In “Renaissance Man,” one of the featurettes included in this MGM Scream Legends Collection box set devoted to the films of Vincent Price, there’s an anecdote about Price almost bumping into fellow horror maven Bela Lugosi at the 1953 premiere of André de Toth’s House of Wax. The tidbit is offered like the thwarted passing-of-the-torch from of one genre icon to another, but in truth the two actors were opposites in their approaches. While Lugosi’s lugubrious intensity could make viewers believe he was not so much playing Dracula as channeling him, Price had a way of turning horror into a winking act conspiratorially shared with audiences, summoning a genuine gothic theatricality while slyly lampooning it. In that camp-before-its-time sense, the actor’s breakthrough role came not in the 3D Grand Guignol of House of Wax but two years earlier with the joyous hamming of His Kind of Woman, where he seemed to suddenly realize (and delight in) the rich comedy of a Missouri-born bon vivant perpetually cast as effete British villains. There’s more than a hint of Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian in Price’s pomp, and also the twinkle of a grandfather who never grew tired of teaching kids to love being frightened.
This mix of overripe dramatics and wily humor that served Price up to his sublime final close-up in Edward Scissorhands is evident all through the set’s seven entries. No collection would be complete without at least one of his eight collaborations with Roger Corman, and Tales of Terror is a sound choice in that its trio of Edgar Allan Poe stories synthesizes the themes of the director’s “Poe circle” while giving Price the opportunity to voice them in a variety of tenors. Morella and The Case of Mr. Valdemar are straightforward horror tales done with Corman’s thrifty elegance, while The Black Cat is framed as caustic farce, with Price going toe-to-toe with Peter Lorre in a splendid mugging competition that’s like a throwback to the sardonic, sketch-like wit of A Bucket of Blood. If Twice-Told Tales is far less successful with the trilogy format, it is because director Sidney Salkow recreates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories without any interest in developing them beyond their bloody punchlines. The episodes don’t rouse Price the way Tales of Terror (or Confessions of an Opium Eater, also from 1962) does, but at least one of them, The House of the Seven Gables, finds in the bracing Jacqueline deWit an actress who matches the actor in macabre zest.
As his career entered the 1970s, Price seemed to give less thought to his roles than to his cookbooks and TV appearances. Few of his later films do him justice, with the Dr. Phibes movies a wicked exception. The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again, both of them stylishly directed by Robert Fuest, are luxuriant, mordant horror-comedies with a ghoulish splendor marvelously keyed up to the actor’s persona. As the eponymous scientist/organist/batshit psycho, Price is given the appearance of putrid flesh, a perversely thoughtful romanticism, and, as a knowing joke on his famously mellifluous lisp, a hose linking his throat to a gramophone as the only way he can speak. “Nine killed you, nine shall die,” Phibes intones to the dead wife propped in a sarcophagus, and, with the help of mute, alluringly attired servants (Virginia North, Valli Kemp), proceeds to eliminate a cradle of enemies with gruesome plans culled from the Old Testament. Practically impossible to tell apart, the movies vie for which has the most ingenious murders: The original wins out with bats, locusts, and impalement by brass unicorn head, though the sequel doesn’t lag far behind, with scorpions, mechanical snakes, and Price singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Madhouse, from 1974, is a terrible film, though it’s not without some meta flashes. Price’s character is a horror-flick veteran who, in a steal from Targets, is introduced watching clips from the actor’s classics (including Tales of Terror!). His trademark on-screen character, a grisly maniac in Alice Cooperish makeup named Dr. Death, is about to get a franchise of its own, but no points are given for guessing that, after the actor goes crazy at a premiere party murder, Price and his creation will become hard to pull apart. The notion of an actor’s persona having its own uncontrollable life is promising, but Jim Clark’s film is lazy and incredibly nonsensical. A much better exercise in gory self-reflexivity, Theater of Blood also has Price’s own favorite role: Edward Lionheart, the Shakespearean actor who, pushed into insanity by dire reviews, fakes his death so he can blithely slaughter all the critics who dared pan him. The awesome Diana Rigg is his faithful daughter, and a veritable catalog of British thespians (from Dennis Price and Jack Hawkins to Coral Browne and Robert Morley) shows up to be schooled in the Bard’s brutality. The joke wouldn’t work unless the character of the bad actor were brilliantly played, and Price rips through the role’s many masks with the élan of Laurence Olivier in Sleuth.
If Price is magnificently bad in Theater of Blood, he is magnificent, period, in Witchfinder General. The dark jewel of the DVD set, Michael Reeves’s 1968 stunner follows the horrific path of Matthew Hopkins (Price), the real-life, pious torturer (nicknamed The Witchfinder) who forced confessions out of village “witches” in 1645 England, got paid for his services, and watched them burn. With civil war and superstition running free across the country, Hopkins has an easy time doing “the Lord’s work” with his barbaric helper (Robert Russell), but the pair gets more than they bargain for when they torture a local priest (Rupert Davies) and rape his niece (Hilary Dwyer), unleashing the vengeful fury of the girl’s beau (Ian Ogilvy). Reeves’s robust compositions pit the beautiful countryside against the nauseating cruelty inflicted on it, a world of fear and deforming persecution closer to Dreyer’s Day of Wrath than to the medieval hysteria of Cry of the Banshee and Ken Russell’s The Devils. Hopkins may be Price’s scariest performance. While his assistant takes grotesque pleasure in their violence, The Witchfinder is calm and contained, achieving a kind of purity utterly in synch with the rampant viciousness of the world around him. The actor and the director reportedly clashed throughout the shooting, but it may have been this tension that made Price leave campiness behind and stare straight into the film’s pitiless horrors.
Colors vary from vivid in Tales of Terror to somber in Witchfinder General, yet every movie gets a solid transfer. The sound is consistently strong.
In addition to "Renaissance Man," two other featurettes ("The Art of Fear" and "Working with Vincent Price") fill in the details on the actor’s theatrical background, fondness for art, and impish sense of humor. Witchfinder General deservedly gets its own piece, with info about the doomed, intriguing life and career of director Michael Reeves (who died of an overdose at the age of 25), and the grudging admiration gradually developed between him and Vincent Price; a solid commentary track with actor Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove sheds light on Reeves’s working methods and the reactions to the picture’s extreme violence (including a truncated American version, called The Conqueror Worm). Each film gets its own trailer.
A solid box-set treatment for the Merchant of Menace.