No Halloween feels complete without honoring one of horror cinema's favorite gentleman -- the great Vincent Price. The Gothic god's iconic voice, pitch black humor and near elastic, melodramatic expressions served him well through a colorful career not only as one of horror's leading men, but also as an art and antique collector, gourmet cook, quiz show enthusiast, author and ghoulishly delightful raconteur.
The elegant and eccentric Price made a career for himself in theater throughout the 1930s before arriving on the big screen in the 1938 romantic screwball comedy, 'Service de Luxe.' It was his second role, however, that caught the attention of filmgoers -- the part of idle playboy Shelby Carpenter in the 1944 noir classic 'Laura.' There's sometimes confusion amongst fans as to what Price's first horror role was. He starred alongside fellow genre mavens Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone in 1939's 'Tower of London,' which plays out more like a Grand Guignol costume drama than the true blue horror classics we've come to associate the actor with. 'The Invisible Man Returns' is usually cited as Price's first horror film role, even though he only appears in the movie for a minute or so -- relying instead on his speaking talents for the disembodied voice of the wrongly accused Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe.
The '50s saw Price in a series of character roles in films like 'The Ten Commandments' and 'Son of Sinbad,' but he found his home as a horror star in 1953's 'House of Wax' (one of Hollywood's first 3-D endeavors and a film Price almost turned down for another turn on Broadway in Jose Ferrer's 'My Three Angels'), 'The Fly' (1958), 'The Bat' (1959) and his first feature with gimmick-maestro William Castle in 'House on Haunted Hill' (1959). After the success of the movie, the Castle/Price combo continued in 1959's 'The Tingler,' after which Price was dubbed the "Master of Menace" for his highly entertaining LSD trip as Dr. Warren Chapin.
Price began a special relationship with King of the B's Roger Corman when he signed on for a series of American International Pictures chillers in the early '60s, based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The actor's cultured stylings and signature delivery helped elevate films like 'House of Usher,' 'Pit and the Pendulum,' 'The Raven,' and 'The Masque of the Red Death' to something far more nuanced than their B-movie origins might first suggest. Corman's atmospheric and giallo-esque saturated palette provided the perfect backdrop for the larger-than-life actor. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Corman about Price's work in the Poe cycle:
" ... He was great. When I did 'House of Usher' I had Vincent in mind from the beginning to play Roderick Usher. He was a highly intelligent, educated, cultivated, sensitive man. I found that Vincent embodied all those qualities -- he was my first choice right from the beginning while we were working from the idea through to the script. When it was finished, I contacted him through his agent, sent the script over with an offer -- he read the script and liked it, and suggested we have lunch. We had lunch and discussed it -- we got along very well, and it led to five or six pictures I did with Vincent."
The actor's later career is something of a mixed bag. The title character in the camp classic 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes' (1971) remains one of Price's most memorable characters. 'Theater of Blood' (1973) ranks as one of the performer's best roles and gave him the opportunity to do something he'd always wanted -- Shakespeare -- but couldn't because he'd become so typecast. In the film he skillfully plays a hammy actor (Lionheart) -- a hard combination to pull off, but he makes it work. After this, Price remained active in movies and television -- often spoofing his macabre image. He made the most of his distinctive voice in radio work and voice-over roles, which included Alice Cooper's 'Welcome to My Nightmare' and Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.' Price made an appearance as the inventor in Tim Burton's 'Edward Scissorhands' -- his final significant role.
Despite his proclivities toward the horror genre and his refined image, Price never took himself too seriously and has been described as a gentle and compassionate soul by those who knew him well. Horror lost a legend when the actor passed away from lung cancer in 1993 at the age of 82, but this man of many talents continues to be discovered by a whole new generation of fans in the films he helped make legendary.