DirectorRoger Corman, Robert Fuest, Michael Reeves
Release Date(s)1960-71 (October 22, 2013)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A+
- Overall Grade: A
Has there ever been a horror star as beloved as Vincent Price? Even people who don’t ordinarily like horror films make an exception for his movies. Price was special. He was as elegant and refined as Peter Cushing but he never seemed unapproachable. He could be as cold and imperious as Christopher Lee but he could also illicit laughter and sympathy, sometimes all in the same role. Most of all, Price always seemed to be enjoying himself even when he probably wasn’t. With a twinkle in his eye and a devilish smile on his lips, Price loved scaring audiences while reassuring us that it was all in fun.
Scream Factory has given Price the royal treatment he deserves with this 4-disc, 6-film set that every Vincent Price fan should own. Simply put, this is a home run and one of the most exciting Blu-ray releases of the year. Before we break the set down film by film, you may have noticed that I’ve given this set a general, average grade for video and audio quality, something we don’t usually do for multi-film collections like this. That’s partly to save a bit of time but also because the work is consistently strong throughout. All audio is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 mono and it’s quite good. The transfers are all remarkable and I’ll make a few comments about them where applicable. But there’s almost nothing to complain about here, so I’ll keep those brief. If I have a nit to pick, it’s that the movies aren’t collected chronologically on the discs themselves, so you’ll have to go back and forth to watch them in order. Boo-hoo. Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff.
PIT AND THE PENDULUM
Arguably the high point of Roger Corman’s directorial career was the series of eight Edgar Allan Poe films he made in the 1960s, mostly in collaboration with Price. Pit and the Pendulum was the second in the cycle and casts Price as Nicholas Medina, the son of a notorious inquisitor whose torture chamber still sits deep within the Medina castle. Medina’s wife, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), has recently died and her brother, Francis (John Kerr), arrives looking for answers behind her mysterious death. But Nicholas is being driven mad with guilt, convinced that he and Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) acted prematurely and interred Elizabeth while she was still alive. Does her spirit still haunt Nicholas or is he unknowingly causing all this himself?
Pit is certainly not the best movie in the Poe series but it’s a lot of fun. It starts off a bit slowly and since the final twist doesn’t come as much of a shock, there isn’t a lot of suspense. But there is a lot of atmosphere and there’s no one better than Price at playing the tortured soul. He’s great to watch even when the script drags things out a little too long. The real fun starts in the last act when Price finally goes completely insane. Corman films this sequence expertly. Is it over the top? Very much so. Is it a whole lot of fun? Absolutely.
Pit looks spectacular in HD, especially the insanely colorful opening titles. In terms of extras, one of the best features of the entire collection is a series of intros and closing remarks by Price shot for Iowa Public Television in 1982. This was a series of 12 films that ran in Iowa and all of the movies in the set except for The Abominable Dr. Phibes feature this footage. This is a major discovery and a delightful treat. The disc also includes a prologue I believe was included on TV prints. It’s an interesting curio but it really makes no sense with the rest of the movie. There’s also a very fine audio commentary by Corman (ported over from the MGM DVD), a trailer and photo gallery.
Film Rating: B
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
The Masque of the Red Death is frequently singled out as the best of the Poe films and who am I to argue. It’s a remarkable, visually breathtaking movie that weaves a little bit from Poe’s Masque, a little bit from his story Hop-Frog, a little bit of Ingmar Bergman influence and a little good old fashioned Satan worshipping to come up with something wholly unique. Price is magnificent as the cruel Prince Prospero, the tyrannical ruler of an agrarian village. When he discovers the village has become infected by the Red Death, he burns it to the ground, summons his fellow noblemen to his castle and locks the doors, offering both sanctuary from the plague and a bacchanalian masquerade to pass the time.
Everything clicks in this movie, from the performances to the color-drenched photography by Nicolas Roeg to the sumptuous production design of Daniel Haller. Corman wasn’t above churning movies out assembly-line style but he really gave this one his all. He’s often praised as an astute judge (and exploiter) of talent but dismissed as a filmmaker. Masque more than makes the case for his abilities. When Corman put his mind to it, he was as innovative and gifted a director as anyone.
A major thumbs-up on the visual presentation of Masque. I’ve got to assume color timing was a major challenge on this film but the disc meets and exceeds all expectations. Extras include a new audio commentary by author Steve Haberman, a video interview with Corman from the previous DVD, the trailer, photo gallery, and Price’s introduction and closing remarks.
Film Rating: A
THE HAUNTED PALACE
With the Poe movies making money hand over fist, it was only natural that AIP would want another one. But after five of them, it was also only natural that Corman should want to branch out a bit. He proposed a film version of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. AIP agreed, slapped the title of a Poe poem on it anyway, and called it a compromise. The Haunted Palace isn’t quite as good as the other Poe films in this collection but it’s far from a bad film.
Price stars as both Ward and his ancestor, the warlock Joseph Curwen. Curwen was burned to death by the good citizens of Arkham over a century ago, placing a curse on the town and vowing to return. Ward’s arrival to claim his ancestral home obviously doesn’t sit well with the folks in Arkham, who blame the curse on the large number of bizarre physical mutations the town is plagued with. Naturally, it isn’t long before Curwen returns to take control of Ward and finish what he started.
The main problem with The Haunted Palace is its strict three-act structure. The first part deals with Curwen’s struggle to control Ward. Part two finds the possessed Ward taking revenge on Arkham’s descendants, a diversion that even Curwen’s fellow warlocks (including Lon Chaney Jr.) think is a waste of time. He also busies himself with an attempt to resurrect his former love, another thread that doesn’t add much, and the final leg finds Curwen getting back to business with the Necronomicon. Still, it’s a fun change of pace from the other Poe movies and Price has a field day playing both the sympathetic Ward and the diabolical Curwin.
This is another solid transfer, although the extra level of detail doesn’t do any favors for the makeup. The movie gets two solid commentaries, one by authors Lucy Chase Williams and Richard Heft (which doesn’t quite run for the entire length of the feature) and another by Tom Weaver, joined briefly via telephone by actress Debra Paget. There is also a video interview with Corman (previously released), the trailer, photo gallery and Price’s intro.
Film Rating: B-
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
Corman’s first Poe movie is also one of the most modest, basically a four-character chamber drama set against the crumbling backdrop of the House of Usher. Mark Damon plays Philip Winthrop, who arrives at the house demanding to see his fiancée, Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Her brother, Roderick (Price, clean-shaven with bleached hair) informs Philip that she is too ill to leave the house, the Usher blood is cursed you see, and urges him to leave immediately. But he stays on and schemes to take Madeline away, a plan that’s never carried out after her seemingly sudden death.
Despite a fine claustrophobic mood and some nice visuals, Price is really the whole show in Usher. Damon and Fahey just aren’t up to his level, especially Damon who seems ill-at-ease in a period movie. Harry Ellerbe is fine as the sympathetic butler, Bristol, but he doesn’t have a lot to do. Fortunately, Price keeps the movie going with his always interesting, slightly perverse performance. If he’d been given a more worthy adversary, the movie would have been much improved.
Usher looks very good, with source material that seems just the tiniest bit more worn than some of the other prints here. The film also includes an overture. I’m not sure if that was included on previous DVD incarnations but it was news to me. There are two commentaries, one by Corman from the MGM disc and a new “Vincent Price Retrospective” commentary by Lucy Chase Williams. It packs a lot of information and includes Piotr Michael as the voice of Price whenever he’s quoted. Surprisingly, that’s less annoying than it sounds. The disc also includes a 1988 audio interview with Price conducted by David Del Valle that clocks in at around 40 minutes. It’s a treat, especially the moments that sound more like a casual conversation than a formal interview. Finally, you get Price’s Iowa Public Television wraparounds, the trailer and a photo gallery.
Film Rating: B
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES
I’ll be honest, I have a critical blind spot when it comes to The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It may not be a perfect film. In fact, it probably isn’t. But if it has flaws, I can’t see them. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
I don’t remember if Phibes was the first Vincent Price movie I saw but it was the one that made me a die-hard fan. I was probably around 11 or 12 the first time I saw it and it hit the perfect sweet spot, blending the macabre with the dry British humor I was beginning to be obsessed with. I loved the movie’s stylish deco-inspired look, I loved the movie’s wit, and I loved Phibes. He’s one of Price’s most bizarre characters, horribly disfigured in an accident that killed his wife and now forced to wear a mask and can only speak by hooking himself up to a gramophone. He vows revenge on the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death, killing them one by one in the most outlandish ways imaginable, each one inspired (more or less) by one of the Old Testament’s Great Plagues of Egypt. It’s funny, it’s horrific, it’s weird and it’s inventive. In short, it’s everything I want movie to be.
Phibes also gets two great new commentaries. The first is by director Robert Fuest (who passed away last year) in conversation with film historian Marcus Hearn and it’s full of warm remembrances and good stories. The second, by author Justin Humphreys, provides considerably more information as well as some interesting analysis and appreciation of the film. Phibes wasn’t included in the Iowa Public Television series but the disc includes a brief but fascinating featurette about the program called Introductory Price: Undertaking The Vincent Price Gothic Horrors. Duane Huey, who wrote Price’s material for the series, explains how it came about and relates some lovely stories about working with the actor. It also includes some wonderfully candid behind-the-scenes footage. I loved hearing Price tell the young crew, presumably toward the end of the long day, “All right, come on kids. We’ve got to get that drink soon.” Once again, the disc also includes a photo gallery and the trailer.
Film Rating: A+
Price’s most evil role was as Matthew Hopkins in British wunderkind Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General. With England torn between Oliver Cromwell’s forces and the king’s royal army, Hopkins roams the countryside torturing confessions out of suspected witches for fun and profit. He arrives in a small village and captures the local priest (Rupert Davies), torturing him for his knowledge of witchcraft in the area. But the priest’s niece (Hilary Dwyer) intervenes, offering herself to Hopkins in exchange for her uncle’s release. It works briefly, until Hopkins’ assistant (Robert Russell) forces himself on the girl, then all bets are off. When the girl’s fiancé, one of Cromwell’s soldiers (Ian Ogilvy), learns what’s happened, he sets off determined to kill Hopkins.
Reeves was a fascinating, troubled figure who died far too young at the age of 25, not long after the release of this film. He and Price did not get along at all but Price knew good work when he saw it and later admitted that Reeves was able to get him to do some of his best work in years. It’s a grim, violent movie with a chilling finale you won’t soon forget. It was very underrated for many years, possibly because it wasn’t easy to see, especially in the US. Not that it’s been more widely available, there’s a danger of overrating it. The movie is by no means perfect but Price’s performance is impeccable. Reeves’ talent is undeniable and, had he lived, he may well have been one of the most interesting and influential directors of the 1970s.
The disc boasts another superior transfer and another good mix of old and new bonuses, starting with the very interesting commentary by producer Philip Waddilove and actor Ian Ogilvy and a solid 24-minute featurette on the making of the film, both from the previous MGM DVD. Scream Factory had originally hoped to include the complete American cut, retitled The Conqueror Worm, alongside the U.K. version but they weren’t able to swing it. However, the alternate opening and closing credits from the U.S. version are included as a bonus.
You also get David Del Valle’s classic 1987 interview with Price for his Sinister Image program, a marvelous hour-long conversation that covers a wide range of bases, from his early career to his TV work up through to The Whales of August. It’s the kind of interview you don’t want to end. Victoria Price sits down for another lengthy interview, over 45 minutes. It’s a warm, intimate conversation that shows another side of the star. You also get Price’s wraparounds, the trailer, a still gallery, and about 17 minutes worth of additional Price trailers, including House of Wax, the other Poe titles, his work with William Castle, and more.
Film Rating: A-
The Vincent Price Collection is a magnificent tribute to one of the genre’s brightest stars. If you love Price, you must have this. And if by chance you know some younger horror fans who don’t know who Vincent Price is, do them a favor and give this to them for Christmas. Now bring on Volume Two!
- Dr. Adam Jahnke
Be sure to read more of my reviews in this year’s Hell Plaza Oktoberfest! by clicking on the image below...