Vincent Price, one of America’s most beloved horror actors, is primarily known for a dozen or so horror films, though he acted in over a hundred films and television episodes throughout his career, as well as extensively collecting art, appearing in cooking shows (he was a gourmet chef), and touring the stage.
People of my generation grew up hearing his voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and seeing an aged Price in his final role in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Most horror fans have seen the classics, such as the gimmicky William Castle film The House on Haunted Hill (1959), beautifully made Roger Corman films from the Poe cycle like House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), grim British Inquisition-themed film Witchfinder General (1968), or some of his later, colorful revenge flicks like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973). I’m going to explore some of his more obscure genre efforts that are likely to delight (or possibly confuse) horror and cult fans.
Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)
Otto Preminger’s noir classic Laura is hardly an obscure film, but I’ve come across many horror fans who haven’t seen it. It may come as a surprise that this was one of Price’s first substantial roles. Laura concerns the murder of the titular woman and a police detective’s growing obsession with her as he pores over her life and investigates the numerous suspects, including her fiancé, the effeminate, manipulative, and greedy Shelby Carpenter, played by Price. Noir and suspense films made up much of Price’s early career and after Laura, he was in another classic noir, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956).
The Mad Magician (John Brahm, 1954)
Right after starring in his first major horror film, House of Wax (1953), Price appeared in the lesser seen Mad Magician. One of Price’s early revenge-themed horror films concerns a magician, Gallico the Great (Price), who is screwed out of success by his manager when the man steals his brilliant effects for another act. He has a breakdown and murders his manager, cutting off his head. He spends the rest of the film covering his tracks, which involves more murder and magic tricks. This lesser seen film will delight Price fans and should be plenty of fun for everyone else, too.
Master of the World (William Witney, 1961)
In what can only be described as a blend of action, sci-fi, and early steampunk, this American International Pictures film was adapted from two Jules Verne stories by celebrated horror author Richard Matheson. Price stars as the adventurer Captain Robur, who travels the world in his airship misguidedly trying to end all war. Facing off against him is a young Charles Bronson (!!!). Though it won’t be for everyone, fans of cult movies will find a lot to love about this weird and neglected film.
Confessions of An Opium Eater (Albert Zugsmith, 1962)
Speaking of weird and neglected, this almost completely forgotten cult effort is loosely based on Thomas de Quincey’s nineteenth century autobiographical novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. When I say loosely, I mean the plot is almost too insane to believe and branches far afield from de Quincey’s novel about laudanum and opium addiction. Price plays an adventurer who goes up against a Chinese gang in San Francisco involved in human sex trafficking. There are plenty of girls in cages, dance numbers, and Price’s character, Gilbert de Quincey, smokes opium and befriends a Chinese dwarf woman, among other incredulous things.
The Haunted Palace (Roger Corman, 1963)
During the success of Price and Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe-themed series, American International Pictures tried connecting every film Price starred in with the series by slapping on a Poe title. While The Haunted Palace is technically part of the Poe series, it is really one of the earliest films to adapt the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Based on “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” any Lovecraft fans who have passed this over may want to give it a shot, as it is an effective tale of possession, superstition, witchcraft, and the worship of a very ancient creature waiting in a pit deep in the earth.
Diary of a Madman (Reginald Le Borg, 1963)
In keeping with neglected literary adaptations comes Diary of a Madman, loosely based on French writer Guy de Maupassant’s story “La Horla.” Price plays a French magistrate who comes to be haunted by a creature known as the horla. Capable of possession and mind control, the horla gradually begins to take over his life and tries to drive him insane. While this is one of Price’s lesser known films, it is an entertaining romp that offers up some very fun scenes of Price battling supernatural evil and chewing scenery with gusto.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (Norman Taurog, 1965)
This completely ridiculous spy spoof, which stars Price as the titular Dr. Goldfoot, will not be enjoyed by everyone, but many fans of trashy cult cinema will absolutely love it. Dr. Goldfoot builds a number of sexy female robots that travel the world and rob rich and powerful men. It is hard to believe, but American International Pictures gave the film one of its largest budgets to date. This was followed by a TV special, The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot, and a sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), which was bizarrely directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava.
City in the Sea (Jacques Tourneur, 1965)
Again incredulously trying to cash in on the Poe series with a title from a Poe poem, City in the Sea, aka City Under the Sea, was later retitled as War Gods of the Deep, which also doesn’t clue you in to the fact that is a film about smugglers who live underwater and keep gill-men as slaves. Directed by the wonderful Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Curse of the Demon), this is basically an attempt to combine Price’s Poe series and the recently successful adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It fails in a lot of ways, but as it is about an underwater society led by Price and involves some fish-men, there is also a lot to like. Only fans of really ridiculous sci-fi movies need apply.
The Oblong Box (Gordon Hessler, 1969)
After making Witchfinder General with director Michael Reeves, Price and Reeves eventually warmed to each other and began working on a second film, The Oblong Box, where Price was to play twins. After Reeves’ untimely death, director Gordon Hessler stepped in, changed much of the plot, and added Christopher Lee to the cast. The Oblong Box is an underrated film about greed, familial betrayal, voodoo, vengeance, and, perhaps surprisingly, the effects of colonialism. Price and Lee would appear together in a handful of films after this and became close friends.
Madhouse (Jim Clark, 1974)
Often ignored alongside Price’s more famous horror revenge films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood, Madhouse is a delightful entry in the subgenre and benefits from some very fun performances from Price and another of his close friends, Peter Cushing. Price plays a spoof of himself, a horror actor named Paul Toombes known for playing a skull-faced character called Dr. Death. His young, beautiful fiancée is murdered and he loses his mind. Years later, when he is released from the asylum, the murders begin again. Is he responsible? Is he still insane?
The Monster Club (Roy Ward Baker, 1981)
Though generally outshone by the horror anthology films of British studio Amicus, this late entry brings together Price with Donald Pleasance, John Carradine, Patrick Magee of The Avengers, and others for an enjoyable series of horror tales. A strange old man brings a horror writer to his “monster club” and he is told is a series of stories. Light on scares, but dripping with black comedy, The Monster Club is not for everyone, but fans of campier horror will absolutely love it.
House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
British director Pete Walker, known for his sexploitation flavored horror films like House of Whipcord and Die Screaming Marianne, bizarrely made this light hearted old dark house black comedy with a group of aged horror icons including Price, Cushing, Lee, and an absolutely ancient John Carradine. It’s not currently available on DVD, but if you can find it, it’s a ton of fun with several delightful twists and the venerable horror actors are obviously having a great time on what would sadly be one of their last productions together.
Bloodbath at the House of Death (Ray Cameron, 1984)
Another fun late entry in Price’s career, like House of Long Shadows, this is a comedy heavy horror spoof. A group of satanic monks commit mass murder at a country estate used as a vacation resort. Several years later, scientists go to do some paranormal research in the house, but the head of the satanic order, played by Price, has some other elaborate plans for them. Again, this is the type of film that will only be enjoyed by fans of silly, camp horror, but there are plenty of ridiculous moments that must be seen to be believed.
October 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Price’s death, so help me celebrate his wonderful career by watching some of his classics and reviving some of the more forgotten delights listed above. I’m also doing a month long Vincent Price series over at my blog, Satanic Pandemonium.