Unlike The Vincent Price Collection, there seems to be a roughly discernible pattern to the arrangement of the second volume in the series, which spreads seven films across four discs. The first disc doubles down on the comedy with a pair of horror spoofs from American International Pictures. Roger Corman’s The Raven brings together the talents of Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre as a trio of rival magicians, with able support from Hazel Court and a young Jack Nicholson as Lorre’s fastidious offspring (of all things!). Lorre effortlessly steals scene after scene with his deflationary ad libs, aptly curdled retorts to the rampant cartoonish burlesque. As reluctant magus Erasmus Craven, Price exhibits a flair not only for self-parody (hardly surprising given some of his latter-day appearances), but for slapstick humor and sight gags as well. The Raven also offers an impressively cavernous set in the home of Craven’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Scarabus (Karloff). And the protracted finale involving dueling sorcerers is a gas, packed with supremely silly optical effects and delectably overblown camera-mugging.
The Comedy of Terrors is slighter and somewhat slacker—a fitfully amusing black comedy, adeptly directed by Jacques Tourneur, about an undertaker (Price) and his pal (Lorre) who supplement the numbers of their clientele by manufacturing a few of the dearly departed themselves. Basil Rathbone provides the perfect foil as Price’s Shakespeare-spouting landlord and prime target for his services. Karloff, as Price’s slumberous father-in-law, gets a few choice moments, especially the scene in which he rouses himself sufficiently to render an egregiously inappropriate eulogy. Rhubarb the cat, who gets his own opening credit, also receives a surprising amount of camera time, including a seemingly endless supply of cutaway shots.
The second disc offers a marked contrast with a couple of solemn and thought-provoking titles. The Tomb of Ligeia is the last of the Corman/Poe series and arguably the best, sporting a densely motivated script from future Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, some terrific location shooting around a ruined abbey in the English countryside (a real novelty for the typically studio-bound Corman), and a riveting central performance from Price. The essence of Poe’s narrative limns the struggle between the human will and the sovereign sway of death, embodied in the contest for the soul of Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepard) between widower Verden Fell (Price) and the specter of his first wife, the Lady Ligeia (Shepard again). Corman and Towne find novel ways to render the material cinematic: focusing memorable scenes on the deposition and subsequent defacement of Ligeia’s headstone; relying on hypnotism as more than mere plot mechanism, but rather as an engine for conveying liminal and otherwise aberrant mental states; and, finally, employing the abbey itself as a vital character with its shattered infrastructure providing the perfect visual correlative for the headspace of the film’s protagonist. The finale gets unnecessarily convoluted when it comes to the fate of the heroine; otherwise, it’s an incendiary and memorable conclusion to one of Corman’s finest productions.
Based on I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s thrice-filmed novel about an apocalyptic epidemic of vampirism, The Last Man on Earth is an Italian-American co-production filmed on location in Italy, with Rome standing in for an unidentified American city that’s rendered uncannily empty in the outbreak’s aftermath. Robert Morgan (Price), the titular scientist, struggles to maintain his humanity in the face of isolation and loneliness. The film perfectly captures the novel’s pervasive atmosphere of existential dread. Price delivers an impressively restrained and largely introspective performance. What’s more, the vampires’ nighttime sieges on Morgan’s house obviously provided a template for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. On the debit side of the ledger must be entered the merely serviceable direction from Sidney Salkow, the overall poverty of the film’s budgetary means, and the unintentional alienation effect of its poorly looped dubbing—an inevitable consequence of Italian cinema’s production techniques.
The third disc supplies some sequels. Return of the Fly is easily the weakest entry in the collection. Price is relegated to second-string status in order to give Brett Halsey’s character, the son of the first film’s protagonist, plenty of screen time in which to repeat his father’s fateful blunders. Even given the film’s attenuated running time, Return of the Fly mostly consists of various characters standing around in bug-eyed safety glasses while the teleportation machine lights up, various gauges max out, and a deafening roar reaches its crescendo. Otherwise, this is a bland, straightforward, and decidedly mediocre saga of betrayal and revenge filmed in fitfully moody monochrome.
A more satisfying follow-up, Robert Fuest’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again carries on its predecessor’s innovative use of thematically related killings. Instead of the bibilical Ten Plagues, this time out we get vaguely Egyptology-based murders. Set three years after the first film, the resuscitated doctor (Price) and sempiternal assistant Vulnavia (Valli Kemp) hope to prevent the rival expedition of Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) from reaching the subterranean River of Life, in whose waters Phibes hopes to reanimate his beloved wife, Victoria Regina (Caroline Munro), before they do. As was the case with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the sets are impressively Art Deco, the methods of murder bizarrely outré, and the supporting cast a veritable dream team of early-’70s British horror that includes Peter Cushing, John Cater, and Fiona Lewis.
Alone on the fourth disc, William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill splits the difference between campy humor and spine-chilling scares. Like Castle’s masterwork, The Tingler, the film derives much of its mordant humor from its acidulous take on marital relations. Here the quarrelsome couple are millionaire Frederick Loren (Price) and his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). And the occasion for the frights is the rather unconventional overnight shindig to which Loren has invited five complete strangers. House on Haunted Hill unfolds like an extended episode of Scooby-Doo as various characters scurry around the putatively possessed mansion, some of them go missing, some are mysteriously assaulted, and several murders apparently are committed. Castle’s gimmick in this one is “Emergo,” to wit, a skeleton that shot out across the audience at the appropriate moment during the finale. Castle’s genius is to reveal on screen immediately afterward the string-pulling mechanics behind the effect, a moment that’s as dizzyingly recursive and cheekily knowing as the silent-movie theater scene in The Tingler.
As with the first volume, individual transfers in The Vincent Price Collection II vary in quality. Generally, the black-and-white films come across best, with The Raven and Dr. Phibes Rises Again vying for first place among the color films. Across the board, there are artefacts on display, most often intermittent bursts of speckling, with the occasional vertical scratch cropping up. Colors in The Comedy of Terrors look a bit faded; otherwise, the films’ variegated palettes register with reasonably impressive brightness and saturation. With the monochrome films, blacks are deep and dense, and contrast levels are well adjusted. Grain structures are realistically maintained throughout. The Master Audio stereo mixes are uniformly strong, clearly presenting dialogue, and doing justice to scores by Les Baxter and other composers.
Shout! Factory has assembled another first-rate collection of bonus materials. There are six newly commissioned commentary tracks, two of them devoted to The Tomb of Ligeia, including one with actress Elizabeth Shepherd. Three installments of "Richard Matheson Storyteller" spotlight the legendary novelist and screenwriter (who passed away last year) as he discusses his approach to the Corman/Poe films, his attitudes toward writing as a metaphysical endeavor, and his decision to take a pseudonymous screenwriting credit on The Last Man on Earth. Another set of wraparound segments for the Corman Poe films feature intros and outros by Price recorded for Iowa Public Television in 1982, alongside the reprise of a featurette that details their production entitled "Introductory Price." Also included are "Vincent Price: Renaissance Man," a satisfying, if necessarily perfunctory, half-hour career retrospective; "The Art of Fear," a cursory piece on horror films and their enduring popularity; and "Working with Vincent Price," with talking-head contributions from collaborators like actor Brett Halsey and screenwriter Christopher Wicking. There are an assortment of theatrical trailers, still galleries, and TV spots. Finally, there’s another lavishly illustrated booklet with an essay by David Del Valle.
The Vincent Price Collection II trumps the sophomore slump through the inclusion of several top-notch films, an overall excellent audio-visual presentation, and a bevy of bonus materials from Shout! Factory.