Tuesday, October 25, 2011


It is a rare thing when one has a personal tie to a celebrity. And generally it is not a very strong tie. For instance, I am very distantly related to Lucille Ball. I can also say that I live an hour away from the hometowns of Steve McQueen, Walt Disney, Samuel Clemens, and Cliff Edwards. Among the celebrities to whom I can claim a personal tie is the great Vincent Price. Sadly, Mr. Price died on this date in 1993.

As to my personal tie to Vincent Price, I must point out that not only was he born in St. Louis (the only true metropolis Missouri can boast), but he also put in a yearly appearance at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville for years and even taught workshops on acting and art history there. I have known and met many people who had the opportunity to meet Mr. Price. In fact, except for Dawn Wells of Gilligan's Island (who went to Stephen's College in Columbia, Missouri), I think he may have been the actor who maintained the closest ties to the northeastern and central regions of Missouri. While I never met Vincent Price, then, I feel the same sort of bond I also feel with Steve McQueen and Walt Disney, a bond of having walked the same streets and in some cases even encountering some of the same people.

In some ways it is fitting that I have a personal tie, no matter how tenuous it is, with Mr. Price, as he has always been one of my favourite actors of all time.  While he is best known for his horror movies, it must be pointed out that Vincent Price had an extensive career that included many different genres of film. In fact, from the late Thirties into the Forties, if Vincent Price was known for any genre, it was perhaps costume dramas and period pieces. He appeared in such films as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1938), Hudson's Bay (1941), Dragonwyck (1944), and The Three Musketers.  He also appeared in Otto Preminger's classic Laura (1944), the adventure film Green Hell (1940), the film noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the Western The Baron of Arizona (1950).  By 1948 Vincent Price had appeared in only four horror movies, and one of those was a comedy: Tower of London (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Of course, Vincent Price is best known for his horror movies. After many years in the film industry, Vincent Price appeared in House of Wax (1953), a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).  House of Wax proved to be a huge success and as a result it would begin Vincent Price's identification with the horror genre. As the Fifties progressed Mr. Price appeared in more and more horror movies: The Mad Magician (1954), The Fly (1958), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959),  The Return of the Fly (1959), The Bat (1959), and The House of Usher (1960).

House of Wax would also set the course of Mr. Price's career in other ways as well. The plot of House of Wax centred on wax figure sculptor Henry Jarrod who, after being badly burned in a fire set by an arsonist, sets out taking a very grisly form of revenge. Unlike such notable horror actors as Bela Lugsoi, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee, Vincent Price never played monsters. Unlike notable horror actor Peter Cushing, Vincent Price generally did not play monsters hunters such as Van Helsing or villainous mad scientists such as Dr. Frankenstein. Instead, more often than not Mr. Price played tragic figures, individuals who through circumstances or through the ill intent of others had been driven beyond the brink of sanity. In The Raven (1963) Mr. Price played Dr. Craven, a sorcerer mourning the death of his wife. In The Last Man on Earth (1964) he played Dr. Robert Morgan, the loan survivor in a world filled with humans transformed into vampiric creatures by a plague (it was the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend). In The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) Vincent Price plays Anton Phibes, whose wife died on the surgical table following an accident and who decides to take revenge on the medical team who worked on her. In Theatre of Blood he played Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who wreaks vengeance on the critics he feels have ruined his career.

While Vincent Price would play characters who more clear cut heroes (The Tingler) or villains (Witchfinder General), it would be the more tragic, more complicated characters in his horror movies for which he would be best known. These were characters who were neither purely evil nor purely good, characters who had often faced great tragedy and hand not come out unscathed. This made Mr. Price's characters among the most sympathetic characters in horror films. Indeed, even the characters played by Peter Cushing do not elicit sympathy in the way that many of Vincent Price's characters do. All of us have lost people we have loved, all of us have faced injustice at one time or another. And while most of us do not go mad, let alone seek revenge on those who have wronged us, we can still sympathise and even identify with Vincent Price's characters in a way that we may not sympathise or identify with characters played by other horror actors.

The simple fact is that Vincent Price endowed his characters with a sort of humanity rarely seen in films of any genre. Many of his characters may have been mad, but we could often understand why they were so. It is for this reason that I number Vincent Price among my favourite actors of all time. Between feeling a tie to Vincent Price through the state in which we were born and admiring his craft as an actor, 25 October 2011 would be a very sad day. Indeed, given how much Vincent Price and horror movies are identified with Halloween, that Halloween was a very depressing one for me. I had lost an actor with whom could claim at least a tenous tie and the world had lost a great talent.

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