Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Abominable Birthday

Vincent Price is probably the one celebrity I regret never having the chance to meet. His screen presence- a unique mix of gravitas and winking flamboyance - never really masked a genuine(if slight) creepiness. Yet he seemed so genuine, so pleasant, and he was always so much fun to watch. Today would have been Vincent Price's 99th birthday, and in honor of the occasion I plan on using my long Memorial Day weekend to catch up on a few of his many films that I haven't seen. I also plan on revisiting some old favorites, so for those interested in hosting their own celebratory film fest at home, here's a short list of personal Vincent Price favorites.

The Masque of the Red Death: Vincent Price was already a horror icon by the time he started making adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories with director Roger Corman, but it might be this pairing that most informed his popular image. In all, they made 8 Poe films together, and they proved immensely popular. They all hold something to recommend them-The Fall of the House of Usher in particular has some wonderfully spooky monologues from Price- but none of them quite reach the heights that Red Death does. Corman's horror films were always slightly campy, and usually had some experimental, psychedelics moments, but Red Death drops camp in favor of majesty, while still allowing for a trippy dream sequence. Vincent Price reins his performance- as a sadistic prince who throws a party while the plague ravages the countryside outside his castle walls- in to a level usually reserved for his non-horror films, and Corman matches that tone and allows the film to maintain a sense of creeping, mounting dread.

The Tingler: William Castle was a much better showman than a director, and once removed from the theatrical gimmicks his films often seem horribly creaky and dull. The Tingler miraculously escapes that rut with a nifty idea for a monster(one that kills and can only be thwarted by the sound of screaming) and a few in-film gimmicks that still live up, like the one shocking scene that utilizes color in an otherwise black and white film.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Not only my favorite Vincent Price films, but one of my favorite horror films period. Price plays Dr. Phibes, a disfigured man who is presumed dead, and uses this to his advantage as he systematically kills off the physicians who he believes allowed his wife to die, utilizing a series of complicated Rube Goldberg devices meant to mimic the biblical plagues. The film is ultra-stylish, and it maintains a pretty fun tone throughout, with an acidic sense of humor befitting the grand guignol style. Avoid the sequel, which is for completists only.

Laura: Price only plays a supporting character in this film, a top-notch film noir from Otto Preminger, but it's interesting to see him in a non menacing role. Aside from suave, menacing characters, Price excelled at sheltered, dandyish blue-bloods, which is what he plays in Laura, as the fiance of a murdered advertising executive. The film is all about police detective Mark McPherson investigating the death of Laura Hunt, and slowly falling in love with the woman the more he learns about her, but Price steals the show in every scene he's in.

The Baron of Arizona: A fatally flawed film, Samuel Fuller's second as director, The Baron of Arizona features a great performance from Vincent Price in the lead. The story(very loosely based on true events) is interesting, but the film repeatedly shows AND tells through a completely unnecessary voice over. Though the film ultimately fails, it has a standout performance and a couple great scenes to recommend it.

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