October is upon us once more. It’s time for me to indulge my fondness for classic horror films and the actors who appeared in them. Boris Karloff, he of the deep sepulchre British-accented voice who brought such dimension to characters like the three thousand year old resurrected High Priest Imhotep in The Mummy (1932) and the murderous Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945), will forever be my favorite, but Vincent Price, with his debonair swagger and devilish wink in the eye, runs a very close second. When he’s on screen, he holds our gaze, and when he speaks — his baritone voice being as resonant as Karloff’s — we can’t help but hang on his every word. Like Karloff, he was often much better than the movies he starred/featured in, yet his presence alone could make them watchable. Now to highlight four of my favorite Price performances.
In The House of Seven Gables (1940), made at a time long before he’d achieved horror icon status, when Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with him, he played one of his few unambiguously sympathetic heroes. The movie itself is an enjoyable melodrama, as long as you don’t expect scrupulous fidelity to the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel on which it is only loosely based. As Clifford Pyncheon, in love with his cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) and framed for murder by his dastardly younger brother Jaffrey (George Sanders), Price gets a chance to age from a dashing lover full of youthful vigor and humor, so charming that he engages our rooting interest almost immediately, to a weary, disillusioned parolee trying to take hold of what remains of his life. He’s convincing throughout, showing himself to be one of the few young actors who could offer a nuanced portrayal of middle age. This performance alone should have convinced Hollywood it had a star on its hands. Alas, he had to wait a little longer before he won the fame he deserved.
By 1950 he still hadn’t become horror movie royalty, but he’d settled for the most part into villainous roles. He played them with relish, a delicious leer in his wonderful voice. In Champagne for Caesar, a comedy which lampoons the TV quiz show craze, he plays Burnbridge Waters, a soap company magnate conspiring to thwart a genius (Ronald Colman) who keeps winning too much money on the game show the company sponsors. While Colman plays his hero role with a light, deft touch, Price is a succulent honey-baked ham, sailing hilariously over the top whether he’s ascending to a “higher plane” where he supposedly gets his brilliant ideas, or contemplating drowning his troublesome foe in a huge vat of bubbling soapy water. He’s so much fun to watch that I can’t help liking him just a little, nefarious as he is.
NPR’s Glen Weldon calls The Masque of the Red Death (1964) the closest director Roger Corman ever came to making an actual good movie. I get where he’s coming from, but I don’t think his assessment is entirely fair, since by horror movie standards this is a good movie. By this time Price was well established as a horror star, and he had already made several films with Corman based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. House of Usher, The Pit and The Pendulum, Tales of Terror, and The Raven (a comedy co-starring Karloff and Peter Lorre) are all worth a look, but this one, which talks back to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with its hooded, card-playing Red Death, is the best, with superior plotting and art direction and, of course, superior acting by Price, who plays the sadistic Satanist Prince Propsero, a tyrant who pursues pleasure at the expense of both village peasants and his own “friends.” Many of Price’s protagonists in the Poe/Corman films are troubled men, or at least a little bothered by the situations in which they’re caught, but his Prospero enjoys being evil, and the touch of humor he brings to the table makes him all the more frightening.
One of Price’s most appealing traits, as a person and as an actor, was his willingness to take himself less than seriously, and (save perhaps in his narration for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) nowhere was this more in evidence than in his guest appearance on The Muppet Show. To be honest, I’m such a classic Muppet fan that any performer who guest-starred on the original show wins Cool Points with me, but what Price fan would not want to see him transform at the stroke of midnight into an orchestra leader (“Too cruel! Too inhuman!”), display shock when Kermit the Frog is able to turn into a vampire without years of training in the actor’s craft, and play the organ and sing a spooky cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”? A bonus: the episode shows him interacting with Uncle Deadly, who’s pretty much his Muppet doppelganger.
So this month let us distract ourselves from depressing election news and carve out a little space of time to spend with Vincent Price.