If things had lined up just a little differently, Vincent Price’s career might have taken a different shape. Born in St. Louis but with a voice suggesting an aristocratic upbringing of indeterminate origin, Price fell into a career as a Hollywood character actor that took full advantage of an arch presence that bordered on, and frequently crossed into, the sinister. Horror was part of the mix from the beginning. One early part found Price in The Invisible Man Returns, assuming the role originated by Claude Rains, but the deeper Price got into his career throughout the 1950s, particularly after his turn in House Of Wax, the more horror became his primary occupation. 1959 alone saw two team-ups with gifted schlockmeister William Castle—House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler—in addition to The Bat and Return Of The Fly. (And for good measure, the non-horror film The Big Circus.) By 1960, Price faced a choice: Try to restore some kind of balance in his career, or commit to horror.
He committed, as evidenced by the existence of Scream! Factory’s six-film, four-disc Blu-ray box set The Vincent Price Collection, a curious but satisfying sampling of Price’s work in the 1960s and early 1970s. Price would have had his place in horror-film history if he’d stepped away after the 1950s, but his collaborations with Roger Corman, in what’s come to be known as The Poe Cycle, made him an icon. A series of eight films adapted, more or less (and in one instance, not at all), from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, The Poe Cycle gave viewers agreeably scary films with a hint of literary class, more than a hint of lurid undercurrents, and cinematic touches that anticipated psychedelia—all of it shot quickly by Corman for the budget-minded production company American International Pictures. Price starred in seven of the eight films, four of which are included in this set. He delivered vivid performances that gave them a tortured center and fit right into their over-the-top but, for the most part, unwinking atmosphere of dread.
Introducing The Fall Of The House Of Usher, the first of the cycle, for an Iowa PBS station showing a handful of his films in the early 1980s, Price referred to what viewers were about to see as “a fascinating series of films that will make you shudder with terror. Or perhaps laughter. No doubt there will be a healthy combination of both.” Price’s films with Corman walk that line, but while later entries like The Raven tip cleanly over to comedy, the four featured in this set—Usher, The Pit And The Pendulum, The Haunted Palace, and Masque Of The Red Death—mostly keep the camp at bay by keeping a firm command of the horror.
They also tend to recycle the same elements: a spooky castle, Price as its haunted (but only sometimes outright villainous) proprietor, a dungeon filled with torture implements, an eye-searing color scheme, and an unrelenting sense of dread and corruption very much in Poe’s spirit, no matter how far the stories strayed from their source. The combination works in each instance, in part because Corman and a succession of talented screenwriters keep finding inventive new ways to combine them, and in part because it’s such a potent mix of elements.
With Usher, the series found its footing immediately. Price bleached his hair and shaved his mustache for the part of Roderick Usher, with his sister Madeleine (Myrna Fahey), the last of a cursed family line of assassins, murderers, and madmen. Roderick is determined to make sure their tainted lineage ends with them, and begins taking extraordinary measures to keep Madeleine from leaving with Philip (Mark Damon), the man who wants to marry her. Working from a script by Richard Matheson that spins Poe’s story to feature length, Corman, cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of David), and composer and exotica icon Les Baxter create a hallucinatory swirl of a movie that has the feel of an especially sharp nightmare.
On the commentary track, Corman talks about using the film’s setbound qualities to his advantage. The constraints of a limited budget also let him shut out anything that felt like the real world. So did Price’s performance as the tortured, sickly, desperate Usher, a man seemingly unfit to walk the Earth, but driven to bring no further evil to it, even if that harms people around him. He cuts a sympathetic figure, a quality key to Price’s appeal in most of his Corman collaborations. It’s the world that’s monstrous, driving him to awful actions.
So it is in The Pit And The Pendulum, which Corman released the following year and made with many of the same collaborators: Price, Matheson, Crosby, and Baxter. Here, Price plays Nicholas Medina, a fundamentally nice fellow who nonetheless can’t fully explain how his wife (Barbara Steele) died, once her brother Francis (John Kerr) comes inquiring at Nicholas’ Spanish castle. From there, Matheson crafts a twisted story of infidelity and premature burial that builds toward a climactic scene that gives the film its name. The film plays like a companion piece to Usher, but one eager to push beyond its limits, particularly in its tinted flashback sequences. It also lets Price begin the film as a delicate gentleman and end it as a madman. It would be easy to call his performance over the top, but the film demands him to be over the top. Who wants understatement in a film with dungeons and giant blades?
Price follows a similar descent-into-madness (or at least possession) trajectory in 1963’s The Haunted Palace, billed as a Poe adaptation, but actually the first attempt to bring an H.P. Lovecraft story to the big screen—in this instance, “The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward.” Price plays Ward, who travels with his wife to claim inheritance of a palace built in the New England town of Arkham. There, he receives a frosty reception from residents slow to forget how Ward’s warlock great-great-grandfather enthralled some of its comelier residents, then cursed the town before being put to death. Though Ward has no intention of picking up where his ancestor left off, the dark forces around him have other plans.
Though a fine movie in its own right, The Haunted Palace feels a bit too familiar for its own good at times. But it does help capture what makes Price such an effective horror star. There’s no mistaking him for an everyman, even when he’s playing an ordinary guy, as in Palace’s opening scenes. (The eyebrows alone make that impossible.) But even in his most theatrical performances, there’s a humanizing frailty to Price onscreen. When playing an unrepentant villain and digging into the part with his teeth, as he does in Masque Of The Red Death, he remains less a monster than a man of needs and desires, however twisted.
And he’s twisted in Masque. Ratcheting up the aristocratic decadence of the Poe story and throwing in some satanism for good measure, the film casts Price as Prince Prospero, an uncaring ruler living in a pleasure palace whose residents happily make beasts of themselves to please him, while his subjects starve outside, falling victim to a horrifying plague. No stranger to sneaking left-wing politics into his genre films, Corman emphasizes the struggle between the callous haves and the suffering have-nots, while Price’s performance teases out the story’s seediest elements. When he casually escorts an innocent played by Jane Asher from room to room, it’s as disturbing as any of the demonic, Seventh Seal-inspired imagery Corman and cinematographer (soon to turn director) Nicholas Roeg can create.
When AIP released Witchfinder General in America, just barely, Michael Reeves’ 1968 shocker bore the name The Conqueror Worm, an attempt to draft off the success of the Poe films by giving it a Poe-derived title. Anyone showing up expecting more of the same was in for a surprise, however. The film opens not on a soundstage dominated by a castle enshrouded in fog-machine vapor, but in the rolling English countryside, where officials first convict, then execute, a woman for witchcraft, as a flock of sheep indifferently go about their business. In the distance: Price mounted on horseback as Matthew Hopkins, a historical figure who spent a few years persecuting accused witches during Cromwell’s reign.
Corman made scary movies, but he never made ugly ones. Witchfinder General, which Reeves made as a 24-year-old wunderkind, is all ugly, a film about the terrifying combination of sadism and power, shot on location and with kegs of vivid stage blood. Price wasn’t Reeves’ first choice for the role, which reportedly led to a highly unpleasant shoot. But the combination also resulted in one of the most remarkable performances of Price’s career. He plays Hopkins as a man who enjoys hurting others and taking advantage of his authority, and has done so for so long, it’s become second nature. (One scene has him ordering young accused witnesses to be sent to him, with the casualness of a man asking for ketchup with his fries.) It’s a side of his talent unseen elsewhere on the set, a depiction of a man whose corroded soul rubs off on everyone he touches. His action sets in motion a revenge plot that only intensifies the bloodshed.
Reeves died of a drug overdose the following year, but Witchfinder General nonetheless pointed the way forward for the exploitation films of the next decade, with their emphasis on graphic violence, and the lingering sense that evil never truly gets put to rest. Price never fit into the new order. Released in 1971, the campy The Abominable Dr. Phibes set the pattern for the rest of his career, putting quotation marks around every scary moment, and letting Price indulge his hammiest impulses. Director Robert Fuest worked as a production designer and later director of the 1960s spy series The Avengers, and the film occasionally plays as an extended version of one of that show’s episodes, with Price as a mastermind villain, but without any intrepid secret agents to foil him. Price plays the titular Dr. Phibes, a disfigured organist and doctor intent on exacting revenge on those he believes responsible for his wife’s death. So he arranges their deaths to resemble the 10 plagues Moses brought down on Egypt. Aiding him is a beautiful, mute woman named Vulnavia (Virginia North). Fuest plays up the 1930s-by-way-of-the-1970s set design, but any atmosphere gets lost in scene after scene that’s lighted like a TV show, and the tongue-in-cheek attitude wears thin at feature length.
So it went for Price in the years that followed, years that allowed him to spoof his past in horror comedies and via guest appearances on The Muppet Show, The Brady Bunch, Hollywood Squares, and elsewhere. He was no stranger to camp, delivering performances that often verged on it, and sending up his image in films like Beach Party and Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine even at the height of his stardom. But going forward, camp provided him with his steadiest employment until his death in 1993. There were exceptions along the way, and Price had as happy of a cinematic swan song as anyone could ask for as The Inventor in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, playing a man in a castle, more misunderstood than evil, trying to create something meaningful in the shadows, and send it out into an oft-cruel world.
This set offers a generous selection of features, some new, some ported over from previous DVD releases. Always insightful about his own films, Corman provides commentaries for Pendulum, Masque, and Usher. A slew of other commentaries include two tracks by Price historian Lucy Chase Williams, who’s joined at times by Price impressionists. A candid audio interview with Price by author David Del Valle, who also provides the liner notes, proves another highlight. But the most consistently charming features are those PBS intros, in which Price, fully comfortable with the persona of film’s most lovable spook, tells stories about their production for viewers eager to see them for the first or 51st time.