A Vincent Price six pack has made its way to Blu-Ray. The set features some of the actor’s most iconic roles, along with at least one surprise inclusion. It is by no means a complete collection, as it concentrates primarily on the late actor’s work with Roger Corman and AIP (since most of these movies were adapted from works by Edgar Allan Poe they are known as the “Poe cycle”). Even by that criteria, the collection is a mere introduction.
Price cemented his status as horror icon in Andre De Toth’s House of Wax (1953), despite the fact that that this 3D box office hit is a flat and unimaginative remake of Michael Curtiz’ vastly superior Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In a way, this parallels Price himself. Although he has been beatified by genre aficionados, and despite doing occasionally fine acting work, Price’ carefully crafted screen persona seems more derivative than innovative. That persona lacks the authenticity of a Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Dwight Frye. The passage of time makes that even more apparent. Still, the veteran actor could often supply a luster to pedestrian productions, without necessarily redeeming them.
Fortunately, this Blu Ray collection, although somewhat haphazard in concept and packaging, is a marketable compilation in a “Vincent Price’s Greatest Hits Volume One” style. Like most such compilations, the choices deemed “greatest” are not without debate.
With The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) Roger Corman convinced AIP to give him an increased budget of $270,000 (which included color film) along with an extended shooting schedule ( a whole 15 days). Convincing the producers was no simple feat, as the film, with a literary source, lacked a identifiable “monster.” Somehow, Corman won Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson over when he pitched the house itself as the supernatural antagonist. While the film is not a masterpiece, Corman’s enthusiasm, matched by Price, the surreal cinematography by Floyd Crosby (High Noon), Lex Baxter’s score, and screenplay by cult genre favorite Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man), makes it possibly the best of the Corman Poe cycle. This assessment is shared by most critics and by Price himself (although, reportedly, the actor’s personal favorite of his own films was MGM’s 1973 black comedy Theater of Blood).
Price’s aristocratic bearing and pronounced theatricality makes the effete, sensitive, and cowardly Roderick Usher utterly convincing. There is more than a hint of an incestuous relationship between Roderick and his sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), leading to masochistic decay and fiery finale. Almost singlehandedly, Price carries the film in the acting department, with his co-stars going the distance in convincing us that protagonist family is indeed a bland lot. Remarkably, the film was a box office success. This, along with critical accolades, paved the path for seven additional Poe-inspired films.
With Barbara Steele looking to become the “female Karloff” after Mario Bava’s hit Black Sunday (1960), the Price/Steele pairing in The Pit and Pendulum (1961) should have been a star teaming worthy of the Karloff/Lugosi collaborations of the 1930s. Unfortunately, Steele is wasted (and worse, dubbed) as the doomed (and believed dead) unfaithful wife-in-waiting. The team of Corman, Price, Matheson, Crosby, and Baxter return for this disappointing second entry. Pendulum is an eclectic low budget genre soaper, sloppily utilizing elements from numerous Poe stories. Steele isn’t the only wasted talent. Reliable character actors Luana Anders and John Kerr, poorly directed, come off as surprisingly stiff and mechanical. At the polar opposite is Price at his hammy worst. His performance here is a cringe-inducing caricature. Crosby’s atmospheric lens work, Baxter’s throbbing score, a predictable but still effective finale, and, briefly, Steele as a smoothly ornamented, darkly mysterious Tahitian pearl (barely) save Pendulum from being a total disaster.
If Pit and the Pendulum is the most overrated of the Poe cycle, then The Haunted Palace (1963) is possibly the most underrated. However, to call it a Poe-inspired film is a stretch. Actually, the film’s inspiration was “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” by H.P. Lovecraft. The producers’ insistence on tying the project to the tried and true Poe moniker so incensed Corman that he intentionally had Poe’s name misspelled in the credits. The only actual connection to Poe is the title, supplied by a line from a poem.
The Haunted Palace is a pleasantly surprising entry here, since this subdued film is rarely mentioned in Corman/Price surveys. The adapted script, by “Twilight Zone” writer Charles Beaumont and an uncredited Francis Ford Coppola, is unfortunately conventional. However, Crosby’s highly distinguished camerawork, good character work by Lon Chaney, Jr. and Elisha Cook, Jr, alongside superb performances by Debra Paget and Price add up to more than the sum of its parts. Price gives a good performance-and-a-half in the dual warlock role, even with script and makeup limitations. The Haunted Palace is a flawed sleeper with an aptly brooding score from Ronald Stein.
Along with 1964’s The Tomb of Ligia (not included in this set), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) may be the most critically celebrated of the Corman/Price collaborations (although the former is overrated). Nicolas Roeg‘s exquisite camerawork reinforces the view that it is the visuals of Corman’s Poe films that we remember most. This is also the most decadently sensual of the cycle. With a $200,000 budget and an unheard of (for Corman and company) five week shooting schedule, Masque is the most lavish (and faithful) of the Poe adaptations. Hammer regular Hazel Court fulfills the promise of being sadistically buxom, and the slimy career trajectory of Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) remains delightfully intact. Price’s dark lord Prospero battling Jane Asher’s virtuous Francesca are the eyes in Poe’s opulent and malevolent tempest. Again, Charles Beaumont adapted the screenplay, and Daniel Haller’s production design would never be bettered.
Witchfinder General AKA The Conqueror Worm (1968) was Michael Reeves‘ masterpiece and final film. Although the (alternate) title was taken from the Poe poem, the script (by Reeves and Tom Baker) is an adaptation of Ronald Bassett’s novel about a historical puritan zealot. Price’s stark performance is a perfect match for the film’s tone of unrelenting brutality. For once, Price is required to give an authentic performance, free of the usual histrionic tricks he learned in the genre trade. As good as Ian Ogily, Hilary Heath, and Price are in their respective roles, the movie’s primary flaw might be in the casting of the lead. Reeves’ originally envisioned Donald Pleasance for the role of Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, and the character was not to be as a self-assured sadist. Rather, Reeves imagined Hopkins as the insecure son of a Puritanical Protestant minister, driven to the banality of evil, which takes form in the exposure of “Catholic witches.” The final shot of the victimized Heath seems, in retrospect, a summary of the Charles Manson era; it leaves an unshakable taste of raw dread in its wake and remains dishearteningly contemporary in its visceral bleakness.
At the opposite end of a stylized spectrum is Robert Fuest‘s stylish, art deco The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Price’s hamminess is perfectly synchronized to this archetypical opus of the 1970s. Further coverage of this film can be found elsewhere on this site.
The extras in this box set include actor Ogilvy’s priceless commentary on his childhood friend Reeves, David Del Valle’s’ interview with Price, commentaries by Fuest and Corman, an interview with Price’s daughter, an extensive essay by Del Valle, along with beautiful restoration work. Overall, this Shout! Factory release is indispensable for genre fans in general, as well as fans of this actor, Corman, Reeves, et al.