AUNT JOHN SEZ: Hi kids, your Unk and I have to shuffle off to Saskatchewan for a belated Boxing Day barbecue. Despite the short notice, we managed to rope in REDBOY for a third babysitting engagement. So everyone, please be on your best behavior for REDBOY, and be sure to check out all of the great yuletide tuneage he has been featuring on BLUES FOR THE REDBOY.
“I don’t play monsters. I play men besieged by fate and out for revenge”
Now, when I say I love VINCENT PRICE, I mean I love VINCENT PRICE in the strictly platonic/borderline obsessive way you love VINCENT PRICE; that is to say, I think of him as an artist whose contribution elevates otherwise tasteless fare with a modicum of respectability; not to mention a dry, malevolent, Prospero-like wit (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is both PRICE an CORMAN’s masterwork).
That is, for all intents and purposes, an accurate description, no? He did manage to class up the MUPPETS for Christ’s sake.
Someone had to; Lord knows it wasn’t gonna be JOHN DENVER.
Then there are PRICE’s cultural contributions, of which they are many. There is his vast private art collection and affordable signature line of paintings marketed through Sears; his endowment of priceless (pun firmly intended) works to the East L.A. College in an effort to establish California’s first and only teaching art collection.
Talk about contributions…have you ever even listened to the intro to ‘Black Widow’ off of ALICE COOPER’s ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ album?
No? Seriously? Travesty! Were talking several years before Thriller, man…Thriller!
Most people don’t even know that PRICE is the first person to trip-face on LSD in a major studio film (Hint: The Walls! The Walls!). Even LUGOSI never managed that and he was a morphine addict.
But, you see, that’s the essence of VINCENT PRICE: He’s like the thespian equivalent of a throw pillow or a giant ceramic statue of a Great Dane…he classes up the joint, but that’s not to say PRICE can’t be campy.
My childhood introduction to PRICE was such; His Mephistophelean goatee jutting out of my T.V. screen in 3D; the multicolored glasses generously donated by my local 7-11 for their WPIX broadcast of THE MAD MAGICIAN (that saw blade came right out of the f%$kin’ screen, man!).
I say introduction for lack of a better word. I know I was aware of PRICE in the larger sense that I understood the peculiar service he served on the seventies variety circuit: a creepy ringer called in to sub (more often than not, when LON CHANEY JR. was too drunk,) as some melodramatic “ham-pire”, chewing the scenery like the alabaster curves of a virgin’s nubile young neck, but I’ll get to PRICE’s turn as Dracula in a moment…
Having come into this world, as I did, at the tail end of flairs and plaids, yet well before neon and shoulder-pads leveled the fashionable playing field, my most lingering memories of PRICE are perhaps his ‘70s / ‘80s input, understood by many to be the twilight of his acting career; PRICE’s regular appearances on HOLLYWOOD SQUARES being any indication.
Man, that show sure was the kiss of death for ones acting career; just ask PAUL LYNDE (wait, you can’t; he OD’d on amyl nitrate in the company of a male prostitute. Oh well…)
Anyway, PRICE had been making his rent for some time staring in a series of low budget features; the most memorable, at least to my impressionable young mind, being the made-for-T.V. ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT SCARY and the equally entertaining, if not overly melodramatic HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.
I suppose one could further count PRICE’s roll as spokesperson for the Milton Bradley’s Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture kit’ -a feather in any aspiring actors cap, to be sure- but that would be showing my age, being about half way to a shrunken head myself.
ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT SCARY premiered on basic CBS in the 1979, having been developed for T.V. in the midst of the ‘70s anthology film craze (TRILOGY OF TERROR, anyone?). SCARY features three tales adapted from American folklore and young-adult novels of it’s time, of which PRICE had been commissioned to slather his ghoulish charm on deliciously thick as the narrator and host of each segment.
The first tale, told from the fireside glow of PRICE’s Victorian library, is based the young adult novel ‘This Ghost Belongs to Me’ by Richard Peck (1975). ‘Ghost’ concerns a young boy and the disembodied tenant living in his barn; a specter who has a thing for extremely vague prophecy.
Having read the book, let me assure you that the production company spared every expense in this lame ghost’s production, though to be fair, it is rather hard to establish any useful narrative in less than ten minutes. However, the video editing machine employed must have been working overtime to crank this disappointing segment out cause I seen better screen-wipes on New Wave Theatre reruns.
Of the three tales, ‘Ghost’ should cross over, if not be passed over. Lucky for us, it is the exception to the rule.
The second tale is a brief (one might say ’Fat Free’) retelling of Washington Irving’s famous American Folk tale ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ This is where the film hits its stride.
Being no stranger to the headless ghost angle, I had previously put the paces on a video copy of Disney’s telling from the ‘50s narrated/crooned by BING CROSBY, not to mention suffering through a seventies version staring JEFF GOLDBLOOM and DICK BUTKUS in the titular roles. But there was something inherent to PRICE’s version which freaked me the hell out where those other versions seemed tame…now what was it… Oh, I know! Perhaps it was the Horseman’s severed HUMAN head being thrown at the T.V., laughing maniacally as it strafes towards ole’ Icabod (RENE AURBERJONOIS).
Sure. It seems corny now, but whereas the innocuous pumpkin proved the defacto stand-in for a freshly lopped top where families were concerned, this rotten, meth-mouthed head w/ it’s tri-cornered hat, hollow eyes and tussled hair really got to me…though not as much as the dead witch screaming to life in PRICE’s third tale.
‘The House w/ a Clock in It’s Walls’ (1973) is adapted from the book of the same name by celebrate children’s author John Belairs. ‘Clock’ deals w/ young Lewis Barnevelt and his strange Uncle Jonathan (played by exploitation film veteran SEVERN DARDEN), a mysterious man who spends his nights listening to the ticking within the walls of his house in order to find a cursed clock (assembled by the home’s previous owner; a powerful warlock named Isaac Izzard) designed to strike and bring about doomsday. That generally wouldn’t be a problem (Doomsday, quite unlike Christmas, being a ways off), but when Lewis accidentally uses black magic to summon the dead wife of the clock’s inventor, Selena Izzard, Lewis and uncle Jonathan must race against time (again, pun firmly intended) to stop Mrs. Izzard from carrying out her husband’s evil plan.
Having been a huge fan of Belair’s Lewis Barnevelt series, particularly the first editions illustrated by Edward Gorey, I was sufficiently creeped out as a child seeing Mrs. Izzard use the ‘Hand of Glory’ (an alchemical charm derived from a hanged man’s hand and the rended fat of a black cat) to paralyze the Barnavelts while she decides the most horrible way to dispatch them. Equally unsettling is the scene in the graveyard where Lewis and his friend Tarby (whom Lewis is trying to impress) perform the resurrection spell as outlined in Uncle Jonathan’s Grimoire; the Ghost of Mrs. Izzard bursting out of her Mausoleum from behind them with a flash of thunder and lightening.
I won’t ruin the ending of this last story, sufficed to say that once PRICE has finished spinning his final yarn in this trifecta of tales, he very leisurely slips on his cape, bids the view adieu and takes to the skies as the literary icon Dracula, tying the whole affair together with a nod to Bram Stoker’s groundbreaking novel.
PRICE’s absence would not be for long, however, as he soon would return to haunt my Saturday afternoons with one of his most offbeat, and as fate would have it, last motion picture roles, short of voiceover work, before his death in ’92.
THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) saw a lot of airplay in the early eighties, thanks in no small part to the USA cable network and their four-hour Commander USA’s Groovie Movies programming block on Saturday afternoons (I still have my membership card). Incidentally, Commander USA regularly aired another 1980’s PRICE vehicle, the subtly titled BLOODBATH AT THE HOUSE OF DEATH.
SHADOW’s was adapted from the 1913 book ‘Seven Keys to Baldpate’ (pronounced: Baldpator), later reworked into a popular stage play the same year. The plot deals with a wager between a writer (DESI ARNEZ JR.) and his agent, the latter who maintains that his charge could not write a novel of ‘Wuthering Heights’ proportions in under twenty-four hours. In order to accomplish this feat, the author procures the only known key to an abandoned country estate in England so he can write in solitude. Problem is, once settled in, the author is beset upon by several visitors, each more mysterious then the next and all with their own key to the estate; their purpose: to check up on their criminally insane little brother whom they very thoughtfully entombed alive in the house forty years prior.
Seems like a totally reasonable reaction, right?
SHADOWS is interesting on several fronts, as is evident by the casting. The film remains the first and only time VINCENT PRICE, CHRISTOPHER LEE, PETER CUSHING, and JOHN CARADINE have all shared the screen together and, in an even more unfortunate turn of events, marks the last time both CHRISTOPHER LEE and PETER CUSHING would appear on screen as a pair, as was customary during their tenure at Hammer Studios.
SHADOWS, though slow moving, is incredibly atmospheric, bringing to mind the films of TOD BROWNING (OLD DARK HOUSE) and sharing more than a passing resemblance to Agatha Christies ‘And Then There Were None.’ However, just because the film is atmospheric, does not mean it does not have its share of gore. There are hangings, battle ax eviscerations, poison and the odd eye-bulging strangulation once the pawns are all in place.
In a particularly gristly scene, a wash basin filled with sulfuric acid manages to disintegrate the face of a beautiful boarder as she freshens up, dissolving the skin down to the very visible bone. My favorite scene, however, is the discovery of murderous brother Roderick’s empty cell, inhumanly clawed about the moldings, littered with the rotten corpses of recent victims and moldy, maggot-ridden children’s toys.
These scenes are still just as strong today, the film as a whole being rather graphic for it’s time (it was rated PG!).
As with any competent suspense story, there is a twist, or rather, several; but unlike M. NIGHT SHAMALAN’s hackney eyed self-aggrandizing plot contrivances (BRUCE WILLIS is dead; water kills aliens; etc…), these twists are genuinely strange and ultimately works for a film which prides itself on it’s offbeat casting and plot.
PRICE would go on to other appearances, mostly T.V. before his final and much deserved star turn in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, but for my money (and perhaps I am biased), nothing touches his later work; even though the scripts might not have been top notch, PRICE, again, was able to bring a touch of charm and malevolence to his roles that very few actors could nor would for fear of invoking that most dreaded professional misfortune: typecasting. But typecasting can be deceptive, for whereas it can turn a perfectly good actor into a second stringer, when under the right circumstances, it can turn a perfectly great actor into an icon.
I believe this is something PRICE struggled with, but ultimately embraced before his death; and lucky for us that he did so, as yet another generation was afforded the opportunity to enjoy the company of an actor whom ROGER CORMAN billed as a “Titan of Terror” and who of himself once remarked:
“I sometimes feel that I’m impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick, but I love it.”
We love it too, VINCENT. Thanks