The Macabre Comfort of Vincent Price’s Films

For any horror fan, Vincent Price is a staple of the genre. Even those who aren’t big into horror will likely be familiar with his name, as an actor so successful he was awarded not one but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. From 1938 to the year he died (1993), Price curated an extensive filmography, and his legacy is very much alive to this day.

Since Price was in so many films (not to mention theatre and television programs), it would be far too time-consuming to cover them all, so I’ll only be discussing a select few of my personal favourites. For those of you unfamiliar, welcome to these delightful horrors! For those long-standing fans, welcome home.

The 1950s

Vincent Price in House of Wax (1953), looking terrified in his burning wax museum. A figure of Marie Antoinette is also burning in flames.

During this decade of Price’s career, he began to move into more regular horror film roles. The first of these was House of Wax (1953), directed by Andre DeToth. In it, Price plays a wax figure sculptor by the name of Professor Henry Jarrod whose museum is burned down by his business partner to gain insurance money. After being left for dead in the fire, Jarrod is disfigured and becomes murderous. Draped in a sinister cloak, he hunts down those related to people who have wronged him, starting with his business partner. Meanwhile, he opens a new wax museum with the help of assistants Igor and Leon. As is later revealed, Jarrod’s new wax figures are actually the corpses of his victims covered in wax.

The opening of House of Wax alone is dramatic and shocking, but the build-up of tension as we follow Jarrod’s murders and culmination in his ironic death via being knocked into a vat of wax is thoroughly thrilling. Price’s performance is menacing as the villain, yet the character is tragic due to his story being easy to sympathise with. Sure, the dead people wax museum is illegal and immoral, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to take a tour myself. Especially one led by Vincent Price—he has the perfect tour guide voice!

At the end of the decade, Price was in a couple of films directed by William Castle: The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill (both in 1959). The former is beautifully made, as discussed by J.C. Hotchkiss, but let’s have a chat about the latter. Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) invites five people for a house party, offering them each $10,000 should they survive a whole night in the supposedly haunted house. What ensues is an elaborate plan concocted by Loren’s wife and her lover to get rid of her husband. But of course, they can’t outwit the king of horror; he evades their attempts on his life and kills them instead by pushing them into a vat of acid.

The highlight and best-known part of House on Haunted Hill involves Loren puppeteering a skeleton to make it appear as though it’s moving by itself. It’s incredibly charming in its silliness but also its cleverness. In some theatres that showed the film, a gimmick (often used by Castle) involved a prop skeleton flying over the audience to scare them during the scene. If that isn’t the epitome of campy fun horror, I don’t know what is.

Roger Corman Films

Vincent Price as Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death (1964), looking scared as a crowd of hands reach towards him, a red hue lighting the scene.

In the 1960s, Price starred in a number of Edgar Allen Poe film adaptations directed by Roger Corman. Despite being low-budget, these films were very successful and are among the most memorable entries in Price’s filmography to this day.

Back in 2018, I was incredibly lucky to attend a screening of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) with Victoria Price as a special guest to introduce the film and discuss her father’s legacy. It was the first time I’d seen the film, and I found myself in possibly the best circumstances for that to be the case. The accompaniment of nostalgic reflection on how generous and loving Price was via his daughter naturally made the experience of the film that much more special, but the film itself is outstanding. It follows Francis Barnard (John Kerr) who is staying at his brother-in-law Nicholas Medina’s (Vincent Price) castle in 16th century Spain. Lots of family drama ensues, but it all revolves around a torture chamber in the bowels of the castle. In classic Price style, Nicholas goes insane and ends up attempting murder and torture of his guests.

Although the themes of the film are rather heavy, Price’s evident joy in performing shines through the darkness. Pure glee is visible in his eyes, making the story thoroughly enjoyable. The shocking ending (which I won’t spoil here, just in case) is sure to stick with you forever.

Another deeply satisfying Corman adaptation is The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Yet again, it involves Vincent Price (named Prince Prospero this time) inviting people to his castle, in medieval Italy this time. All of the nobles participate in a ball, which is crashed by a cloaked figure dressed in red; he causes a spread of the Red Death, killing all the party guests. It is revealed that the figure looks exactly like Prospero, and he kills him, too. The costumes during the ball scene are absolutely beautiful, and a blood-spattered, red-cloaked Price is a standout aesthetic choice. Once again, his villainy is unparalleled, as he plays the part of a sinister Satanist. It’s also extremely cathartic watching all the apathetic rich people get their comeuppance after dooming the poor villagers to death earlier on in the film. Eat the rich, baby!

An honourable mention here goes to The Raven (1963). Sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven (Vincent Price) is visited one night in 1506 by a raven, who turns out to be a wizard transformed by the evil Dr. Scarabus (Boris Karloff). Impressively, a real-life raven was involved, although it apparently enjoyed pooping on Jack Nicholson. Also, a wizard duel between Price and Karloff takes place towards the end of the film—yep, you read that right— consisting of silly tricks, witty insults, and floating on wires. It’s cinematic mastery. Unfortunately, Price didn’t enjoy having a snake around his neck for two hours during filming: “I hate snakes!” he later reported.

Later Works

Vincent Price and John Carradine in The Monster Club (1981) chatting in the bar. A poster of various supernatural creatures can be seen behind them. A green light is cast over the scene.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Price tended towards more overt horror-comedies. One from the beginning of this era is The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), directed by Robert Fuest. Price plays the eponymous Dr. Anton Phibes, a theology and music expert whose wife Victoria died during surgery. While speeding home after hearing the news of her passing, Phibes is in a car crash that leaves him scarred and mute, though assumed dead. A quest for vengeance follows, as he blames the doctors’ incompetence for Victoria’s death.

Dr. Phibes is such an aesthetically rich film, with elaborate costumes and set design that really set the tone. The Ten Plagues of Egypt is used as religious inspiration for Phibes’ murders, as he wears an amulet with Hebrew letters corresponding to his crimes. Towards the end, Phibes puts the son of the head doctor in what is essentially a Saw trap, which makes for great drama. To conclude, Phibes traps himself in a sarcophagus beside the embalmed body of his dead wife to evade the cops—it’s an oddly romantic Gothic ending. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet seen the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), but I have no doubt it’s just as entertaining.

Now, onto the ’80s, and my absolute favourite film on this list (which may be a bizarre choice to some): Roy Ward Baker’s The Monster Club (1981). In it, an author (John Carradine) is approached by vampire Eramus (Vincent Price), who drinks some blood from him and in return takes him to the titular monster club. Eramus tells the man three supernatural tales about various spooky creatures, punctuated by musical numbers from performers at the club.

Ironically, the film is based on a book by British horror author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, who disliked the adaptation due to silly humour, pop music, and changes to his stories. It was a commercial and critical failure, but I can’t emphasise what a success it is in my eyes. I mean, hello, ’80s pop songs about the supernatural, the spooky anthology format, Vincent Price as a suave vampire giving someone a tour of what feels like a gay bar—what more could you want? It’s a ridiculous amount of fun.

A couple of other ’80s Price films include House of the Long Shadows (1983), a horror-comedy starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine, and Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984), another British campy horror romp. Although the latter falls a little short for me, it’s one of Price’s more comedy-heavy roles (he actually gets to swear!), and the film is very much aware of his status as one of the greats, milking every moment he’s on-screen.

Vincent Price in The Raven (1963), peering at the eponymous bird.

Unlike any other horror film star, Vincent Price is remembered for his graceful yet sinister presence across the silver screen. His unique energy injected a special je ne sais quoi into each film he participated in, never giving anything less than his wonderful talent was capable of. It’s this that makes said films so compelling for the Halloween season, in particular; they’re atmospherically eerie, yet also oddly comforting, like settling down with a hot chocolate in front of a roaring fireplace on a chilly autumnal night. So take a seat, and settle into the spookiness!

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Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

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