Where to Start with Vincent Price

If there was a prize for the voice in all of film history that could be recognised in a single word, even just a vowel sound, the voice of Vincent Price should be in serious consideration for top honours. Throughout the 20th century, Vincent Price became beloved as a legend of horror cinema, although only a third of his roles were in the genre, revered alongside other icons such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine (though the four of them only got together for one film, The House of Long Shadows in 1983). Standing very tall, at an imposing 6 feet and 4 inches, his grace and gravitas instantly hold the attention of anyone watching him perform, and he truly is once seen, never forgotten. Sometimes even heard and never forgotten, as is the case with his narration of the poem in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, or his part in Alice Cooper’s track “Devil’s Food”.

Born to a wealthy candy-industry leader in St Louis, Missouri, and a grandfather who had invented baking powder decades prior, young Vincent grew up in a well-off family surrounded by siblings who all pursued high academic prospects. Despite being initially pushed towards a musical side in his childhood, he eventually found art much more to his liking, taking tours of Europe on the cusp of manhood to see the great paintings in Florence and Paris that he had only seen in tiny reproductions. That he eventually found he lacked an artistic flair himself didn’t stop him maintaining an interest in it throughout his life. At Yale during the stock market crash of 1929, his father’s candy business allowed him to stay afloat during times when others around him were throwing themselves out of windows.

Having acted in plays at school (and formed a friendship with future playwright Tennessee Williams), he eventually found himself in London to study Art History and English. Whilst there, at the pushing of friends, he found himself entering a few professional theatre productions. The first of these would be a production of “Chicago”, before he stumbled into a meteoric rise to fame as Prince Albert alongside Helen Hayes’s Queen Victoria in “Victoria Regina”. Upon seeking advice from Hayes as to where to go next, with offers from David Selznick coming through, he was asked ‘do you think you really know your craft?’, to which he replied, honestly, ‘No.’ To this end, he went and learned his skills on stage, touring up and down the country with theatre productions night after night, taking serious acting classes, experimenting with success and failure, until he finally found himself ready for leading roles in both theatre and in pictures.

Although he took on a variety of parts throughout his years, horror is where he would eventually make his mark. Starring in the first colour 3D picture with House of Wax in 1953 seemed to set him on this path, though it wasn’t the instant ticket to immortality he had wished, despite the success. Helping out maverick low-budget filmmaker William Castle in films such as The Tingler (which included a scene of the eponymous creature escaping in a cinema, causing the real screen to black out; the screams of the real-life audience would allow them to chase it down and contain it) and House on Haunted Hill (Castle’s gimmick for this one was to rig up skeletons to fly over audiences throughout the picture), further cemented his legacy. For more serious turns, his take as Robert Morgan in The Last Man On Earth, the first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s ground-breaking “I Am Legend”, is still wonderful, and it’s impossible to forget his imposing, malevolent cruelty in Witchfinder General, one of folk-horror’s unholy trinity, along with The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man.

Always a lover of life, Price did more than act. He released cookery books and TV shows (which included tips on how to cook salmon in a dishwasher), appeared on ‘The Muppets’ later in life, started art galleries, and of course lent his voice to Michael Jackson. Changing marriages would put a strain on the relationship with his daughter, Victoria, though in later years they reconnected and re-established the relationship they had lost. He was, as Victoria says in her book “Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography”, a fantastic lover of life and everything in it, ‘a Renaissance man in an age of specialists, a Victorian aesthete who mastered the twentieth-century’s media.’

Despite the extensive breadth and depth of his performances, for this guide we can only discuss three of his films, selected for a variety of roles over a range of years throughout his career. Many other fantastic films are out there, over a hundred of them in fact, for Price went long in his career and never seemed to stop working, reinventing himself even in the late 1980s and 90s. If you would like a range of his talents, however, these three selections should hopefully suffice. This is Where to Start with Vincent Price.

1. Dragonwyck (1946)

Before he became a true master of menace, Vincent Price had to earn his chops. After years in theatre and in smaller roles, one of his first true leading parts in film was in Dragonwyck, a gothic drama based on the 1944 novel of the same name by Anya Seton, picked up after Gregory Peck dropped out. Co-starring double-Oscar-nominated Gene Tierney (the fourth film to star Price and Tierney) and future Oscar-winner Walter Huston, Dragonwyck is a sumptuous, aristocratic gothic drama very much playing on the success of Rebecca (1940) from a few years earlier. Farm girl Miranda (Tierney) is taken on by her distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), a wealthy landowner, to be a companion and tutor for his young daughter. Nicholas’s charms, however, aren’t as gracious as they seem, and amidst Miranda’s troubles to fit into a world she feels she doesn’t belong in, Nicholas slowly brings that force to bear on her, wellbeing be damned, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants and needs.

The film itself is a feast for the eyes, transforming what might have otherwise been a fairly standard gothic melodrama into something visually arresting. The sets are magnificent, the cinematography by Arthur C. Miller beautiful, and the costumes are of that old-school style where every piece of clothing feels like it should be in a palace museum. Contrasting starkly with the simplistic farmhouse of Miranda’s family, the prominent class-based themes of the narrative are given visual representation in grand style. Tierney’s grace and charm is easy to see, which is perhaps why she started a short affair with John F. Kennedy after they met when he visited the set, though, despite her trying to get a divorce from designer Oleg Cassini to marry Kennedy, nothing came of it.

The whole picture is cemented by Vincent Price’s imposing, grand, aristocratic presence. He lights up the screen whenever he’s in the frame, giving an air of gravitas and artistry to every scene. When he is calm and measured you can feel a power emanating from him, and when he needs to fly into a rage, his eyes flare up and he gives himself fully to the role. His voice is a little lower than it would be in later years, but it still sounds like the iconic Vincent Price that fans will grow to know and love in years to come. The picture in its entirety isn’t perfect, but as an example of what Price will come to be in his early years, there’s almost no choice better.

2. The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

In the 1960s, Vincent Price hit the horror scene hard, through his multiple roles in Roger Corman’s cycle of films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. From Masque of the Red Death to Tales of Terror, Price held fast in these lavish Technicolor sets, the American response to Hammer’s growing gothic horror prominence. In adapting Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” for their first venture, Price’s turn as Roderick Usher, tormented by ancestors and being seemingly cursed with a ‘morbid acuteness of the senses’, establishes the archetype for horror that he would seemingly hold for the rest of his career.

The film itself is one of those inpossible visual feats that comes to define an era. Lavish colours are splashed everywhere in mad excitement, making the most of the Technicolor revival of the times, and Corman’s direction and production makes everything almost psychedelic in its visuals. When combined with the classic gothic aesthetics of creaking castle walls, smoke, ghosts and decay, it gives an incredible atmosphere. Richard Matheson’s script brings the atmospheric strangeness of the original tale to life, extending it over the eighty minutes without stretching it too far, and when Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey join in, the theatrics get heightened to extraordinary new peaks.

All of this is in service to Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. Price was Corman’s first choice for the role, and what a stroke of genius it turned out to be, despite American International Pictures being very worried about trying to find the cash for his $50,000 price tag. With a strange twist on his role as Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck, he combines that aristocratic air with a softer, more subtle madness. Fully comfortable in the genre now, after turns in William Castle’s pictures and House of Wax earlier in the decade, Price’s calm, quiet voice tinges every moment of the film with the madness his character embodies. When the tension mounts and things get stranger, Price still remains the dominant force, still channelling some of his Dragonwyck charm through his insanity. Price is what we’ve come for, it’s his face on the posters, and he remains the star attraction of one of the most iconic roles of his career.

3. Vincent (1982)

It would be very easy to select almost anything else of Price’s career for a place to begin. Yet part of Price’s power is the legacy he has left, and the influence he has had on other writers, actors, directors, musicians, and visual artists. He eclipsed the roles he took on, and in many ways those roles simply became extensions of Vincent Price himself. Nothing sums this up more than the relationship he would establish in the last few years of his life with Tim Burton, who went on to give him one of his final roles in Edward Scissorhands. Before Burton became known for his gothic stylings, launching himself to international stardom with films like Beetlejuice and Batman (Price had also played Egghead in several episodes of the 60s ‘Batman’ series), Burton shot Vincent, a black and white stop-motion short film made whilst Burton was a conceptual artist at Disney.

Vincent follows a young boy named Vincent Malloy, a morbid child obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe, turning his dog Abercrombie into a zombie, and wishing with all his heart to grow up to be just like his idol, Vincent Price, thanks in part to sharing his name. Drawing on the stylings of the German Expressionist film movement of the 1920s (just as Price took inspiration from the paleness of Conrad Veigt in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari for his performance in House of Usher), and even early animation icons like Lotte Reiniger, Burton puts the action to an original poem spoken by Price. With a small pre-cameo by Jack Skellington (who wouldn’t get his own film for another thirteen years with The Nightmare Before Christmas), the film is perhaps the most Tim Burton a Tim Burton film has ever been, showing all the trademarks he would become known for.

Despite this display of Burtonian excess, what the film truly highlights is how much Vincent Price had come to mean to a whole generation of artists and filmmakers, even by 1982. The character of young Vincent is often seen dressed in an aristocratic dressing gown, much like Price as Roderick Usher in Corman’s film. It is a love letter to the previous generation by the (then) current. Price would later describe Vincent as being better than a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the most rewarding thing he’d ever done. For a man of self-described ‘bohemian’ attitudes, a love of life and people and with an insatiable curiosity, who had met royalty (Hollywood or actual) from countries across the globe even from an early age, to have this short little animation by a then-unknown artist be the best thing he’d done is a monumental statement. In a way, Vincent is Price’s life and career were summed up in six minutes; a fitting tribute to a magnificent actor and astonishing human being.

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