From Villain to Wronged Man,
the Diverse Horror Roles of Vincent Price
It’s October, the time of year when the world realizes it’s OK to watch scary movies every day – and horror film fans are right there with suggestions whether you’ve asked for them or not.
This year I thought it would be fun to share ideas based on horror film subgenres like vampires, witches, haunted houses and the like.
In horror films, actors – even some of the best – tend to repeat the same role or same type of film. (And there’s nothing wrong with that!) But as I compiled a list of assorted types of horror films, it was surprising to see the same actor playing such varied roles: Vincent Price. That would seem obvious given that he’s a horror icon, but it served as a reminder of how talented he was as an actor.
- He fought vampires in The Last Man on Earth.
- Played a gifted, but wronged, sculptor pitifully seeking to replicate his Marie Antoinette in House of Wax.
- Was a caring, concerned family member in The Fly.
- Chewed the scenery as the multifaceted and macabre Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Price has even played the holy grail of horror: a Universal monster. And I don’t mean that briefest of cameos in the comic gem Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but his starring bit in a role that’s easy to overlook – because you don’t see him.
Price as a Universal monster
Though we associate Universal’s The Invisible Man with the sympathetic portrayal by Claude Rains in the 1933 James Whale film, Price was the title character in the decent 1940 sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940).
He plays Geoffrey Radcliffe, a man who is hours away from death after being wrongly convicted of murdering his brother. After all else fails, his fiancée Helen (Nan Grey) and their friend Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton) set a desperate escape plan into motion. Griffin is the brother of John Griffin, the scientist played by Rains in the original film who discovered a serum for invisibility that came with a side effect of madness.
In the time since, Frank has been researching an antidote to the deadly side effect. Though he hasn’t found it, he still injects Geoffrey to help him escape and safe his life. Unfortunately, the madness part of the serum kicks in much sooner than expected, complicating efforts to continue work on the antidote while searching for the real murderer.
The story is everything we expect, with the bonus of the mystery surrounding the killer. At a quick 81 minutes, it’s also a good use of classic movie time.
With Price playing the title character, we know he will rarely – if ever – be seen. That initially didn’t matter since there was the expectation that his iconic voice would be the star. But this was an early role – Price was not yet 30 – and his voice wasn’t as strong and eloquent as it would later become.
There are two other good reasons to watch this film. The Oscar-nominated special effects are by John P. Fulton, who also did the groundbreaking work in the original film. Then there’s the supporting cast: Cecil Kellaway as a Scotland Yard inspector, Cedric Hardwicke as family friend Richard Cobb and Alan Napier in a small but important role as Willie Spears.
Here are more suggestions of Vincent Price films by genre.
Mad genius: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) is a crazy, colorful dark comedy mashup of “The Phantom of the Opera”/mad genius/vengeful husband/sadistic killer tropes. Price plays the multitalented good doctor, concert pianist, theologist and scholar thought to have died in a car accident. Instead, he has been biding his time to get vengeance on the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death. “Nine killed you, 9 will die,” he says to a photo of his beautiful, but dead, wife. (The accident left him without a voice, forcing him to speak with a chord he attaches to his neck that replicates his voice.)
It’s one of the many quirky things in the film, but nothing is as odd as his “home” where an organ rises through the floor into a room with a stage flanked by musical robots (The Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards) and a dance floor where he twirls around his lovely, but silent, assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North). In her stage-worthy outfits, she willingly helps him carry out his deadly deeds as he enacts the 10 curses of the Pharaohs on the guilty including boils, bats, frogs, locusts, death of the first born and darkness. (Wait, if there are nine doctors, who is the 10th victim?).
The deaths are grisly – or at least “yucky” by today’s standards – and Price wonderfully hams it up throughout. Giving a strong dramatic performance is the great Joseph Cotten as one of the endangered doctors. (Finally, an aging classic movie actor is not played for laughs in a horror film.)
Shakespearean horror: Theatre of Blood (1973). Price did quite well by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, so why not try some Shakespeare? This is similar to Phibes as far as the revenge factor. Here, Price plays Shakespearean actor Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart who seeks revenge on members of the Theatre Critics Guild who belittled him. His method of murder: killing each one by enacting a murder scene from Shakespeare. Bonus: Diana Rigg plays his daughter.
Haunted house: The House on Haunted Hill (1959). From the mind of movie showman William Castle who was known for his gimmicks, this haunted house film has a bit of camp, some jump scares and big entertainment value. Price is millionaire Frederick Loren who offers five strangers $10,000 each if they last the night in a haunted house as part of a celebration for his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carole Ohmart). The scenes of the sniping husband-and-wife are the best part of the film, as they wield their sharp words like weapons against each other. This is more of a fun ride than horror house, and that is the film’s charm. The Castle gimmick used here was “Emergo,” in which a skeleton “emerged” above moviegoers in theaters at early screenings.
Creature Feature: The Tingler (1959). The same year as The House on Haunted Hill, Price starred in a second William Castle film. It’s remembered for Castle’s “Percepto” gimmick that had seat buzzers placed throughout theaters, but I wish it was more appreciated for the awesome title creature – one that was created from fear. “Many people die in fear, I wonder how many die of fear,” wonders Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) before discovering that the tingle up our spine is a creature that lives within us all. The film plays with the audience and our perception of what’s happening, something Price helps as a kindly doctor who is also a jealous husband and a crazed scientist who seemingly will stop at nothing to finish his experiments. Enjoy the brilliant pops of red Castle splashes through the film.
Vampires/zombies: The Last Man on Earth (1964). Whether you consider this a vampire film, a zombie flick or a mix, you’ll still find Price a sympathetic survivor of a mysterious plague who unfortunately is not as alone as the title would lead us to believe. In this Italian-made adaptation of master writer Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Price is a doctor immune to a plague that has killed off the world, turning the few survivors into creatures who feed off humans. Like vampires, they sleep during the day, hate garlic and die by a stake through the heart. An overwhelming feeling of doom hangs over this film.
Witches: Witchfinder General (1968, AKA Conqueror Worm). Set in 1645 where folklore and superstition reign, lawyer Matthew Hopkins (Price) travels the lands torturing innocent villagers into confessing to be witches and hanging them. The tables are turned when a soldier (Ian Ogilvy) tracks him after Hopkins assaults his fiancée and murders her uncle, a priest. Price, who is deadly serious as the sadistic Hopkins, considered it one of his best performances.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.