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October 25, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (8/10) - Vincent Price

As my own True Heroes of Horror list rolls to a close, the choices become much more obvious to me.  With three spots left, it's time to bring out some of horror's most revered names, starting with...
Vincent Price
Who is Vincent Price?
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911, the Vincent Price you know was actually the third in a line of very successful Vincent Prices.  His grandfather, also Vincent Price, invented a revolutionary baking powder and his father, Vincent Leonard Price, Sr., was the president of the National Candy Company.  In a way, that kind of makes the junior Price the Willy Wonka of the horror movie world.

Price left St. Louis for an education at Yale University in the 1930s, which is also when he first began acting on stage.  He got into film in 1938, but only sporadically appeared in horror films before his career as a horror star took off in the 1950s.  Price would stay active in schlocky genre roles - despite his education and his polite manner (check out this statement he made on racial and religious prejudice in 1950) - through most of the 1970s, and stayed as active as he could in television and film until his death from lung cancer in 1993.
Price is best known for....
Being the biggest star in horror for nearly a quarter-century.  From 1953's House of Wax to the Dr. Phibes films of the 1970s, Price made his mark on horror repeatedly.  Whether he was collaborating with a showman like William Castle or a low-budget maestro like Roger Corman, Price always commanded respect in the Gothic horror scene.
Other Horror Hits....
Price first got into the horror scene when he appeared with Boris Karloff in 1939's Tower of London, which was followed up by him getting the title role in the 1940 Universal Monster sequel The Invisible Man Returns.   After plenty of dramatic roles and several forays into film noir in the 1940s, it was House of Wax that established the horror genre as a money maker for the 1950s.  Price's star shot to the roof quickly, with The Fly and its sequel, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler all becoming hits by the end of the decade.
 In the '60s, Price spent a lot of time making Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Corman, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Masque of the Red Death, and The Fall of the House of Usher.  Also in that span Price made a couple other favorites, the I Am Legend adaptation The Last Man on Earth and the inquisitive Witchfinder General.  The '70s brought a few more favorites via the American International Pictures banner, with modern/Gothic horror combos The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood.  That's just a small sample of Price's horror output, but it's a good one.
So, why's Vincent Price here?
Price is kind of a funny horror icon to me.  On many days I wouldn't list any of his films in my Top 10 horror faves, and I think I might even struggle to fit him into the Top 25 sometimes.  But when it came time to make this list of people who represent great horror, he was one of the first two or three names I came up with.  What's up with that?

To me, Vincent Price is one of the few actors in the world who has the gift to raise the quality of any material he touches.  I am Legend is a fine example of this.  I love the book, and I gotta think it's one of the more "unfilmable" books I've ever read.  Megastars of the 1970s and 2000s (Charlton Heston and Will Smith, respectively) both got a shot at the story in different adaptations, and both had only limited success with the material and the one-man-show nature of the story.  But Price's turn in The Last Man on Earth - an extremely low budget European production of the story - seems almost effortless at times.  Few actors of his generation were as gifted in monologue as Price was, and his ability to step up and take over makes it the most interesting adaptation of Matheson's book.  Heck, I like the other movies well enough - but I don't think the competition is even close.

Other Price films of the '50s and '60s were wise to frame their own stories around Price's talents.  To the horror fan, House on Haunted Hill was an invitation into Price's home for an evening, and Vincent got to play the perfect host in almost the whole film.  Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum are only a couple of examples of films that focused entirely on Price while urging the audience to hate his character.  Amazingly, the audience complied - and still left the film happy that they got to see Price in action.  Witchfinder General turned him loose in a more straight-faced role as real-life witchhunter Matthew Hopkins, but even that film is as much about the Vincent Price experience than it is about the historical events that it's following.
According to many anecdotes, Price never really bought in to the horror genre like most horror fans do.  When I recently read Jason Zinoman's great take on horror of the 1970s, Shock Value, I was struck with a bit of sadness during a section that talks about Price losing a televised battle of wits to a scholar/censor who was set on condemning the horror genre to the world.  Price knew where his money came from and knew there was a loving audience for his work, but you kind of get the feeling that he knew what he was doing wasn't high art.

And yet, his performances never suffered.  Even in the '70s, when his brand of horror had clearly been surpassed - case in point being William Castle's ousting from Rosemary's Baby, a film that was supposed to star Price, in favor of Roman Polanski  - Price found movies that kept him relevant to modern audiences.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes (which might be my favorite Price film) is a perfect example, as it gives Price the same kind of macabre role we'd expect from him while moving the setting to modern day London.  It's a film that bases murders on the Biblical plagues, but at the same time it's a film that bought in to modern British humor and allowed Price to teeter on the brink between the new and old brands of horror cinema.  And Price - who spent most of the film emoting only with his eyes - turned the role into a horror icon with ease.  The same formula, with a few twists, worked a couple of years later for Theatre of Blood, which replaced the Bible with the works of Shakespeare and kept letting Price do his thing.
Despite a generational gap, many of today's horror fans have grown up recognizing Price as the face and voice of horror cinema.  A large bit of credit must be played to his voice cameo at the end of Michael Jackson's iconic Thriller video, but Price was more than willing to keep showing up on TV and other mediums until his death.  Despite any troubles he had with taking the genre he is known for seriously, Price's willingness to hold on to the image horror fans of the '50s-'70s once knew helped keep the horror films that preceded Rosemary's Baby and its sort alive.  Even if those films aren't my favorite horror films, they often provide the best Midnight snack, and I'm extremely grateful that Vincent Price was willing to dedicate more than 40 years of his life to horror fans around the world.
Even if it was occasionally a pain in the neck.

1 comment:

Kev D. said...

Last Man on Earth still stands as one of my favorites... plus he has the best Laugh-To-Cry ever filmed.