Posts Tagged ‘vincent price’

The Bat (1959)

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B-grade mystery movies of the 1950s had a cache all their own. Very often the ghostly or apparently supernatural killer was in it for the money and nothing else, which for me usually takes some of the suspense out of the investigation. I was pleasantly surprised by The Bat, however, which has all the earmarks of a generic thriller and manages to be a bit different. The Bat is a surprisingly clever, funny little film, stocked with some excellent character actors led by Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.

The Bat opens with mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (Moorehead) leasing an old mansion while the owner is away on an extended hunting trip. The mansion and the small town have a sinister history, though: they were the site of several murders the year before by a character known only as The Bat, a serial killer who preys on women by ripping their throats out with steel claws. Cornelia is thrilled at first, but things start getting ugly when The Bat apparently breaks into her house and releases a rabid bat into her bedroom. These events are wound up in the disappearance of a million dollars in securities from the vault of the local bank. The culprit is the bank’s owner and proprietor of the very mansion where Cornelia and her maid now live; but the bank owner was murdered by his friend Dr. Malcolm Wells (Vincent Price) before revealing the location of the securities (I’d say this was a spoiler, but it happens within the first ten minutes of the film’s run time).

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There are actually more than a few twists and turns running through a film that appears quite simple on the face of it. The mansion is treated as an “old dark house,” but some of the suspense is punctured by Cornelia and her maid’s no-nonsense attitude to tales of ghosts and killers. AgnesMoorehead is at the top of her game here, playing Cornelia as an acerbic Agatha Christie who delights in the mayhem going on around her, and is more than capable of taking on several Bats at once.The film makes excellent use of its female characters, each of whom proves to be much tougher than the men that surround them. Female friendship is powerful and long-lasting, while male friendship proves remarkably false. It’s really up to the women to solve the mystery, save the town, and find the loot; the men are too busy killing each other off.

Moorehead has a brilliant counterpart in Vincent Price; their scenes together pop as each tries to out-creep the other. Price’s sinister persona is pitch perfect as always, giving the simplest lines dark and terrible meaning that he obviously delights in. If there’s a flaw in him, it’s that he’s so obviously sinister from the beginning, as the audience is privy to the original murder of the bank owner.

The Bat isn’t a brilliant thriller by any means; one wonders what a Hitchcock or a Lang might have made out of the same cast and script. But it is a diverting little film, enjoyable from beginning to end. Don’t assume that you know the solution as you go into it – it has quite a number of hidden corridors.

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The Haunted Palace (1963)

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The Haunted Palace combines four – FOUR! – of my favorite things: Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Roger Corman, and Vincent Price. As such, there’s almost no place that this film can go wrong.

With a title and epigraph lifted from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Haunted Palace is actually based on the Lovecraft story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, about a man possessed by the evil spirit of his long-dead relative (a gross oversimplification of the story, but bear with me). Roger Corman’s adaptation takes a remarkably faithful approach to that story; which, given the serious problems with adapting Lovecraft, is quite impressive for a 1963 film. Vincent Price opens the film as Joseph Curwen, a suspected warlock living in a massive palace above the village of Arkham. Young girls begin vanishing during the night, only to reappear again the next day with no memory of where they’d been. The latest abduction results in the town rising up against Curwen and his unnatural necromantic tendencies. They burn him in his own front yard, but not before he’s placed a curse upon their children and their children’s children, promising to return to wreak terrible vengeance.

Moving forward about a hundred years and Charles Dexter Ward, Curwen’s great-great-grandson, reappears in Arkham to take over the lease on his relative’s estate. Along with his wife Anne (Debra Paget, Ward is met with violent hostility from the townsfolk, all of whom bear remarkable resemblances to their great-great-grandfathers. As explained by the kindly Dr. Willet (Frank Maxwell), Curwen’s curse and Ward’s uncanny resemblance to his forebear is just the tip of the eldritch iceberg. Curwen was apparently trying to summon the Elder Gods, his activity taking the form of drawing creatures out of the abyss and mating them with the local girls, resulting in children with bizarre deformities (whose descendants at one point menace Ward and Anne). Now the town fear that Curwen has returned in the form of Ward to take vengeance and begin his work again – a fear eventually realized when Ward moves into the palace and Curwen begins taking over the body of his relative.

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The Haunted Palace follows at least some of the plot of Lovecraft’s novella fairly closely, albeit with some notable changes. The action centers on Curwen’s slow possession of Ward, with the help of his partner-in-necromancy Simon Orne (Lon Chaney Jr.). The film introduces the very Lovecraftian themes of violation, degeneracy, family curses and, of course, the Elder Gods, all mixed together in a hodge-podge of lurid detail. The only truly sympathetic characters in the film are Ward, Anne, and Dr. Willet; the townspeople are venal and cruel, though they might not deserve the fate that Curwen eventually dishes out to them. Under Corman’s direction, The Haunted Palace draws out the sexual underpinnings of the story without veering into exploitation. In a movie that includes roasting people alive and offering women up to creatures from the abyss, the most disturbing scene is Curwen’s attempted rape of Anne while in the body of Ward.

Supported by a uniformly excellent cast, Vincent Price is of course the star of the show – and how he seems to enjoy it! His transformation between Ward and Curwen is effected with minimal make-up, instead relying on Price’s remarkable expressiveness of face and voice. Though Price has often been maligned as a ham actor, his ability to summon sympathy for villains and horror for heroes is a talent that Corman honed in the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Here it is on full display, to excellent and chilling effect.

The other actors are almost as enjoyable as Price, although they have considerably less to do. Paget deserves her share of the accolades, playing Anne as a damsel in distress still able to operate on some of her own initiative. There’s a wonderful and heart-breaking pathos to Ward and Anne’s relationship, as Anne is forced to deal with a husband who looks like himself and demonstrably is not. Then there’s Lon Chaney Jr. (here billed just as Lon Chaney), whose sad-eyes and sympathetic face conceal a true monster this time around.

The Haunted Palace does exactly what it sets out to do, and is successful as far it goes. While some of the opening sequences drag a little, particularly Ward and Anne’s arrival in the village, the narrative bounces along at a good pace, with little additional flourishes to distract from the central thrust of the story. It’s an early Lovecraft adaptation, but a remarkably successful one. Besides, how often do you get to see Vincent Price psychologically torturing Vincent Price?

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The Last Man on Earth (1964)

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If humanity were to suddenly be subject to an airborne disease that turns its victims into the walking dead, who do you think would be the last man standing? No, not those idiots on The Walking Dead. Only one man could possibly survive the zombie/vampire apocalypse, and look good doing it too: Vincent Price.

Based on the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth stars our Mr. Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a biologist who has spent three years as the only man on Earth apparently not infected by a horrific airborne plague that claimed his wife, daughter, and best friend. The film takes us through Morgan’s typical day as he awakes, hangs garlic over his doorway, and heads out into the abandoned city with a bag of wooden stakes to find and destroy more of the vampiric creatures that were once the human population. He has to return before the sun goes down, though, for the vampires come banging on his door, threatening to kill him. He spends some time trying to get into radio contact with other living beings, but all to no avail. It appears that he truly is the only man left alive.

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The Last Man on Earth reportedly inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead, so all you Zombie-philes should get down on your knees and praise this weird little movie. This is a zombie movie before there were zombie movies, but the vampiric creatures share much in common with Romero’s later conception of the walking dead. Half brain-dead and only really powerful in numbers, the vampires seem to lack basic organization, banging on Morgan’s door and shouting threats without being able to organize themselves well enough to actually break into his house. Morgan’s contempt for the people that were once his friends is pathetic. In a flashback sequence, we learn of the origins of the plague, and of the slow decay of surrounding civilization as more people fall victim. When Morgan wanders the deserted city in search of vampires, the film provides an effective sense of the desolation and loneliness of streets without people and stores left empty. There is something horribly realistic in the first 3/4s of this tale of worldwide pandemic, the terror and mistrust perhaps all too real in this day and age.

Price gives one of his most affecting performances, at once sympathetic and slightly sinister as he struggles with his day-to-day existence, forced to burn the mutilated bodies of the vampires. He’s the only character on screen for most of the film’s runtime. Despite the somewhat hokey voiceover that was far too common in films of this period, Price’s performance elevates the film (as his performances so often did) – his elation at spotting a dog running loose in the streets is heartbreaking, for here he sees at last some hope of companionship in his long, lonely existence. Morgan is a monster and a hero in the same breath, and his suffering plays out over the contortions of Price’s remarkably expressive face.

The weakness of The Last Man on Earth lies in its denouement, which I won’t spoil for the reader. A relatively effective set-up is punctured in the final act, leading to a curiously unsatisfying conclusion. While miles ahead of its successor I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, The Last Man on Earth does not quite make good on its narrative promises.

Yet for all that, there is much to like about this odd little film. Price here embraces the melancholic suffering so prevalent in many of his best performances. He has taken the world’s cares on his shoulders, and become a monster in the process. Nothing could be so heart-breaking.

The Tomb of Ligeia

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“I just tried to kill a cat with a head of cabbage!” – Verden Fell (Vincent Price)

Vincent Price and director/producer Roger Corman made eight films based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, all of them in bright Technicolor with overwrought scripts and hammy performances from a central cast of talented B-movie stars. The Tomb of Ligeia is the last of the cycle and in some ways the best, featuring one of Price’s most effective and pathetic performances.

The story centers around Verden Fell (Price), who opens the film by burying his wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd). We’re told that Ligeia was a woman of great will and passions, who promises her husband on her death-bed that she will not stay buried. This being an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation, we can expect her to keep that promise. Fast forward several years and Verden is still living at the abbey he shared with his wife (she’s buried in the neighboring churchyard). The arrival of his beautiful neighbor Rowena (also Shepherd) prompts Verden to reevaluate his priorities. He falls for Rowena and the pair embark upon a marriage that everyone pretty much knows is doomed. Ligeia might be dead and buried, but she’s not going to let her husband go that easily.

Like most Corman/Poe stories, The Tomb of Ligeia is less about its plot and more about its aesthetics. The abbey that Verden and his wives inhabit is run-down, strewn with cobwebs, and haunted by a black cat that quickly become a central character to the story. Secret passages, haunted ruins, a bell-tower, winding staircases leading to hidden secrets – it’s all beautifully predictable for this type of film, and we know that before long family secrets will be revealed and some hideous discoveries made.

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At the center of the film is the excellent cast, not the least of them being Price and Shepherd. Price is a tad old for the part he plays, but he goes into it with gusto, his sad, haunted expression making the audience feel for a man who might very well have been made out to be a monster. Verden fights desperately to free himself from the morbid obsession with his dead wife, who swore to him on her death-bed that he would always be her husband. In this case, he’s as much a victim of Ligeia’s indomitable will as everyone else, and Price plays him with pathetic beauty.

Elizabeth Shepherd, meanwhile, takes on the dual role of the Lady Rowena and Ligeia herself. Both are headstrong, powerful women, unwilling to sacrifice the man that they love – or, rather, the man that they want. There’s a certain element of power play going on here, and in some way the film is more about the battle between Rowena and Ligeia than it is about Verden. (I can also never pass up an Avengers connection: Shepherd was the first actress cast as Mrs. Emma Peel on The Avengers, and even filmed 1.5 episodes before being dismissed from the production under rather vague circumstances. Watching her here, I couldn’t help but wonder how she might have compared to Diana Rigg).

Where The Tomb of Ligeia fails is in its conclusion. The final sequence, once we get there, is very effective, but the plot feels confused, with much of the exposition packed into the last ten minutes. There we discover the “truth” about Ligeia and Verden’s obsession with her and are subjected to several short climaxes before we get to the real ending. As such, the film feels curiously weighted at the conclusion, as though Corman and scriptwriter Robert Towne (of later Chinatown fame) realized that they didn’t have an ending to the story and so tacked on three. That being said, however, it does provide one of the more epic final battles in any of Corman’s films, vastly outstripping The Pit and the Pendulum for sheer madness.

No one watches a Corman/Poe film for excellent storytelling; we watch it for the crazed camp, the wild-eyed villains and tortured heroes, the heroines bathed in fire and blood. Corman was the King of B-Movies, one of the best directors to tap into Price’s intensity and make even his villains fascinating and sympathetic. The Tomb of Ligeia is not a great film, but it is great fun.

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Although I am a rather jaded film viewer, there are times when a movie still has the capacity to surprise me. It’s even more remarkable when that movie was made all the way back in 1940, based on a novel written about a hundred years before that.

I really should not have been so surprised at The House of the Seven Gables. After all, it stars two of my favorite sinister gentlemen: Vincent Price and George Sanders. They play brothers (of course they do), one good, the other bad. In the surprise of the century, it’s Mr. Price who gets to be the good guy as Clifford Pyncheon, the eldest son of the Pyncheon family. He resides in the House of the Seven Gables with his father Gerald (Gilbert Emery) and his cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay). Things are not well at Seven Gables, though; Gerald and the younger son Jaffrey (Sanders) have managed to squander the family fortune and Clifford plans to sell Seven Gables and go to New York with his fiancee Hepzibah (this is the Victorian era: that’s totally cool).

Jaffrey’s not a nice man, though – he’s a greedy little rat who believes that there’s a secret treasure hidden somewhere in Seven Gables, and therefore does not want to give up the house. The battle rages between Jaffrey and Clifford, who wants to be out of the house and out from under the weight of his family history. Things go south for poor Clifford when his father suddenly dies during a verbal fight and his brother accuses him of murder.price-gables

The whole of the story is wrapped up in the Pyncheon family history. The first Colonel Pyncheon falsely accused a man of witchcraft in order to obtain his land. Later crimes are committed by the powerful patriarchs of the family – a fact which only Clifford wants to admit to. Clifford and Hepzibah try to escape from the cycle, only to be pulled back in by forces of greed and bitterness.

The actors  anchor The House of the Seven Gables. Price and Sanders are  stars we’re used to seeing in older incarnations, but here (at least at the beginning) they’re young and vibrant. Price especially carries his role off with great aplomb, first as the young joyful Clifford desperate to begin a better life, and then as the down-trodden older man released from prison after almost 20 years.  It’s a testament to Price’s acting ability that this will be the same man who creeps us out in The House on Haunted Hill. In The House of the Seven Gables, he’s never been more likable or attractive.

Sanders has less to do – he does not get to exercise his considerable smarmy charm, although his sardonic baritone is in full force here. He’s an interesting counterpoint to Price’s earnestness, even if the character he plays is largely one-dimensional.

Margaret Lindsay likewise deserves kudos for her role as the patient Hepzibah, who loves Clifford so deeply that she never stops trying to obtain his liberty. Lindsay goes from being a joyous young woman to an embittered matron, but she does not lose either her kindness or her passions. Lindsay gives her a gentility often missing in broader caricatures of the ‘old maid’ – she is a decent, loving person, choosing to live a life of solitude rather than give up on the man she loves. The reunion of Clifford and Hepzibah is perhaps one of the most moving and understated scenes I’ve ever experienced, a result of excellent performances on both the parts of Price and Lindsay. The entire film is worth it just for that one moment of beauty.

I’m surprised and happy that I can recommend this film as highly as I do. While by no means a perfect movie, it’s a remarkably effective one. A Victorian melodrama as only silver-screen Hollywood can make them, it nevertheless transcends the usual sentimental bluster through an excellent cast and a good script. It is moving because it seems so very human.

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In case you missed it, I’ve got a bit of thing going on with Vincent Price. It was entirely unintentional, but whenever I want a movie that is guaranteed to be delightful without being too terribly serious, I go for something starring Mr. Price.  Because Vincent Price is cooler than you or me, and he knows it.

So imagine my excitement when I realized that I had not sene THE movie that more or less made Vincent Price into Vincent Price. That is to say, up until Dragonwyck, Price had been a standard supporting player, appearing mostly as second-class villains or smarmy pretty boys (Laura). Despite a pretty creepy turn in Samuel Fuller’s Shock, a non-villainous part in The House Of The Seven Gables with George Sanders, and a few minor villain roles, Price had not quite become the gothic creeper we all know and love.

dragonwyck großartigThen along came Dragonwyck.  Price plays Nicholas Van Ryn, a New York landlord with medieval sensibilities who falls (kind of) for his distant cousin Miranda (Gene Tierney). But Van Ryn’s wife (Connie Marshall) is in the way, so he’s got to get rid of her before he can marry his pretty cousin and ruin her life too.  Meanwhile, the tenants of Van Ryn’s land want out of their rather feudal contract with their master – and are trying to get there with the help of the hunky local doctor (Glenn Langan), who’s also falling for Miranda.

Dragonwyck represents Price’s first real foray into the realm of the gothic villain.  His Van Ryn is charming and frigid, a vindictive head-case with delusions about his place in society. He’s a snob, a vicious landlord, a classist, a suppressor of men’s rights, and an apparent believer in the droit de seigneur.  He’s also positively gorgeous in a way that I did not really think Vincent Price was capable of being.

But although I watched Dragonwyck for Price, the movie really belongs to Gene Tierney, who plays a sympathetic and remarkably strong young woman.  It’s understandable how the daughter of a Connecticut farmer and minister (played, by the way, by Walter Huston, just because) could be seduced by her handsome, wealthy cousin.  But at no point does Miranda fall into the common position of gothic heroines.  She stands up to her autocratic husband, despising and loving him at the same time.  As her illusions are stripped away, she does not become less powerful but more so.dragonwyck

Dragonwyck is a surprising film.  It could very easily have fallen into a typical gothic tale of innocence assaulted and corrupted.  But none of the characters are stereotypes.  Miranda’s father preaches at her, then softens, saying, “Indulge me.  You won’t have to put up with me much longer.”  Huston plays him as a decent, God-fearing man who wants very much to give his daughter what she desires, even if it does not tally with his beliefs.  He is in direct contrast with Van Ryn, who does not believe in God but in himself.  This is not just hubris – it is a fundamental aspect of Van Ryn’s character that is more tragic than dangerous.  He’s a man imprisoned by his ancestors and wholly incapable of escaping them.

So Dragonwyck exceeds its gothic underpinnings. While there are the requisite secret rooms, creepy servants and haunting portraits, the film produces a complex tale of power and religion, love and possession, the sickly past and potential for the future.  It’s a fascinating film, and not just because Vincent Price is beautiful.  Although, there’s that too.

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I’ll just leave the cast list right here: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone, in a film directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People).

Do you need that repeated? No? Just read it a few more times.  Now inform me of how this movie can possibly go wrong.

The fact is that it can’t.  Price is Waldo Trumbull, an obnoxious and drunken undertaker on the verge of being cast into the street by his landlord John Black (Rathbone).  He has a crazy opera-singing wife he despises (Joyce Jameson), an incompetent assistant named Felix Gillie (Lorre) and a father-in-law who has seen better days (Karloff).  In an effort to buoy his failing business, Trumbull undertakes (HA!) to murder rich elderly men so that he can give them a funeral.

This is a Laurel and Hardy film with four of the finest horror movie actors to step onto a screen.  Price and Lorre bully, shove and tear into each other constantly, Karloff chews the scenery whole and Rathbone … Rathbone has to be seen to be believed.  The plot hinges on Trumbull’s idea to simply knock off his landlord, thus making some ready cash and getting rid of a man he hates into the bargain.  But Rathbone proves (hilariously) hard to kill, prompting the funniest funeral ever.

Comedy of Terrors

The Comedy Of Terrors could not have been performed with any other cast – each actor brings their own inimitable star personas to theirparts, and proves once and for all that they were all capable of playing comedy.  I knew that already about Price and Lorre, but Karloff! Now Karloff was a revelation, giving Rathbone one hell of a eulogy.  The comedy depends on an audience’s awareness of the roles the four men have played in the past – it’s one of the first and finest of the self-referential horror-comedies that Price would cash in on so brilliantly later in his career.

There are things that could be better about The Comedy Of Terrors.  A little less time dwelling on Price and Lorre breaking into houses and a little more time on the plot to kill Rathbone.  Less of Jameson warbling, more of Karloff wandering about looking befuddled.  Price is incredibly unlikable, yet you want him to get away with it just to keep everything moving.  The running jokes get a little wearing after the fourth or fifth repeat, and Price’s vicious hatred of his wife becomes off-putting – however obnoxious she is.  The film really picks up in the second half, once Rathbone has fully committed himself to spouting Macbeth at regular intervals and Karloff begins indulging in histrionics.

I don’t know what else to say about The Comedy Of Terrors, except that I enjoyed just about every minute of it.  Price and Lorre are a great comic team, their differing physicality working very much to their advantage.  Despite some plot holes big enough to fit a horse-drawn hearse, by the end of the film I was laughing so hard I did not care.