On October 25th, 1993, we lost a horror icon – Vincent Price. Baby boomers grew up watching Price in Roger Corman’s B-movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. For horror-obsessed Canadian kids like me who grew up in the 1970’s and 1980s’, Vincent Price was Dr. Anton Phibes and the host of Hamilton-produced kids show, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Younger horror fans may know Price as the narrator from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Regardless of where you first saw Vincent Price, there is no denying his status as a horror legend. His name belongs among stars that include Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. For this edition of The Chopping Block, I take a brief look at Vincent Price’s best work.
Vincent Price is ‘The Last Man on Earth’ (1964)
The Last Man on Earth was the first attempt to translate Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to the screen. At first glance, Vincent Price may not seem to fit the source material compared to a Charlton Heston or Will Smith. Nevertheless, this 1964 movie may actually be the best version. Contrary to most of his horror output, Price gets to play an ‘everyman’ in The Last Man on Earth. Some of the action and horror elements haven’t aged well. But the movie still manages to haunt with its ‘end of the world’ atmosphere. And Price convinces as a man struggling with to find meaning in emptiness.
Highlight: The final moments when Price discover that he is in fact the monster and not the vampires he has been hunting.
‘Theatre of Blood’ (1973) is Vincent Price at His Campy Best
Critics often accused Price of being ‘hammy’. Well, in Theatre of Blood, Price obliges his critics with an intentionally over-the-top performance. Price plays Edward Lionheart, a failed Shakespearean actor, taking revenge agains the critics who humiliated him. A spiritual sequel to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Price is clearly having a blast with his tongue-in-cheek performance. Theater of Blood also benefits from a uniquely staged narrative. The death scenes are imaginative and grandly staged. Movies like Saw and Se7en have a bit of Theatre of Blood in their DNA.
Highlight: A disguised Lionheart tricks a critic to eat his ‘babies’, a pair of poodles, baked into a pie, a la Titus Andronicus.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) Marks a Shift for Vincent Price
In yet another Roger Corman adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, Price excels as the tyrannical Prince Prospero. While townsfolk suffer from the ‘Black Death’, Prospero, a Satanist, throws a lavish ball in his palace. Throughout the evening, Prospero is haunted by a figure cloaked in red. The Masque of the Red Death is a more artistic, eccentric movie compared to some of Price’s other work. Several scenes have more in common with a nightmare than structured narrative. Arguably, there is probably only one other movie where Price shined this much as the villain as he does here.
Highlight: The ‘dance of death’ as the figure in read, Death itself, arrives at the ball and unleashes the plague upon Prospero’s guests.
Price Plays ‘The Pit and Pendulum’ (1961)
The Pit and and the Pendulum was the second Edgar Allan Poe-inspired movie Vincent Price did with Roger Corman and American International Pictures (AIP). An English nobleman visits his brother-in-law, played by Price, to learn how his sister died. It’s a delightfully old-fashioned, gothic thriller. An old castle, ghostly sounds in the night, hidden passageways, and dark secrets – it’s all here in this movie. Price delivers a sad, haunting performance. While it lacks contemporary big budget special effects, the climatic scene with Francis Barnard strapped to the table with the pendulum swinging above him remains breathtaking.
Highlight: The final scene where we discover that Elizabeth is in fact alive, locked in the Iron Maiden, and sealed to her doom.
‘House of Wax’ (1953) Introduces Price to Horror Fans
House of Wax marked Vincent Price’s transition from supporting actor in dramas to bona fide horror star. It’s an atmospheric thriller with a premise that stood out as unique at the time of its release. This time around, Price plays a more tragic horror figure as compared to some of the more outright villainous characters that would later define his career.
Highlight: House of Wax’s climatic finale as Price looks to create his newest wax figurine.
Witchfinder General (1968)
British-American historical thriller, Witchfinder General, was a very different type of movie for Price. Typical of his other movie, Price plays yet another sadistic and villainous character. But Witchfinder General was a much more serious and brutal movie than his usual work. Perhaps fitting of this distinction, Price delivered a more restrained performance as witch-hunter Matthew Reeves.
Highlight: Price describing the test for witchcraft is haunting stuff, even after 50 years.
The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
I named the site after this film, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve included at the top of my list. Like Theatre of Blood, Phibes is a campy 70’s revenge horror film. Price plays the titular Dr. Phibes. A horribly disfigured man believed to be dead after a fatal car crash. He uses the plagues Moses visited upon Egypt in Exodus to take revenge against the doctors who failed to save his wife. Though Price doesn’t have much dialogue, he’s convincingly menacing with his glaring expressions. This is an utterly 70’s piece of filmmaking with several idiosyncratic bits. It’s also an utterly watchable movie that has influenced countless horror movies.
Highlight: Phibes coats a nurse with a syrup from a hole in the ceiling, and then releases a swarm of locusts to feed on her.