With his lanky frame, leonine features, and silky-smooth voice, Vincent Price easily could have made a name for himself as a conventional leading man, a type he was clearly being groomed for early in his career with films like Laura, but instead chose the meatier and more rewarding path of the chameleonic character actor. By the late 1950s, Price was well on his way to being one of cinema’s most charismatic heavies with roles in genre gems like House of Wax and The Tingler. But it was the series of films Price made with producer-director Roger Corman in the early 1960s, based (albeit loosely) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, that cemented his reputation as a true horror icon. The Vincent Price Collection offers up a fearsome foursome of Corman films, as well as a tonally disparate pair of movies Price made later in his career.
House of Usher sets the template for the rest of the Poe cycle, spotlighting the elegant contributions of DP Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller. Corman employs a wide array of stylistic flourishes that later films will amplify to increasingly surreal effect: distorting wide-angle lenses, colored filters and gel lights, patently artificial backdrops, and matte paintings. Richard Matheson’s script necessarily expands on Poe’s original story—though to a lesser extent than elsewhere. Platinum-cropped Roderick Usher (Price) strums his lute and laments the morbid acuteness of his senses to brash interloper Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon). Emissary of Enlightenment rationality, Winthrop doggedly insists on liberating fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey) from the rank superstitions of her accursed ancestral abode, only ensuring both her and its annihilation in the bargain.
The Pit and the Pendulum is a slow burner choicely characterized by Price’s line: “The atmosphere is heavy in here.” Broadly paralleling the pattern set by the first film, it ups the ante with a matched pair of siblings: Nicholas Medina (Price) and his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders), are visited by Francis Bernard (John Kerr), whose investigation into the untimely demise of his sister, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), unleashes a staggering series of betrayals and murders. Matheson’s script is a Freudian fever dream wherein primal scene turns inescapably into primal scream, dooming Nicholas to an inexorable compulsion to repeat the past’s torturous traumas. The final 15 minutes are a marvel of economical editing, outrageously expressionistic set design, and the mesmerizing power of subtle suggestion.
Though The Haunted Palace takes its title from Poe’s poetry, which Price solemnly intones over the opening and closing credits, the plot is actually based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” marking the first time Lovecraft was adapted for film. Ancestral evil in the form of executed warlock Joseph Curwen (Price) possesses Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) when he accepts inheritance of Curwen’s estate in rural New England. Price gets to blow hot and cold in his dual role, Lon Chaney Jr. turns up as a menacing manservant, and Debra Paget looks lovely as Ward’s willowy wife, but the real treats here are the chilly cinematography (all done up in tenebrous blacks and icy blues) and some outstanding set designs and dressings, especially the eerie portrait of Joseph Curwen that looms over the mantelpiece.
A triumph of exquisite pictorialism thanks to Nicolas Roeg’s color-coded cinematography, The Masque of the Red Death leavens its slender storyline, in which a group of sybaritic nobles who retreat to a remote castle in the vain hope of avoiding the titular plague, by tossing in a sizeable subplot lifted straight from Poe’s gruesome revenger “Hop-Frog.” Amid the antic revelry, Prince Prospero (Price) seeks to seduce an innocent peasant lass (Jane Asher) over to the dark arts, while his mistress (Hazel Court) longs to enter Satan’s service. Borrowing some of its key imagery from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Corman crafts an eminently unsettling morality play limned in the lurid lineaments of “darkness and decay and the Red Death.”
Whereas Price’s Poe adaptations were apt to be ornate and histrionic affairs, Witchfinder General is lean and mean, a brutal bit of business for which Price turns in a restrained yet menacing performance. Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a government-sponsored witch hunter traversing an English countryside riven by the depredations of civil war and putting anyone he pleases to the rack. With 24-year-old writer-director Michael Reeves in perfect tune with the tumultuous times (the film was fittingly enough released in May 1968), Witchfinder General lays bare the bloody violence inherent in the system, and ends on an uncommonly bleak note of irremediable madness and unquenchable bloodlust.
With its lavish art-deco set designs, cheeky shout-outs to earlier genre classics, and goofy Grand Guignol sensibility, Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes provides Price’s eponymous madman the opportunity to match wits with an admirably oddball ensemble of British character actors, most notably Peter Jeffrey as redoubtable Inspector Trout, Terry-Thomas as a gap-toothed doctor with a fondness for exotic stag reels, and beetle-browed Hugh Griffith as a helpful rabbi. The film also stars Joseph Cotten, a year before his portrayal of a similarly disfigured madman in Mario Bava’s Baron Blood, as the ultimate target of Phibes’s smurderous rampage, a series of outré killings based on the bibilical 10 plagues of Egypt.
The Vincent Price Collection is spread across four Blu-ray discs. The Corman films are doubled up on the first two, while The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General each occupy their own disc. Individual transfers vary, but overall these films look terrific in HD with deep, rich blacks and densely saturated color palettes. All the films show slight signs of speckling and occasionally a bit more damage (like a few pesky vertical scratches), but the wear and tear is mostly incidental. The Haunted Palace looks the weakest, with some nagging machine noise visible in certain scenes, while The Abominable Dr. Phibes looks nearly pristine. The Master Audio monaural soundtracks are also excellent, bringing out the sweep and nuance in the lush symphonic scores by Les Baxter and Ronald Stein, among others.
Shout! Factory rounds out the collection with a top-shelf assortment of extras, some carried over from previous MGM DVD releases, many spanking new. Each of the films comes with at least one commentary track (several have two), covering in exhaustive detail the production histories of their respective titles. All the films with the sole exception of The Abominable Dr. Phibes are viewable with vintage intros and outros filmed by Price for Iowa Public Television in 1982. "Introductory Price" is a short documentary about the making of those segments, including some charming outtakes of Price goofing around with the crew. The Pit and the Pendulum also comes with a prologue commissioned for its inaugural television broadcast that finds Luana Anders’s character committed to bedlam, trying desperately to persuade others of her tale’s veracity. An episode of Sinister Image hosted by film historian David Del Valle provides an outstanding career-retrospective interview with a convivial and candid Vincent Price. "Vincent and Victoria" lets Price’s daughter reminisce about her father’s public and private lives, his passion for the fine arts, and his mentorship of a young and wayward Dennis Hopper. There are several on-screen and audio-only interviews with Roger Corman. Lastly, the box set contains a generously illustrated booklet with an essay by David Del Valle.
One of the year’s essential Blu-ray box sets, boasting an excellent audiovisual presentation and loaded with exceptional extras, from Shout! Factory.