Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vincent Price

One doesn't often think of Missouri when one thinks of the great actors of the horror genre. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing all hailed from England. Bela Lugosi came from Hungary. But Missouri can boast the one, truly great American horror actor. You see, Vincent Price was born in St. Louis on May 27, 1911.

Vincent Price was born into wealth. His grandfather, Vincent Clarence Price, had invented Dr. Price's Baking Powder, the world's first cream of tartar baking powder. His father, Vincent Leonard Price, founded the National Candy Company, Vincent Leonard Price Jr. was then born into wealth. He attended the St.Country Day School (a private school) and later attended Yale and the University of London. He became interested in drama in the early Thirties. By 1935 he made his first appearance on Broadway in Victoria Regina. While Price would continue to act on the stage, it would be his film career for which he would become known.

That having been said, Vincent Price did not start out as a horror actor. He made his film debut in the movie Service de Luxe in 1938. His early movie career consisted of a variety of roles, from Sir Walter Raleigh in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex to Joseph Smith in Brigham Young. The first horror movie he appeared in was Universal's The Invisible Man Returns in 1940. Despite this, it would be some time before he would become best known as a horror actor. Throughout the Forties he appeared in such films as Laura, Dragonwyck, The Web, and The Three Musketeers. Beyond The Invisible Man Returns, about the only work in the horror genre he did was uncredited voice work as the Invisible Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It was with House of Wax in 1953 that Price made his first appearance in a horror movie in years. The film was a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933. It was also the first film from a major studio to be shot in 3-D. The film proved to be a success, and Vincent Price would not stay away from the horror genre for long. In 1954 he appeared in The Mad Magician, a movie which is as much a horror film as it is a thriller. If there was movie which cinched Price's career as a horror actor, it was The Fly. Released in 1958, The Fly would become one of the few truly iconic horror movies. It was one of Twentieth Century Fox's biggest hits that year, grossing $3,000,000 in the United States alone. Here it should be pointed out that Price did not play the title role. It was David Hedison who would have the accident with the experimental teleportation device and thus become The Fly. But it was Vincent Price, as the unfortunate Ande Delambre's brother Francois, who arguably stole the show.

Following The Fly, Vincent Price regularly appeared in horror movies. In fact, 1959 would appear to have been the turning point in his career. That year alone he would make two notable appearances in films made by horror schlockmeister William Castle. The first would be one of his more famous horror movies, The House on Haunted Hill. In that film Price played the demented millionaire Frederick Loren, who offers five strangers a sum of $10,000 each if they can survive the night in a house which may be haunted. In Price's second film with William Castle, The Tingler, he played pathologist who discovers a parasite which feeds on the fear of its host (the tingler of a the title). In 1959 he also appeared in the disappointing sequel (at least in my opinion) to The Fly, Return of the Fly, and The Bat (a film about a crazed murderer of that name).

Although he continued to make other kinds of films, in the Sixties Vincent Price was first and foremost a horror movie actor. Much of this was due to Price's work with producer Roger Corman, appearing in his series of films based on Edgar Allan Poe. The first of these was House of Usher, released in 1960 and featuring Vincent Price in the title role as Roderick Usher. The film was essentially American International's response to the lavish horror movies being made by Hammer Films. It proved successful enough to spark a series of horror movies from American International based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and most of which featured Vincent Price. The second of these was Pit and the Pendulum, based on the short story of the same name. It would be followed by Tales of Terror, based on three stories by Poe. Released in 1962 was what may be the best known of Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, The Raven. The Raven was very loosely based on Poe's poem of the same name, and centred on a sorcerer who has been transformed into a raven who turns to another sorcerer for help. The film featured three of the biggest names in acting with regards to the horror genre--besides Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre also appeared in the movie. The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia would be the last of the Roger Corman movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe to appear, both being released in 1964. Of course, both featured Vincent Price.

During this time Price did not appear exclusively in horror movies based on the works of Poe. He also appeared in The Haunted Palace, another film from Roger Corman, based on H. P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (in fact, it was the first film adaptation of a Lovecraft work)." Price played Charles Dexter Ward, a man who falls victim to a long dead warlock. Price also appeared in Twice-Told Tales, based on the horror stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Comedy of Terrors, a horror comedy from Val Lewton alumnus Jacques Tourneur.

The mid to late Sixties saw the Gothic horror cycle began by Hammer Films come to an end. As a result Price mostly found himself guest starring on various TV series, ranging from Batman to Daniel Boone. This did not mean there were no horror films or that Vincent Price was absent from them. In fact, it was in 1968 that he appeared in one of his best horror movies--Witchfinder General. In that film Price appeared as Matthew Hopkins, the somewhat corrupt witchfinder general for Cromwell, based on the historical figure of the same name. Surprisingly, Price only received the role because United States distributor and co-financier American International wanted Price to play Hopkins. Director Michael Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasence in the part. In 1969 Price appeared in another movie based on the works on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, The Oblong Box. Unlike Price's earlier Poe films, The Oblong Box was not a product of Roger Corman. Instead, it was produced and directed by Gordon Hessler, director of such films as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Murders in the Rue Morgue. The Oblong Box is notable in teaming Vincent Price with another horror legend, Christopher Lee (famous for Hammer's Dracula films). Vincent Price would also appear in two more of Hessler's films, both in 1970: Scream and Scream Again and Cry of the Banshee.

By the Seventies, Vincent Price was a well established horror actor, as identified with the genre as Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff. He made several guest appearances on television during the decade, in shows ranging from The Snoop Sisters to The Love Boat. Among his most significant guest appearances in the decade were two on the horror anthology Night Gallery, one in which he played an insidious college professor ("The Class of '99") and another in which he played a sorcerer seeking to translate an ancient book ("Return of the Sorcerer"). Vincent Price would also lend his voice as the narrator of the Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail. Vincent Price also lent his voice to the opening narration to Alice Cooper's song "The Black Widow," from his album Welcome to My Nightmare. He also appeared in the television special, Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, based on the album, reprising his role as a museum curator who is overly fond of spiders belong to the genus Latrodectus.

In some respects, the Seventies may have been Price's best decade. While he did not work in film as often, he appeared in some of his most notable roles in the decade. Chief among these was the role of Dr. Anton Phibes, the scientist seeking to avenge his dead wife, in The Abominable Dr. Phibes released in 1971. The Abominable Dr. Phibes was another film from American International (although Roger Corman was gone from the company by now) and arguably one of the best horror movies they ever made. Price played Dr. Phibes, a somewhat sympathetic figure who blames the death of his wife on nine doctors. The film was starkly original, but at the same time evoked the atmosphere of American International's Edgar Allan Poe films and the classic Hammer Films. What is more, Price as Dr. Phibes was pitted against another great actor, Joseph Cotton, as Dr. Vesalius. The Abominable Dr. Phibes was followed by a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in 1972.

Vincent Price would appear alongside two legendary British actors, Diana Rigg and Ian Hendry, in another one of his classic Seventies films, Theatre of Blood. The film centres on a Shakespearean actor and his daughter who exact bloody revenge on the critics whom he believes ruined his career. Like The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it features some of the most inventive means of murder ever filmed (in this case, drawn from Shakespeare's plays). Price would also appear alongside Peter Cushing in the film Madhouse, playing a horror actor who suffers a nervous breakdown. Sadly, the film was a bit of a disappointment, especially given its stars.

Sadly, the mid-Seventies would see a shift away from the sort of Gothic horror movies for which Price was best known. To a degree Price's later career resembled his earlier career, as he increasingly appeared in movies of other genres. While this certainly was a good thing--Vincent Price was such a great actor that it is a shame he was limited to horror roles for many years--it was also sad in that it denied horror fans one of their favourite performers. From the late Seventies into the Nineties, Price appeared in such varied films as Percy's Progress, Scavenger Hunt, and The Whales of August.

Of course, being so well identified with the genre, Price was not absent from horror films or from films with horror overtones. In 1979 he appeared with legendary horror actor John Carradine in the comedy The Monster Club. Although it is not up to par in none of their classics, Vincent Price would appear alongside Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine in House of the Long Shadows, It is one of the few times that stars from the classic horror films of American International, Hammer Films, and Universal Pictures all appeared together. Price would also appear in the horror anthology The Offspring and the horror/action comedy Dead Heat. In his later career, however, his most notable roles would come courtesy of director Tim Burton. An unabashed fan of Price, Tim Burton created the classic, animated short Vincent as an homage to the actor. Vincent Price provided the narration for the film. He would also appear in the role of The Inventor, the man who creates Edward Scissorhands, in Burton's film Edward Scissorhands. It was one of the actor's best roles, both touching and poetic, and a good one to end his career upon. Sadly, Vincent Price died just three years after the film's release, on October 25, only a few days before Halloween.

Even in a field which includes such heavyweights as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing, Vincent Price ranks among the greatest horror actors of all time. Price's polished, urbane demeanour belied the fact that he could play a multiplicity of roles convincingly. He could be a mad doctor lusting for revenge, as in Dr. Phibes, a corrupt Witchfinder General in the movie of the same name, an unsuspecting victim, Charles Dexter Ward, in The Haunted Palace, or the kind hearted, fatherly figure in Edward Scissorhands. Like Karloff before him, Price had a gift for humour, his incredible voice lending a half serious, half comic approach to projects ranging from Alice Cooper's "Black Widow" to Tim Burton's Vincent.

Despite all the revenge obsessed madmen, homicidal maniacs, and evil sorcerers Price played in his career, the role of the fatherly Inventor in Edward Scissorhands seems to me to have been closest to Price in real life. To wit, even though he had been educated in England, played on Broadway, and starred in Hollywood movies, Vincent Price never forgot the state in which he had been born. Price had been neighbours with Northeast Missouri State University President Charles McClain, and as a favour to him, every year he would travel to Kirksville to perform and talk with the students. My brother had the opportunity to meet him, but didn't because of an abscessed tooth (a fact which I have never let him live down--I would have gone, regardless of my health...). Many of my friends who attended Northeast did meet him (he even autographed a copy of Welcome to My Nightmare for one of my friends). And in every case they used the same word of him--he was an absolute gentlemen. In an industry where oversized egos and selfishness often seems to be the norm, Vincent Price was a rarity. He was not only extremely talented, urbane, and sophisticated, but he was one of the kindest, sweetest, gentlest men to ever appear on screen. I think he did the State of Missouri proud.

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