It was 20 years ago today, on 25 October 1993, that the great Vincent Price died. He has always been my one of my favourite actors, and one whose impact on me was more immediate than many. Although he would travel far and wide in his career, he never forgot his home state of Missouri. He made annual, personal appearances at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville for over thirty years. He also taught workshops on both acting and art history there. In 1984 Mr. Price founded the Vincent Price Theatrical Performance scholarship at the university, awarded to those who have demonstrated talent in acting. I have known more than one person who had the honour to meet Vincent Price in person. What is more is all of them have the same thing to say about him. Quite simply, he was the consummate gentleman.
Of course, even if Vincent Price and I did not share the same state and even if he had not done so much for the state of Missouri, he would still be one of my favourite actors. Vincent Price is one of those actors whose name everyone recognises. He numbers among such legendary horror actors as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, and Sir Christopher Lee. Beyond being the only American among those celebrated actors, Vincent Price would be unique among them in other ways. Although each of them had careers before they entered the horror genre. Messrs. Karloff, Lugosi, Cushing, and Lee would not become truly famous until they began acting in the genre. This was not the case with Vincent Price.
Prior to his career changing role in House of Wax (1953) he may have been best known for dramas and period pieces. He appeared in such films as The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1938), Hudson's Bay (1941), Dragonwyck (1944), The Three Musketeers (1948), Otto Preminger's classic Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). While Vincent Price did make horror films before House of Wax, including Tower of London (1939), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The House of the Seven Gables (1940), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he was not particularly identified with the genre. And well before House of Wax Vincent Price was a recognisable name among cinema goers, if only as a character actor in period pieces and dramas.
Of course, following House of Wax Mr. Price would become best known for his work in the horror genre. Even then the work Mr. Price did in horror films would set him apart from Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Sir Christopher Lee. Indeed, in some respects he could be considered the American equivalent of Peter Cushing. Vincent Price did not play monsters. Instead his role generally fell into two categories. He was either the sometimes flawed protagonist who battles monsters (The Tingler, Last Man on Earth, The Oblong Box). Unlike Peter Cushing's Van Helsing, however, Vincent Price's characters were not professional monster hunters, but men who through circumstances beyond their control were forced to confront terrors: Dr. Warren Chapin in The Tingler coming face to face with the title creature, Dr. Robert Morgan fighting humans transformed into vampiric creatures by a plague (it was the first adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend), and so on.
The second type of character Vincent Price often played during his career as a horror actor (and perhaps the sort of characters for which he was most famous) were individuals who, through circumstances or even the ill intent of others found themselves driven to the brink of sanity (and often beyond it). It was a pattern set by House of Wax, the film that established Vincent Price as a horror star after fifteen years in the film business. In the film he played wax figure sculptor Prof. Henry Jarrod, who seeks revenge after his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) burns their wax museum to collect the insurance money, seriously disfiguring Prof. Jarrod in the process. It was the sort of role that Vincent Price would play several times in his career. In The Mad Magician he played the Gallico, who finds both his greatest trick and the woman he loves stolen by his greatest rival (the Great Rinaldi, played by John Emery). In The Abominable Dr. Phibes he played the title role, who seeks revenge on the physicians he holds responsible for the death of his wife on the operating table. In Theatre of Blood he plays Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor who seeks vengeance on the critics he believes had ruined his career.
Although Vincent Price's roles as heroes trapped in circumstances beyond their control in some ways seem very different from his roles as madmen bent on revenge, they have on thing in common: they were generally complicated characters whose lives had been touched by tragedy. In most cases they were men who had suffered severe losses or experienced an extreme miscarriage of justice. Even when he was playing madmen bent on revenge, Vincent Price's characters were never purely good nor evil. Instead they were men who had seen their lives destroyed and came through the experience changed, sometimes for the better and often for worse. This made Vincent Price's characters more human and, even when he was playing madmen, more sympathetic than those often played by the other great horror actors. While we may not condone the actions of Prof. Jarrod or Dr. Phibes, we can at least understand them to a degree. After all, we have all suffered losses in our lives or many of us have felt we have been treated unjustly at some time or another. Even when do not approve of the actions of Vincent Price's actions, we can at least feel sympathy for the tragedies they have endured.
While Vincent Price had a career extending well beyond the horror genre, appearing in films from A Royal Scandal (1945) to The Ten Commandments (1956), it the characters in his horror films for which he remains best remembered. Whether playing unwilling heroes or revenge crazed madmen, Vincent Price's characters were often more human and often more complicated than those seen in other horror films. It is perhaps because of this that Vincent Price is still counted among the greatest horror actors of all time.