Monday, September 30, 2013

Vincent Price (1911 - 1993)

2013 is the 20 year anniversary of Vincent Price’s death and it seems like an excellent time for a career retrospective. It would be a very time consuming venture to review every one of the almost 200 films, TV episodes, made-for-TV movies, and cartoons Price appeared in or lent his voice to, so I’m going to focus on the more major works, namely the cult and horror films. (The films I’m planning to review will be in bold below.)

Born on May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, Vincent Price majored in Art History at Yale and became interested in acting at the University of London, where he pursued a Masters of Fine Arts. After beginning a stage career in 1935, he quickly moved to film with a starring role in the romantic comedy Service de Luxe (1939) and then the made-for-TV comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1938). His first major film was the Bette Davis and Errol Flynn historical drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). 

Price’s first cult film was Tower of London (1939), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, where he co-starred as the Duke of Clarence alongside horror icons Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. Though this is mostly a historical drama, it centers around a number of devious political murders committed by Richard III (Rathbone) and his executioner (Karloff) in order for Richard to ascend to the throne. 
His next major starring role was in the horror/sci-fi sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940), a loose follow up to the classic Universal film starring Claude Rains. Price plays a businessman framed for his brother’s murder. He is injected with the invisibility serum in order to prove his innocence and discover the real murderer before he succumbs to the serum’s devastating side effect: madness. 

In another early loose connection to Universal horror, Price appeared in James Whale’s Green Hell (1940), an adventure/drama. He also had lesser roles in historical dramas Brigham Young (1940), Hudson’s Bay (1941), and The Song of Bernadette (1943). Another early horror-tinged thriller he starred in was The House of the Seven Gables (1940), an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic novel about murder and hidden treasure in an old mansion in New England. 
The ‘40s brought many more roles, though Price was not yet a well-known figure. He had side parts in a war drama, The Eve of St. Mark (1944), the historical biography Wilson (1944), and the Gregory Peck-vehicle and religious drama The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). The most important film Price co-starred in during this decade was Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura (1944), where he appears in a serious role as the titular lady’s questionable boyfriend. 

He was also given a role in Preminger’s Russian historical comedy A Royal Scandal (1945), though Price spent most of the late ‘40s in noir films or thrillers. He appeared in Gene Tierney-vehicles Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Dragonwyck (1946), as well as Shock (1946), The Long Night (1947) with Henry Fonda, The Web (1947), Moss Rose (1947), and The Bribe (1949) with Ava Gardner and Charles Laughton. Price also appeared in a musical comedy, Up in Central Park (1948), in a number of action/adventure films — Rogue’s Regiment (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948) with Lana Turner and Gene Kelly, and Bagdad (1949) with Maureen O’Hara — as well as briefly lending his voice (as the Invisible Man) to the horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). He also showed an early glimmer of whimsy by narrating a TV version of The Christmas Carol (1949). 

In 1950, Price starred in a rare non-horror classic film, Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona, where he played a roguish landowner determined to own the state of Arizona. In the early ‘50s he appeared in other comedies — Champagne for Caesar (1950), Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950) — and in the Errol Flynn adventure film The Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951). He co-starred in a few more noir films, such as His Kind of Woman (1951) with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, and The Las Vegas Story (1952) again with Russell. He kicked off an incredibly productive career early in this decade and filled his non-feature film moments with appearances in television shows and anthology serials, such as Fireside Theatre, Lights Out, Chesterfield Presents, Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Gruen Guild Theater, and Robert Montgomery Presents

Price’s first major horror film was House of Wax (1953), a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), where he starred as a brilliant master sculptor and owner of a wax museum. After his museum is burned in an insurance scam, he is believed to be dead. Years later, the museum reopens and women in the neighborhood begin dying. Their lookalikes mysteriously appear in his museum as famous historical figures. This is also notable for being an early 3-D film. 

He again appeared in more television throughout the ‘50s, such as Summer Theatre, The Plymouth Playhouse, The Philip Morris Playhouse, The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater, TV’s Reader’s Digest, Lux Video Theater, The Alcoa Hour, Science Fiction Theatre, Crossroads, Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Studio 57, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, Playhouse 90, Half Hour to Kill, G.E. True Theater, Schlitz Playhouse, Matinee Theatre, Have Gun — Will Travel, Riverboat, and Shower of Stars. Truly a busy man. He was also in a number of films, including a thriller, Dangerous Mission (1954), two shorts, Born in Freedom (1954) and The Orange Coast College Story (1954), a musical, Casanova’s Big Night (1954), and the adventure-pirate film Son of Sinbad (1955). 

Soon after House of Wax, he was cast in The Mad Magician (1954), where he stars as a murderous magician intent on gaining fame and quashing the competition. Eva Gabor (sister of Zsa Zsa) costars. This is an early revenge-horror film for Price, which would be followed in the ‘60s by many films of this model. In the mid to late ‘50s he also appeared in an opera drama, Serenade (1956), as a narrator in the French period piece musical The Vagabond King (1956) with a young Leslie Nielsen (!!!), and he had a bit part in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). He and Peter Lorre starred in a made-for-TV mystery film, Collector’s Item (1958), and he had a side role in the drama The Big Circus (1959) before his horror career completely took over. 
Somewhat surprisingly, Price also appeared in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956), a newsroom noir about a serial killer loose in New York City. Though Dana Andrews and George Sanders star, I think it is important for modern film fans to remember that Price was in far, far more than just horror films. He also had a rare role as Satan in the difficult to find film The Story of Mankind (1957), an intellectual fantasy-drama where God and the Devil argue about the nature of mankind. 

Price had a co-starring role in the sci-fi/horror classic The Fly (1958) about a scientist  whose experiments with a teleportation device go wrong. Price appeared as the scientist’s brother and was thus able to return a year later for Return of the Fly (1959). Though he received top billing for this film, it concerns the similar experiments of his nephew, who also turns into a monstrous human-fly hybrid.

One of his most popular early films was William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959), sort of an old dark house mystery-horror-comedy. Price plays a millionaire who invites a number of people to stay in a haunted mansion over night. Whoever survives the night will win a large sum of money, though they have to contend with murderous ghosts and some very human horrors. He followed this with two other early classics. The first, another William Castle film called The Tingler (1959), is a gimmicky sci-fi horror film and minor creature feature about a doctor who experiments on fear with some horrifying results. Next is The Bat (1959), another old dark house film that is actually a remake of an earlier film and is a twist on The Cat and the Canary (1927). A mystery writer rents an old house to inspire her, but didn’t count on murder, hidden treasure, and a mysterious, psychotic killer known as the Bat. 

The ‘60s through the early ‘70s was Price’s most productive period and resulted in a number of classic and very popular horror films. He kicked off the ‘60s by acting in a few more television series, including Adventures in Paradise, Startime, The Chevy Mystery Show, The United States Steel Hour, The Best of the Post, The Danny Kaye Show, and Moment of Fear. He was also in two made-for-TV movies, The Three Musketeers (1960) and Famous Ghost Stories (1961), where he served as narrator. For the most part though, his career was dedicated to horror films during this period. 

Price starred in the first of a long series of effectively spooky films based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe and directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures. House of Usher (1960) concerns an ancient family suffering from a terrible curse. The script was adapted by the late, great horror writer Richard Matheson. This was followed by Pit and the Pendulum (1961), another of Poe’s tales about a castle during the Spanish Inquisition and the murder and torture that unfolds there. This was also scripted by Matheson and co-stars scream queen Barbara Steele. 

He also co-starred with Charles Bronson in Master of the World (1961), a sci-fi adventure film again written by Matheson. Set in the 1800s, this is essentially an early example of what would become steampunk. High above the ground in his zeppelin, an adventurer plans to give the world peace, even if he has to enforce it with full scale war. A scientist must try to stop him. During this period he also appeared in the Italian historical drama Nefertiti, regina del Nilo (1961) and in Italian pirate film Rage of the Buccaneers (1961).

Then there is the thoroughly bizarre Confessions of An Opium Eater (1962), named after but not really based on Thomas DeQuincy’s memoir of the same name about his opium and laudanum addictions. Price stars as an adventurer who faces off against the Tong (legendary Asian crime syndicate) in San Francisco and their human slavery/prostitution racket. During the course of the film he takes opium and also befriends a female dwarf. Wonders will never cease. 

The same year he was in Tales of Terror (1962), his first horror anthology film alongside Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Again scripted by Matheson and directed by Corman, this film adapts three of Poe’s short stories, including “The Black Cat.” He also had a side role in the biographical drama Convicts 4 (1962). After this he was in a remake of Tower of London (1962), where he took the part of Richard III. This version was directed by Corman and has more horror than the drama-heavy 1939 film. 

Corman, Matheson, and Price reunited for The Raven (1963), allegedly based on Poe’s famous poem of the same name. In reality this is a silly comedy-horror film that brought together Price, an aged Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre as three rival magicians. Diary of a Madman (1963), based on the stories of Guy de Maupassant, is a rare non-Corman horror film from the period about an evil spirit that possesses an innocent man and soon moves to the magistrate in charge of his case. In the same year he had a cameo in the first of AIP’s Beach Party (1963) comedies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. 

Though included in the Poe series and directed by Corman, The Haunted Palace (1963), is actually based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Price stars as a man who inherits a creepy family home in New England and begins taking on characteristics of his ancestor, a man burned at the stake for witchcraft. Twice Told Tales (1963), Price’s second anthology outing, is another break from Poe and focuses on three tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, including the fantastic “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and a shorter version of “House of the Seven Gables.” 

The Comedy of Terrors (1963) reunites Price, Lorre, and Karloff in another horror-comedy hybrid. Price plays an undertaker whose business is suffering. To bring profits back up, he starts killing people to fill his coffins. Though Matheson again penned the script, this was directed by Jacques Tourneur (The Cat People). Price took a much more serious role in the post-apocalyptic horror The Last Man on Earth (1964), an adaptation of Matheson’s excellent vampire novel I Am Legend. Price plays the sole survivor of a plague that leaves behind vampires instead of corpses, though ultimately this feels more like an early attempt at a zombie film. 

One of his finest and most visually appealing efforts with Corman was The Masque of the Red Death (1964), based on Poe’s story of the same name about a Satan-worshipping, libertine prince who throws an enormous gala while his city is under quarantine from the Black Plague. During the same year they also made The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), a Rebecca-like tale based on Poe’s “Ligeia.” Price plays a man who remarries after the death of his first wife, only to be haunted by her angry ghost.

Price reunited with director Tourneur for the fantasy adventure film City in the Sea (1965). Though the film is named after and very loosely based on Poe’s poem of the same name, it concerns a sea captain (Price) who discovers a lost society of ageless smugglers and gill-men who live under the ocean. Also known as War Gods of the Deep, this really is as ridiculous as it sounds. During the same year he also appeared on an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a TV show about secret agents. Speaking of secrets agents, Price went on to star in the silly spy-spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), about a mad scientist who plans to take over the world with his sexy female robots. He repeated the role for a made-for-TV short, The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot (1965), and the sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966).  Weirdly, this was directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava.

Next, he had a bit part in a TV movie that sounds like my worst nightmare, Clown Alley (1966), in the western-comedy TV show F Troop, and the classic sci-fi show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. He starred in the weird human trafficking/crime film House of 1,000 Dolls (1967), in The Jackals (1967), a western set in South Africa, and another western, More Dead Than Alive (1969), as well as appearing in the western TV series Daniel Boone. He also had a reoccurring role as the villain Egghead in the incredibly fun, cartoonish TV series Batman (1966-1968).

One of Price’s most memorable and surprisingly mean-spirited films from the late ‘60s was Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), re-named The Conqueror Worm for U.S. audience to capitalize on the Poe series. This has nothing to do with Poe and is a grim tale of witch hunting based on the real life exploits of Matthew Hopkins, who hunted down those accused of witchcraft (typically for political reasons) during the English Civil War. He also had a role in the Elvis musical The Trouble with Girls (1969) and a number of TV shows, including The Good Guys, BBC Play of the Month, Get Smart, Love American Style, and The Mod Squad. He was also in the made-for-TV musical Cucumber Castle (1970) and the Holiday Startime Special (1970). 

The end of the decade was equally busy and Price starred in four horror films. The Oblong Box (1969) is a tale of voodoo, disfigurement, and betrayal that co-stars Hammer horror icon Christopher Lee. An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1970) is an odd anthology film where Price narrates four beloved Poe tales, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and more. In Scream and Scream Again (1970) he receives top billing alongside Christopher Lee, but they both just really appear in this tale about a serial killer loose in London. Cry of the Banshee (1970) stars Price as a malevolent Elizabethan lord determined to rid the world of witches whatever the cost.

The ‘70s was another busy decade for Vincent Price. He had a reoccurring role as narrator in the Canadian horror-children’s show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (1971), where Billy Van, the star, played a number of roles educating kids in various horror settings and with different horror-trope characters. Price also regularly appeared in comedy sketch show The Red Skelton Hour and popped up in TV shows like Curiosity Shop, The Brady Bunch, The Golddiggers, The Movie Quiz, Columbo, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Snoop Sisters. He lent his voice to Rankin and Bass’s animated made-for-TV movie Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971) and appeared in TV suspense movie What’s a Nice Girl Like You...? (1971). Alongside Hammer regulars Stephanie Beacham and Andrew Kier, he had a role in the sci-fi film The Aries Computer (1972).

One of his most beloved films is undoubtedly The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), the first in a series of colorful, over the top revenge-horror films. Price plays a deformed organist and professor of theology who has seemingly come back from the dead to avenge his wife’s murderer by killing the doctors who failed to save her life on the operating table. Using the 10 plagues of Egypt, Phibes unleashed some outrageous mayhem on London. This was followed by the almost as wonderful Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), where he travels to Egypt to find the River of Life and revive his dead wife. He must face off against an adventurer (Robert Quarry) determined to get there first. 
Price also appeared in a few episode of Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery (1969-1973), a Twilight Zone-like anthology show that presented some truly excellent tales of horror and dark fantasy. He narrated the short Annabel Lee (1973), appeared in the sexploitation comedy It’s Not the Size That Counts (1974), and narrated a documentary about the Bermuda Triangle, The Devil’s Triangle (1974). 

Another beloved revenge-horror film from the period (and one of my favorites) is Theatre of Blood (1973). Price plays Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart, who failed to win the craved London Critics Circle Award and kills himself, leaving behind his distraught daughter (Diana Rigg). When someone begins viciously murdering the critics in scenes lifted right out of Shakespeare’s plays, Scotland Yard wonders if maybe Lionheart is alive after all. Following this is the somewhat similar Madhouse (1974), co-starring Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry. Price plays horror actor Paul Toombes, a caricature of himself, who is committed to mental institution after his fiancée is murdered and he goes mad. He is released many years later and resumes his career, but the murders begin again. Is Toombes the psychotic killer or is someone framing him?

Price also appeared in Alice Cooper’s made-for-TV concert movie Alice Cooper: The Nightmare (1975), a musical film dramatizing the “Welcome to My Nightmare” album. He also narrated Cooper’s concert video The Strange Case of Alice Cooper (1979). Price was particularly active in television during this period and appeared in Ellery Queen, The Bionic Woman, The Love Boat, Time Express, and Standing Room Only. His most memorable TV appearance was on The Muppets. He also had a role in the political thriller Journey Into Fear (1975), and narrated the Deep Purple movie The Butterfly Ball (1977) and a short, Légendes du Québec (1977). He was in TV movies Lindsay Wagner: Another Side of Me (1977), Ringo (1978), and the TV short Symbols of Lives Past: The Rambova Collection (1979). 
Price was also active in theater and during this period developed a touring one-man show where he starred as Oscar Wilde. Called Diversions and Delights, this two act play is set in Paris in the last year of Wilde’s life and concerns Wilde’s work and his scandalous romantic relationship with the younger Lord Alfred Douglas. 

He had a bit part in the comedy Scavenger Hunt (1979) and lent his voice to the animated film I Go Pogo (1980) and the shorts The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1980), Fun with Mr. Future (1982), and Tim Burton’s Vincent (1982), about a boy who wants to be Vincent Price. He starred in Roy Ward Baker’s anthology film The Monster Club (1981) for Amicus Studios with Donald Pleasance and John Carradine. A horror writer is told a series of terrifying stories by an old man (Price) who turns out to be a vampire. This is one of the few times that Price appeared on screen as a blood sucking creature of the night.

Showing off some of his more under appreciated skills, he starred in a TV production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s horror-themed musical Ruddigore (1982), about a man from a cursed family. The curse is only held at bay if he commits a crime every single day. He also hosted Tim Burton’s made-for-TV version of Hansel and Gretel (1982), which was cast with all Japanese actors. Soon after he appeared in a few episodes of the excellent Faerie Tale Theatre (1982-1987), for which Burton directed a few episodes early in his career. 

Price starred in Pete Walker’s excellent, though uncharacteristic horror comedy, House of the Long Shadows (1983) alongside Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine. On a bet with his publisher, a mystery writer spends the night in a spooky old mansion in order to try to finish a novel in 24 hours. Unfortunately the bizarre Grisbane family also returns to the manor to reunite and search for their lost and very insane brother who was bricked up in his room years ago, but has recently escaped. 

One of Price’s most famous appearances from this time was as the narrator in Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) video, directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London). He also appeared in Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984), an unexpectedly funny horror spoof about a group of scientists that travel to a house to investigate some mysterious happenings. Unfortunately for them, the house is already inhabited by a group of bloodthirsty satanists.
He had a prominent role in the 13-episode Scooby-Doo spin-off, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (1985). Scooby and Shaggy accidentally open the Chest of Demons and must spend the season putting all 13 ghosts and demons back inside the magical chest. A warlock by the name of Vincent Van Ghoul (Price) assists them. He was also in a lesser known made-for-TV anthology film, Escapes (1986), which features five stories of the macabre. 

Towards the end of his life, Price was in a number of animated features, TV shorts, and TV movies. He appeared in episodes of the TV series Blacke’s Magic, Michaels’ Movie Madness, and Tiny Toon Adventures. He voice acted in an animated films The Nativity (1987), Sparky’s Magic Piano (1987), The Little Troll Prince (1987), and The Princess and the Cobbler (1993). Most notably, he had the antagonist’s role in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective (1986), a version of Sherlock Holmes with mice. Price starred as Professor Rattigan, a rat version of Moriarty.

His final two horror films were The Offspring (1987), an anthology tale also known as From a Whisper to a Scream, and Dead Heat (1988), a horror comedy about undead police officers. He was also in a few final drama and suspense films, such as The Whales of August (1987) with an aged Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, Catchfire (1990) starring Jody Foster and directed by Dennis Hopper, and a TV movie with Dennis Hopper, The Heart of Justice (1992). His final live action film was Tim Burton’s magical Edward Scissorhands (1990), where he plays Edward’s “father” and inventor. In many ways this is the perfect final film for Price, as Burton treated him reverently throughout their many collaborations together. 

Though Price is primarily remembered as a horror icon, his sheer love of life cannot be discounted. He was a prominent American art collector and had his own line, “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” with Sears, where he selected paintings to be reproduced and purchased by the public. He has his own art museum at the East Los Angeles College after donating money and a large collection of art work to the school. He was also a gourmet chef and occasionally a vocal political activist. Though he died on October 25th, 1993 of lung cancer (he was a lifelong smoker), he will never be forgotten. I’m hoping to celebrate his death day by making a trip to the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum in Bristol, Connecticut. Price was a board member and supporter of this wonderful little museum that houses a collection of figures from horror films, many of which he starred in. 

I hope you will watch along with me and celebrate this wonderful man. Though I never got the chance to meet him, he has been a major positive influence on my life and encouraged my young love of horror films. Viva Vincent Price!


  1. Just found this - A great tribute to "Uncle Vinny" as I have always called him. Great pix and text. Fun!

  2. Just found this - A great tribute to "Uncle Vinny" as I have always called him. Great pix and text. Fun!