The horror thriller offers the serious actor unique opportunities to test his ability to make the unbelievable believable.
~ Vincent Price
When someone says Vincent Price, I’m sure that his most popular classics are what spring to mind. “House on Haunted Hill“, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, “House of Usher”, “House of Wax” (man, he did a lot of house movies!), or even “Theatre of Blood”. And there’s no question, these films are first rate, A+ cinematic creations. Scary, suspenseful, and full of clever wordplay that only a master like Price could deliver with a dry wit that’ll charm the pants right off of you, regardless of how evil his character may be.
On the 22nd anniversary of the Master of Menace’s death, I thought it would be appropriate to introduce you all to a few of Price’s lesser-known chiller films, ones that you may have never seen or even heard of before. Because no matter the role or situation, or how good or bad the script, a Vincent Price film is fun to watch simply because Price is in it.
Even though Dracula will always be my monster of choice, if I had to pick a favourite classic Universal monster movie, “The Invisible Man” is my go-to. In 1933, it was actor Claude Rains who donned the suit and sunglasses. He was so good, wasn’t he? He portrayed Jack Griffin’s slow and inevitable descent into madness with impressive gusto. That scene where he unwraps himself, cackling like a lunatic, is pure creep-tastic magic.
There were two subsequent Invisible Man films after the original. “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940), and “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944). In the latter, Jon Hall plays Robert Griffin (no character relation, just a way to superficially tie it to the other films, I guess), an escaped murderer who becomes the guinea pig for scientist Dr. Peter Drury’s (John Carradine) invisibility experiments. But it’s “The Invisible Man Returns” that’s truly special. Why, you ask? Because it stars our old pal Vinnie P., that’s why!
Oh, you didn’t realize that Vincent Price played the Invisible Man? Yeah, he sure did.
This film was written as a sequel to the original “Invisible Man”, featuring Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), as the brother of Rains’s Jack-now-John Griffin. Price’s character, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, is wrongfully accused of murdering his brother, and uses Griffin’s new gift of invisibility to break out of jail and search for the real murderer… hopefully before the serum drives him mad.
Now remember, this is back in the 1940s. We’re talking about classic Universal films, made in the Golden Age of Hollywood. This is way before expensive, technology-heavy CGI took over. And I must confess that I love all of the wonderful rudimentary special effects that the studio pulls off here. After Radcliff escapes, we see disembodied footprints tramping down grass, and branches being thrown aside to reveal a hidden suitcase with clothing inside. We “see” the shoes just lift right out of the suitcase, then the jacket, vest and pants. The black and white photography is stunning, clear and sharp, and yet there are no wires visible. It looks for all intents and purposes that yes, an invisible man is pulling the clothing out, and it never fails to impress me.
All of the effects scenes were done with my involvement. It was terribly tedious as I had to be dressed from top to toe in black velvet and I had to work against a set draped in black velvet. John Fulton, whose ingenuity contrived it all, was the leading special effects man at that time. I enjoyed it. The tedium was ultimately more than worthwhile, and I love special effects.
Even more impressive is when Radcliff undresses, piece by piece. Just fantastic. It’s a popular saying that an artist is only as good as his tools. But I argue that a true artist makes beautiful art with whatever tools happen to be at his disposal. It’s about the talent of the artist, not the tools he’s using.
This not only applies to the studio’s special effects department, but also to the actors and actresses themselves. And Vincent Price is a prime example. It doesn’t matter how bad a script is. When other people’s abilities are lacking — be it in writing, acting or directing — an actor with a talent like Price’s can make up for it with his own God-given gifts.
The only real complaint I have about this film is that Price’s legendary voice is not immediately recognizable. His famous crooning purr has been greatly suppressed for the role, replaced by an artificial stage accent which lacks Price’s unmistakable Missouri twang (as I’ve heard it called). And it’s even further muffled by the bandages obscuring his face.
But if you sit down to watch this film, knowing that Price is the lead, then there are definitely some moments where that inimitable, eloquent yet sneering voice slips through and you go, “Hey, that’s Vincent Price!”
While Price was technically the “monster” in “The Invisible Man Returns”, it was this next film where he plays a far more familiar Price-type monster — the devious villain.
No question, “Shock” (1946) is my favourite obscure Vincent Price film. No more bandages. No more phony, sotto voce voice. No, this right here is the more debonair and sinister Vincent Price. And that’s just the way I like him.
He plays Dr. Richard Cross, a doctor of the psychiatric variety. So: Doctor… psychiatric hospital… Vincent Price… “shock”… Oh, this is gonna be good.
Poor Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) has just witnessed a murder. Looking out her window, she sees a man strike his wife with a candlestick, killing her. The shock is too much for her, and leaves her unresponsive and in a near-comatose state. Her husband Paul (Frank Latimore) enlists the help of Dr. Cross who suddenly — WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD — takes special interest in this patient’s well being. As Janet begins to come around, she recognizes the good doctor… as the man who committed the murder she witnessed. Cross’s lover and nurse Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari) urges him to permanently silence the girl, and Cross’s last-minute pang of conscience makes for a killer (pun intended) climax.
The film has a running time of only 70 minutes, which seems short. But those are 70 minutes of good, tight writing, packed full of suspense and tension. “Shock” is the very definition of a thriller. Great atmosphere, and Price is on point throughout.
This is one of the first Price films I ever watched, and I’d rank his performance in “Shock” right up there with that of Frederick Loren in “House on Haunted Hill”. This is Vincent Price in his element, the perfect role for a man whose whole on-screen presence can be summed up as the marriage of sinister and suave, joined forever in deliciously unholy matrimony.
But Price was no one-trick headless horseman of Halloween. (Or one-trick pony. I like my analogy better.) Yes, it’s his villainous trysts that we love best, but this next film sees our favourite bad guy go from playing offense to defense, slowing down the pace and finding himself the victim instead of the aggressor for a change.
1964’s “The Last Man on Earth” was adapted from TZ-favourite Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”. (He was credited under the pseudonym Logan Swanson.) This is sort of a zombie/vampire hybrid story, to be honest. Mystery plague infects humanity, leaving the infected either dead-dead or turning them into the walking dead. Mankind’s last hope is Dr. Robert Morgan, who is unaffected by the outbreak. Determined to find a cure, our hero barricades himself in his house at night, and plays vampire hunter during the day — seeking out as many of the undead blood sucking, flesh eaters as he can, killing them… before they can kill him.
There are few actors who could pull off the role of Dr. Robert Morgan. As far as we know, he is literally the last man on earth. It’s a depressing delve into desperation, and the film is essentially a monologue by Price, who feels the loss of his wife and daughter constantly. And honestly? Other than maybe Peter Cushing, Price is the ONLY actor who could essentially spend close to 90 minutes talking to himself and not bore the hell out of me.
Now yes, he’s not entirely alone. Eventually he meets Ruth Collins (Franca Bettoia), a woman who unbeknownst to Morgan is part of an infected group undergoing treatment to keep the disease at bay. And they have some pretty scary plans for ol’ Planet Earth. But basically, this is Price being a one-man show, and he nails it as only he could.
There are some fantastic twists to this film, and it’s not difficult to see where so many modern sci-fi/horror shows/films took their cues from. I’m currently enjoying FX’s “The Strain”, and it definitely gives a few nods to the film. Even George Romero was obviously influenced by “The Last Man on Earth”. The similarities between the Price film and Romero’s 1968 classic “The Night of the Living Dead” are uncanny. Especially the scenes where the zombie/vampires lay siege to the doctor’s house. Very, very similar aesthetics at play.
Interestingly enough, I read that originally Hammer Film Productions were set to adapt and produce “I Am Legend”. But even with a script penned by Matheson already in hand, it was not to be. British censors blocked its production, and the script was sold to the film’s eventual producer Robert Lippert.
I mention this because much to even my own surprise, I’m grateful that “The Last Man on Earth” wasn’t produced by Hammer. This story requires a subtlety and gentleness of touch that I don’t think Hammer could have achieved. I wouldn’t even want “The Last Man on Earth” filmed in colour, let alone have it dripping in Hammer-ific Technicolor blood and zombie guts.
This film is about the story. It’s about how Price’s character feels, how he deals with the harsh reality that closes in on him by the minute, threatening to suffocate him and leave him broken and without hope. I’ve heard criticism of Price’s seemingly limp, disinterested, zeal-less portrayal of earth’s lone survivor, but think about it. He’s a man all alone in a world of monsters trying to take his life. Everything and everyone he loved is gone. He’s distraught and exhausted. No, he’s not Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, wielding his wooden stakes and crucifix like some kind of badass rockstar. He’s not SUPPOSED to be. Think of his state of mind. This quote from the film sums it up nicely, I think: “Another day to live through; better get started. December, 1965 — is that all it has been since I inherited the world, only three years? Seems like a hundred million…” Morgan should seem a bit despondent. So I believe that the film’s overall muted tone was the appropriate way to handle this particular story. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch “The Last Man on Earth” here.
Up until now, the films we’ve covered have maintained a certain level of enjoyable fun — despite all the zombie vampires and the murders, I mean. But now we cautiously creep into a darker period of Vincent Price’s career, with two films that are much more serious in nature than the others.
I’ve been a Price fan since I was just a young ghoul. “House on Haunted Hill” is my favourite film of all time, and I probably first saw it when I was only 4 or 5 years old. But there was one Price film that my dad said I had to see. I’m only 29, but we’re still talking pre-internet and DVD days, when watching any and every movie under the sun with a single click of your mouse was still a pipe dream.
“The Conqueror Worm” (1968), perhaps better known by its original UK title, “Witchfinder General”, is one of Vincent Price’s rare, grossly underappreciated gems. This was the film that I had to watch. About 10 years ago, I finally found it on VHS, bought it and watched it. And my dad was right. What an intense cinematic achievement it is. Haunting and very poignant.
As the original name implies, “Witchfinder General” deals with the subject of witch hunting… and torturing, and punishing. Price is unforgettable in his commanding performance as Matthew Hopkins, a character based on the real-life 17th century English witch-hunter of the same name. Hopkins died in 1647, but the practice of witch hunting didn’t die with him, manifesting in the New World, Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The film’s portrayal of cruelty and violence will definitely make you uncomfortable, and Price’s cold, merciless demeanour is unnerving to say the least. Part of me will always want to share a drink in a haunted mansion with Frederick Loren, or fight life-sucking corpses alongside Dr. Morgan. But the only place I’m interested in seeing Matthew Hopkins is six feet underground. He’s an awful, heartless man.
Two years later, Price starred in “Cry of the Banshee” — a film that’s also about witch hunting. Once again, Price plays a truly despicable, pious, cutthroat cad — Lord Edward Whitman.
Both of these films are frightening because the type of events being dramatized are not made up. People WERE rounded up and tortured for practicing witchcraft (among other things). They DID lose their lives. Men like Lord Whitman and Matthew Hopkins actually existed in our history, committing terrible atrocities, and in the name of God no less, which makes them all the more contemptible.
And that is, to me, what makes horror truly scary — when fantasy and reality cross paths. Because for all the make-believe monsters that give our children nightmares, as adults we know that the real monsters are the ones inside of us. Real people who are just like us, minus any conscience or compassion. When that line between fact and fiction, real and make-believe gets blurred, that’s where you find real terror.
Now, we can’t go TOO far over the line, where fantasy disappears completely and we’re left watching a 90 minute true-to-life re-enactment of the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition. No, if the producers did that, then it would cease to be entertaining and would instead (hopefully) elicit some serious thinking on the part of the viewers, about how little some of our ancestors valued human life.
And this is what separates “Witchfinder General” from “Cry of the Banshee”, and from pretty much every other Vincent Price movie out there.
In the latter, the witches are real. They even worship Satan, which allows us, the viewers, to at least in part excuse these “men of God” from their violent and pernicious actions.
“On this evil day, I curse Lord Edward Whitman! I curse his flesh, his blood, his wife, his children, and his house. God Satan, I conjure you to send me an avenger, so terrible that death shall wrench them once forever from this earth. I conjure you, God Satan, send me an avenger!”, cries Oona, the leader of the local witch coven after magistrate Whitman and his henchmen kill half of them and banish the others. So with just a little squinting, we can overlook Whitman’s blatant disregard for the basic dignity of the poor villagers, his vulgarity and lack of common decency. We can picture him not as the villain of this story, but rather as the ill-tempered man whose family has been cursed by a devil-worshipping witch.
“Witchfinder General” is another story entirely. Price’s Matthew Hopkins is the villain here. The only villain. Abusing his power and influence to do whatever he wants. Raping a young girl and torturing whomever he can get his hands on. The film is extremely violent and graphic in places, and Vincent Price delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, making you believe that for once he IS a bad guy with not a single virtue to his name.
And isn’t this exactly why we love Vincent Price so much? Why we can watch his films over and over again? They’re classic, timeless and ageless. His talent knew no bounds. No matter the role, our minister of the macabre always rose to the challenge. He seized the story, good, bad or mediocre, and created something memorable and inspiring. Something to be enjoyed in darkened living rooms on cold October nights for many generations to come.
If you look up only one film from my list, please, make it “Witchfinder General”. It will give you new appreciation for Price as an actor. And it will also serve to remind you that if you go in search of real horror, the kind that haunts your very soul, you need look no further than the world right outside your door.
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .