I originally received this box set of six Vincent Price films on four Blu-Ray discs for Christmas, and now, as I make my way through them all again for the second time, I just had to make a blog post about it. Simply put, it is one of the best movie investments I have ever made. Make no mistake, this is not a collection cheaply put together like some of those horror DVD sets you see, where fifty movies are slapped together in a giant plastic box and labeled a “set”; the films are usually terrible, and in terrible condition, as the cheap retail price does not allow for restoration or special features. However, in this set, all are restored for a high-definition presentation, bringing the lively effects and haunting set decorations to life, as they have never been seen since perhaps they were first on the big-screen in the 1960’s. Price is one of my favorite actors, whose chilling and quirky voice and acting draws you in, and leads you to believe he has become whatever tortured character he is playing, often in the setting of a Gothic horror. Included in this set are The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and Witchfinder General. The first four are part of the legendary group of eight films loosely based on (and I mean loosely) the works of Edgar Allan Poe, all directed by Roger Corman, before he became unfortunately known as the “B-movie King”.
All four of those movies feature outstanding set design, exquisite acting, and very good screenwriting, as the production tried to elongate some of Poe’s short stories for a feature-length film. While the finished products bear little to no resemblance of what Poe had in mind, the one theme is common: torture, either mentally, or physically. In each film, Price is brilliant, showing off his wide range of talents in this horror genre. While known as a villain throughout his career, rarely did he actually play one. Instead, usually it was the setting itself that was the “monster”, and Price a not-so-innocent victim of its out-lashing. He could be restrained as Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher, or over-the-top as Don Medina in The Pit and the Pendulum. A bloodthirsty, Satan-worshiping prince in The Masque of the Red Death, or a naive and undeservedly anguished homeowner in The Haunted Palace.
Price and the horror genre aside, these four Poe/Corman flicks are a wonderful study of film-making in an era before CGI and green-screen effects. The special effects might be a bit dated, but seeing where actual sets meet matte paintings, and how clever camera trickery was used instead of digitally adding something shows just how ingenious Corman was, and had to be, in order to pull off these films on such small budgets, rarely eclipsing $200,000. For people who only know him for his recent fluff, often times, downright terrible B and C level made-for-TV movies, they should give these a try, and see just how talented the man really is.
As for the other two films, they too were produced by the same company, American International Pictures, with low budgets, but were not directed by Corman. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of the most outrageous movies you will ever see in your life. In this darkly comic murder-fest, Price plays a doctor who was thought to be long-dead from a car accident, along with his wife who was fatally injured but died on the operating table. As it turns, Price survived the wreck, living as a hideously deformed man in near isolation, plotting revenge on the nine doctors or nurses present during his wife’s hospital death. He tries to murder each of them in the shape of one of the biblical plagues, making the killings not only outlandish, but very creative. Overall, it is not a great movie, but definitely deserves its place on the list of films which give you that “WTF?” reaction. It is a classic in its own right, and almost deserves a genre of its own.
Lastly is a very controversial film at the time of its release, Witchfinder General (renamed The Conqueror Worm in the USA, to keep with the success of Poe films, even though it has nothing to do with the author at all). In this one, which is not horror and actually based on a true story, Price plays a man named Matthew Hopkins, a church-appointed “witchfinder” in the 1600’s, who traveled England searching for witches and brutally torturing and executing them. Vincent Price plays the blackest character of his career in this one, which is only horrifying because the film is a true story (except for the ending). The movie was banned in several countries and heavily re-cut in others due to the amount of torture, and even a witch-burning. By today’s standards, it might not be so bad, perhaps PG-13 level violence, but for the time, it was quite shocking. The director, Michael Reeves, was young and up-and-coming. While he and Price got into many arguments on the set (referring to him as “that God-damned boy genius”), Price declared that Reeves had a bright future ahead of him and wanted to work with him again. Unfortunately, the world would never know his talents, as he would die from an accidental drug overdose a year later, while prepping for another horror film, The Oblong Box, which also starred Price.
Perhaps the best feature of the “Vincent Price Collection” is an hour-long interview on the fourth disc, conducted by David Del Valle for Sinister Image, back in 1987. In these sixty minutes, we get to see the real Vincent Price, who is a stark comparison to the roles he has played on-screen. It is like watching your grandfather, as Price was very congenial, polite, witty, and humorous at times, taking the viewer on a lightning-tour through his horror career, including interactions with a lot of other stars along the way. A lover of art, food, and entertainment, he is just a regular guy. For those who never took Price seriously, you will learn that he never did either, making sure to have fun on the sets of some very dark movies and always be willing to make fun of himself. He is a man who loved to work, whether it was radio, television, theater, or films, and who wanted to keep working until he died, admitting that he did not understand what “retirement” is. You will leave with a sense of respect for this man, who, despite some hammy movies, always turned in a top-notch performance and giving it his all. While not always a star of horror, it is what he will be forever known for. Perhaps the genre which made him a legend also robbed him of a chance at artistic recognition—Price never received an Oscar, not even an honorary one. This interview is almost worth the price of the entire set (no pun intended), and I recommend that you watch it before any of the films.
Here’s to hoping that Theater of Blood will get a Blu-Ray release soon (it was originally titled Much Ado About Murder, which I think is far better). It is my favorite Price film (also his own personal favorite) about a washed-up theater actor who survives a suicide attempt and then returns to murder all of the critics who wrote negative reviews about him in the way a character was killed in Shakespeare’s tragedies (i.e. an extraction of a pound of flesh, etc, etc, as not to spoil the fun for you). Price always wanted to play Shakespeare, but was typecast as a horror villain and could never get a role like that. This film, directed by Douglas Hickox (Zulu Dawn) combined both, in one of the most creative and murderous horror movies you will ever see in your life.