Beyond his more famous Poe and Roger Corman collaborations, Vincent Price made numerous horror pictures filled with mayhem and macabre. Here are ten essentials from Price’s scary oeuvre showcasing his tongue in cheek terrors and thespian menace.
10. The Fly
“Help me! Help me!” Although modern audiences may find this 1958 science fiction horror film tame or hokey compared to David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake; the colorful mid-century décor and high tech, mad scientist hysterics compliment the French angles and buzzing score. Vincent Price and his sister-in-law Patricia Owens (Seven Women from Hell) debate science versus religion, the sacredness of life over human intelligence, and the horrors of meddling with it all. Early teleportation attempts and talk of transporting food to solve the planet’s problems remain provocative amid surprisingly decent if primitive special effects. Catching a little fly makes for some interesting suspense as the distorted bug views build toward an intense insect reveal and wonderful, albeit tiny, shockers.
9. House on Haunted Hill
Scene chewing Price’s bored millionaire Frederick Loren throws a party for his young wife Carol Omhart (Spider Baby) in this 1959 scary directed by William Castle (The Tingler). Five desperate, financially challenged, average Joes complete Loren’s guest list, and they will all be locked in for the night at his allegedly haunted Frank Lloyd Wright estate in hopes of surviving until morning and walking away with $10,000. Most of the cast are relative unknowns today, the special effects are obvious, the premise now old hat, and the colorized versions vary in success. Fortunately, Price thoroughly enjoys the cheeky interplay, acid vats, and poison possibilities. There are some fun jump scares, skeletons, revolvers, and mini coffin party favors to accent this short seventy-five minutes. Although firmly steeped in a fifties safety that doesn’t quite hold up, the greed is timeless. What would you do for $10,000?
8. House of Wax
Obsessive sculptor Price seeks revenge for his burned down wax museum in this 1953 3-D Technicolor remake of The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Now deformed and maimed, he demands his new titular spectacle will be a success – thanks to a little help from the dead. Certainly, there are now several unnecessary scenes designed specifically for the 3-D craze with ping pong balls and can can girls stalling the mayhem. However, the vibrant carnival mood and turn of the century atmosphere provide decrepit wax delights and murderous scandals in an interesting mix of Victorian looks and fifties production values. Finely dressed, shrill, fainting debutante Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family) leads to screams and high-end scares – a twisted, death mask beauty. Of course, Big VP hones his campy, over the top horror mastery, and viewers root for his slick talking, multifaceted artist. We believe his masterfully diabolical plan to serve his enemies their comeuppance with guillotines and molten perils even as the wigs come off and the police storm the waxworks.
7. The Last Man on Earth
Unlike the broader action of Will Smith’s I am Legend or the seventies wilds of Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man, a wonderfully subtle and largely solitary performance from Vincent Price anchors this 1964 debut adaption of the Richard Matheson novel. The voiceovers and somewhat comical undead might be tough for contemporary audiences, and Matheson himself was apparently, surprisingly displeased with the results here. Fortunately, the melancholy focus and slowly degenerating delivery invokes post-apocalyptic depression and isolation. Flashbacks detailing the genesis of the vampire-like pestilence and the subsequent familial collapse visually break up the despair before burning bodies, ill fated dogs, vaccines, and church standoffs. Though at times dated, the intimate ruminations, needs for companionship, and personal versus society questions remain thought provoking examinations on the arrogance of man and humanity’s shortsightedness.
6. Witchfinder General
This 1968 does 1645 British release was mismarketed as The Conqueror Worm stateside, but the original narration provides the Cromwell history and Matthew Hopkins carte blanche to exterminate witchcraft. Freshly built gallows, executions, and screams disrupt the authentic locales and rustic scenery in a no frills, brutal opening. Dramatic crescendos, tunics, and Roundhead armor invoke period bleak amid Royalist skirmishes, bawdy soldiers, and horse chases. Magistrates capitalizing on the changing political landscape look the other way on rampant injustice and religious persecutions thanks to superstition, dungeons, whips, and torture. Unfortunately, it’s the innocent, young romantics who suffer the violence and assaults at the hands of neighbors seeking to expel any sign of Satan. Price’s Hopkins is menacing and unswayed, forcing confessions and faking evidence in his so-called noble interrogations. He insists on being called by his self proclaimed rank but protests that he enjoys this torture for silver business the way his vile henchman does. Young ladies, however, can plead for Hopkins’ favor in private – not that it saves those charged with witchcraft. This is an English Civil War piece about horrific things rather than a horror movie meant to scare the audience, and Hopkins’ torment escalates with devil’s mark pin pricks, hot irons, and axes all in the name of God’s work while townsfolk either cross themselves or spit at the accused. Although some may find this slow or tame today, the mass hysteria, prayers, and consequences remain most timely and provocative considering there is never a single witch in the film.
5. The Oblong Box
Deformed Alister Williamson (The Gorgon) is locked in the attic by his brother Vincent Price upon their return from the family’s African plantation in this 1969 parable. In his attempt to escape, however, Edward is accidentally buried alive before being rescued by grave robbing doctor Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula). The mysterious, masked Edward is charming, romancing the pretties while he plots his revenge. Unfortunately, the murderous blackmail escalates with rapacious violence and extreme justice. He’s been wronged and misunderstood, but how far will he go? Although it would have been intriguing to see Price play both brothers and he is top billed, his over the top, weary, and conflicted noble doesn’t have as much screen time as expected. The loosely based Poe inspirations aren’t as strong as they could be thanks to stereotypical Blaxploitation, Voodoo montages, and Colonial Africa mistreatment. Fortunately, the 1969 does 1865 mod meets Victorian works amid up close, can’t look away claustrophobic killer point of view and askew zooms. Despite a somewhat thin story execution, the charming cast and masked mystery provide classic scares.
Peter Cushing (Curse of Frankenstein) coaxes the aging star of his Dr. Death movies, Vincent Price, out of semi-retirement for a new television show in this 1974 meta mixing old set photos and previous film footage with new copycat crimes. Cast and crew are dying amid killer viewpoints, seventies zooms, and extreme angles reflecting the distorted actuality and askew stability. Play within a play illusions and horror show within a horror film lines blur with questions on whether Price’s unstable actor Toombes is the victim or if the character Dr. Death is the killer. Although plot holes and audience confusion are apparent, the demented debates don’t take the winks seriously. Superb support, vampire costumes, celebrity parties, and simple smoke and mirrors death scenes make creative use of the set within set themes as sound effects and screams from the incorporated reels accent the fade-ins and film splicing. Price toys with the classy, sympathetic, degrading sanity in honest homage while tongue is planted firmly in cheek for the self-reverent parody. We feel for this terrorized former star, yet the Dr. Death persona is no less sinister in quality as dual imagery and creepy soliloquies invoke a haunting portrayal.
2. The Abominable Dr. Phibes and 3. Dr. Phibes Rises Again!
Vincent Price takes Biblical revenge in this 1971 cult classic brimming with bizarre visuals, weird music, and mod psychedelic meets Deco design. Stereotypical bumbling British inspectors and extended silent scenes will bother some, but beautiful, angelic, deadly assistant Virginia North (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is as delightfully disturbing as the crafty vengeance. The script unfolds layer by layer, and it takes a half hour for Price to “speak.” His wild eyes match the obsessive planning and methodically orchestrated kills toeing the line between mad man and genius. The intelligent, witty, and totally campy performances rise toward a fun, memorable conclusion befitting a film that’s quite unlike any other. A silly recap of the first film opens the 1972 sequel, and the over the top crescendos and expected eccentricities continue three years later. Although the demented humor and far-fetched resurrection plots aren’t as colorful or flashy as our predecessor, the old school abstract and anachronistic seventies flair makes for some freaky deaths. Distorted editing accents the suspense, archaeology adventure, Egyptian elixirs, and demented love story as Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire!) match wits with Price’s undeniable twistedness.
1. Theatre of Blood
Believed dead after his suicide attempt, Price’s Edward Lionheart takes Shakespearean revenge on the critics who denied him due acclaim in this multifaceted 1973 vendetta. The vintage London locations look worn and the depressed dressings feel cheap amid confusing background characters, dry melodrama, obvious foreboding, and flashback frames. The deadly stage politics and mixed motivations are uneven, taking too long to get to the hysterical Othello and exceptional Titus twists. Fortunately, the play facades and well edited suspense build to farcical delight with ironic classic music and silent film motifs. Ingenious Diana Rigg (The Avengers) is up to the challenge as Lionheart’s daughter Edwina, and it’s fun to guess who’s going to die next and in what Bard fashion. The intentionally exaggerated theatrics increase masterfully with aplomb and panache as our former star disconnects from reality in graceful, nuanced yet sociopathic and demented soliloquies. We shouldn’t doubt Price could do high drama, and his intense performance is laced with impressive wit, sadness, and class even as he’s clearly having fun with the disguises gone awry. We enjoy seeing the pompous critics get their predictable comeuppance in these uninhibited seventies does Shakespeare deaths thanks to the sinful humor and wild thespian mayhem.