfest and assures us it is okay to scream! Yes, the attempt at sexy film noir stylings for Patricia Cutts (I Was a Male War Bride) is hokey, but Judith Evelyn’s (Giant) mute and silent scares do wonders along with great uses of color- yes color- in a black and white film. The blurred lines between the onscreen silent movie house and the then theater experience are also kitschy good, with Big V almost playing a film within a film event when the screen goes black. In fact, with the right set up and approach, this tactic could still work in the cinema today- and be far better than all the headache inducing 3D. Price, of course, is just a little too nonchalant about doing an autopsy isn’t he? It’s so creepy the way he investigates fear from the mind and shock on the body as if it were no big deal to experiment at the expense of others. Certainly, the idea of a tingly worm on our spines festering on our fears is totally preposterous- but Price sells it and the camp of it all wonderfully. Really, when a film uses LSD as part of the plot, we can’t be expected to take the science too seriously.
The Comedy of Terrors – This 1964 blend of humor and creepy reunites Big V with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre (The Raven) and Basil Rathbone and Joyce Jameson (Tales of Terror) – and oh, can Price feign that sympathy as a stressed and struggling undertaker! Lorre is wonderful as OMP’s little assistant Gillie- the pair is almost vaudeville in their interrupted wrong doings and ironic conversations. It’s great to see everyone- usually so serious and refined- having a good time. Yes, it’s campy and over the top- but the cast makes the humor amid the horror acceptable. We like to see them poke fun at themselves- Lorre bothering to open a cut out door to make his exit or Rathbone’s crazy and wonderfully windblown quoting of Macbeth amid his mistaken bouts of catalepsy! Writer Richard Matheson (Legend of Hell House) keeps the wit on form for the performances, and the smartly timed funerary gags and physical comedy work perfectly with director Jacques Tourneur’s (Cat People) use of high speed film, distorted organ music, and Jameson’s fun off key opera. There’s a sense of Victorian carnival and flair amid the darker tone and open, stage-like atmosphere. Obviously, this set up is not meant to be super scary and some audiences may not like the toe toward slapstick, but there are some juicy and fearful pursuits in the final act. All the spooky of similar films is here along with some self-awareness and solid entertainment. Karloff’s clueless old man is worth the price (hee, no pun intended!) of admission alone.
The Last Man on Earth – A wonderfully subtle and largely solitary performance by Vincent Price anchors this 1964 debut adaption of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The voiceovers and somewhat comical undead might be tough for some, but the focus on melancholy and slowly degenerating delivery works with the post-apocalyptic depression and isolation. Of course, the plot isn’t all silent and alone- flashbacks detailing the genesis of the vampire-like pestilence and the subsequent collapse of family break up the despair nicely. Unlike the bigger scope and action of Will Smith’s recent I am Legend or the seventies garish of Charlton Heston’s Omega Man– both good in their own right- the time here is better spent on the intimate and personal in examination of self and society. The simplest need for companionship, the arrogance of man, humanity’s stupid short sightedness- really, I don’t know why Matheson was displeased with the final result here.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes – Vincent Price venges on with Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt) in this 1971 cult classic of bizarre visuals, weird music, and mod yet deco design. Perhaps not everyone will like the pseudo psychedelic and dialogue-less 10 minute opening, but the Biblically inspired revenge is oh so sweet and dare I say it dang crafty! Bumbling Brit Inspector Peter Jeffrey (Anne of A Thousand Days) is a little stereotypical and I’m not sure about Cotton’s accent, but Price himself doesn’t even speak until a half hour into the movie-sort of. His silent and obsessive plan, wild looking eyes, and methodically orchestrated kills perfectly exemplify that faint line between mad man and genius. Beautiful and angelic but deadly Virginia North (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is also delightfully disturbing as Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia. The intelligent-if witty and campy- performances and script unfold layer by layer for a fun and memorable conclusion to a film quite unlike any other. Take in the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again for more.