DVDanger: 'The Vincent Price Collection'
The master of horror at the height of his Poe powers
By Richard Whittaker, 11:30AM, Tue. Nov. 5, 2013
It was that face and that voice. The high, arched eyebrow over an unnaturally long, handsome face. The mellifluous tones that could turn to low-rumbling steel. Vincent Price was that last of the true masters of fear, the bridge between Karloff and Leatherface, and he could do it all with just a quivering, menacing leer.
Commemorating his 55-year career in films is a fool's errand, so for The Vincent Price Collection, genre experts Shout! Factory spotlight Price's fearsome heyday at American International Pictures, starting with 1960's The Fall of the House of Usher, through to 1971's tragic psychedelic love story The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
The selection of titles is pretty damn perfect. That said, there could easily be a second set commemorating his earlier works, like House of Wax and The Fly. Arguably, if there's one omission from this collection of his later labors, it's his final true horror masterpiece, the glorious grand guignol performance of 1973's Theatre of Blood. But such sets are a balancing act, and including the underrated and often overlooked The Haunted Palace more than makes up for its absence. Moreover, while there have been plenty of cut-price Price collections before, they've been a little disrepectful to his legacy, sometimes suffering from low-grade transfers and glitchy releases.
But this is Shout! Factory, who have been consistently killing it on high-grade transfers, and discs loaded with extras. Every film comes with at least one commentary tracks and even the PBS intros Price recorded in those lush, lugubrious tones.
The bulk of the discs chronicle Price's collaborations with Roger Corman, and inevitably that means their cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations: Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Masque of the Red Death. The set could have gone even deeper into the Corman/Poe period, but rather than complete the panoply with The Raven and The Tomb of Ligea, Shout! has gone for a broader selection of Price's later work.
Yet Price could seemingly never avoid Poe, even when the films were totally disconnected. Case in point, HP Lovecraft's The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which Corman's bosses at American Pictures International had him Poe-ize into The Haunted Palace (the name itself a reference to an early Poe poem that he recycled into Usher). Ditto with Witchfinder General, the British production that came out in America as Conqueror Worm.
Aside: There is something a little tragic about this release, and it's nothing to do with Price. Recently, I was in New York and got to see an amazing collection of his works and correspondence at the Morgan Museum. While there, enthralled by an original manuscript of The Bells, I heard the disappointing news that Stuart Gordon (arguably the greatest living director of Lovecraft) had failed to fund his planned film of his latest work. Nevermore, a one man stage show of Poe's work by horror icon Jeffrey Combs. It's sad to think that modern audiences will be deprived a screen version of an entrancing performance by the true inheritor to Price's crown as cinema's gothic emperor.
So delve deep into this four-disc, six-film set we must. It opens with the eerie, pre-psychedelic Fall of the House of Usher. A dream project for Corman, it set the stage for the pair's creepy partnership: Price, regal and scarcely restrained in his madness; Corman, blasting the color and sense of theatrical impending doom. It's rare I'll rave about the quality of a transfer, but Shout!'s worker bees have done a remarkable job here. Corman's first experiment with Cinemascope has a lush, almost queasy edge to it, saturated and merciless. It continues through to Price's most bizarre cinematic excursion, the truly gonzo Phibes. Yet even that is in much the same vein as the rest of his work: As the maimed and lovestruck Phibes, he is as much victim as monster.
Most of the films included here are low- to no-budget potboilers, but they're still wonderful. That said, Corman's crew was working on 15-day shoots, so corners were cut. For example, the possessed courtiers in the Palace are marked by gray makeup, but it generally stops around the collar line.) But there's still an eerie menace to the stage-bound menace, and the closing scene – as the demonically twisted Ward offers his wife to uncanny forces – found resonance decades later in another Lovecraft adaptation, Gordon's monstrous Dagon.
It also was the movie that saw Price move from a vintage player like his peer and pal Basil Rathbone to the elder statesman of drive-in gonzo pleasure. He was a bridge between eras, exquisitely capable of playing period pieces with aplomb and gravitas. He rarely played pure villains. Instead, he was a man afflicted by curses and misery: Driven to madness in The Pit, possessed by a demonic ancestor in Palace, it's easy to forget that Price didn't start off as a horror actor. He was a TV player and stage actor as much as he was a master of celluloid terror. He broke through in the era of Elizabethan and Victorian period pieces, which may be why he is so at ease in a ruff and hose. He always felt like a man who walked between centuries, that pencil mustache both timely and arcane.
And god, could he deliver a melodramatic speech. Where other actors around him could drown in the cheese (future spaghetti Western star and Oscar-winning producer Mark Damon seems particularly ill-cast as the ingenue romantic hero in Usher), Price tapped into something theatrical and arcane.
That's part of what's so fascinating here. It's easy to forget that, before he was a master of horror, Price was a lauded stage and screen actor. In a wonderful recovered audio interview from 1988 included here, he talks about working with everyone from Ernst Lubitsch to Orson Welles and Cecil B. DeMille. These psychedelic-tinged horrors of the 1960s and early 1970s were the twilight of his already spectacular career. A touching and lengthy interview with his daughter Victoria shows the simple glee of the great man: One particular story about Price sharing the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World reveals a remarkable tenderness.
That may be the real reason why Witchfinder General makes it in here, rather than another AIP title. Three years before Ken Russell pioneered arthouse horror with The Devils, this quietly revolutionized the period drama. It's possibly Price's most chilling role. The other parts he plays were twirling on the edge of madness. Matthew Hopkins is pure, cruel, venal evil. Directed by rising director Michael Reeves a year before his death from a barbiturate overdose, it's a heavily fictionalized account of the reign of fear lorded over by Hopkins, a self-declared witch hunter who roamed the South of England during the English Civil War. Between 1644 and 1647, he was estimated to have killed as many as 300 people for sorcery and devil worship, before dying peacefully in his bed.
As Price notes in his PBS intro, the fact that Hopkins was real makes the events of the film (fantastical as they are) much more disturbing than the wholly fantasmagorical crumbling walls of Usher. It's no secret that he and the enfant terrible Reeves butted heads (the director wanted Donald Pleasence for the lead). Tonally it's completely different to the set-bound realm of Price's Corman collaborations. Yet out of that change and tension comes a minor horror masterpiece. Literal torture porn decades before there was such a thing, its truest terror comes in the friction between Hopkins and his chief witch pricker, John Stearne. As the thuggish Stearne, British TV character actor Robert Russell was a soiled counterpoint to Price's regal villainy, but both were as quick to the blade.
The Vincent Price Collection (Shout! Factory, $79.97 [Blu-ray]) is available now.