The Price is right

 

© American International Pictures

 

Today, October 25th 2018, is an exact quarter-century since the death of Vincent Price – distinguished actor and voice-over artist, gourmet cook and cookbook writer, knowledgeable art collector and art consultant, high-profile liberal and political activist, all-round media personality and legendary star of horror movies.  For that last reason, it seems appropriate that Price expired just a few days short of Halloween, the creepy highpoint of the year.

 

Price was a hero of mine.  He had a remarkable voice, smooth, sonorous and sinister, seeming to come at you through a curtain of glossy black velvet.  And though the movies he appeared in were sometimes less than great, thanks to him they were rarely less than enjoyable.  A good actor will always look and sound good in a good film, obviously.  But it’s the sign of a great actor to feature in a bad film and make it seem much better than it actually is.

 

Price’s acting career began in 1935 when he found work with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre.  He made his film debut three years later and during the 1940s and early 1950s the cinema employed him as a character actor and, frequently, a villain.  Then, having appeared in House of Wax in 1953, The Fly in 1958 and a couple of schlocky late-1950s classics made by the horror-movie mogul and showman William Castle, he became associated with macabre roles.  This was cemented by his appearances in a run of critically-acclaimed films from 1960 to 1964 directed by Roger Corman, produced by American International Pictures and based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  The early 1970s saw him at his horror-icon zenith, appearing in stylish and tongue-in-cheek movies like the Dr Phibes ones (1971 and 1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973) that seemed tailor-made for him.

 

Price’s film workload lightened thereafter because the gothic horror movies he’d specialised in fell out of fashion.  But still, up until the last few years of his life, he  seemed ubiquitous thanks to his copious appearances on TV, radio, stage and vinyl – he not only rapped at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), but featured in Alice Cooper’s Black Widow (1975) and recorded story and poetry readings.

 

Here are my favourite Vincent Price movies.  And fittingly, with Halloween six days away, they’re all horror ones.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The Fly (1958)

Price plays the brother of a doomed scientist (Al Hedison) who builds a teleportation device and unwisely tries it out on himself without checking first that nothing has climbed into the transmitter chamber with him.  Something has, a housefly, and Hedison and the pesky insect re-materialise with mixed-up body parts.  It falls on Price to work out what the hell has happened.

 

I saw The Fly on TV when I was in my twenties and found it hilarious.  Somehow, the fly’s head becomes human-sized when it’s planted on Hedison’s shoulders, while a tiny Hedison-head ends up attached to the fly’s body.  Hedison’s miniaturised head still retains his human brain – he shrieks, “Help me!  Help me!” when he gets trapped in a spider’s web at the movie’s climax – but the giant fly’s head also seems to have Hedison’s brain inside it because the mutant creature is smart enough to hide away and leave written instructions for Hedison’s puzzled wife.  These absurdities were apparent to the cast, including Price, who had a hard time filming a scene with Herbert Marshall (in the role of an investigating policeman).  Their conversation gets interrupted by a little voice squeaking “Help me!” out of a spider’s web – at which point both actors kept exploding with laughter.  It required some 20 takes before the scene was finally in the can.

 

That said, I watched The Fly again recently and reacted to it differently.   The image of the fly with Hedison’s puny head grafted onto it, shrieking in terror while a monstrous spider approaches, strikes me now as piteous, grotesque and disturbing.

 

The Raven (1963)

I loved this Roger Corman-directed movie as a kid.  The tale of a trio of feuding magicians played by Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, it’s more fantasy than horror – but spiced with delightfully ghoulish moments, such as when a torturer checks the temperature of a red-hot poker by pressing it into his own arm, or when Price opens a little casket and is discombobulated to find it full of human eyeballs.  (“I’d rather not say,” he croaks when Lorre asks him what’s inside.)  It’s like a version of Walt Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) for morbid children.

 

Incidentally, Karloff turns Lorre into a raven twice during the film, which allows Corman to tack the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem onto it and have Price recite the poem mellifluously during its opening scene.  And in the role of Lorre’s son, we get a 26-year-old and amusingly wooden Jack Nicholson.

 

© American International Pictures

 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman’s majestic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, scripted by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell (with a second Poe story, Hop Frog, stitched into the plot for good measure) and beautifully shot by the great Nicolas Roeg, showcases Price at his sumptuously evil best.  He’s Prince Prospero, who’s holed up in his castle with an entourage of loathsome aristocrats while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  Price and friends happily live a life of decadence, fuelled by drink, drugs, sex, partying and diabolism, and refuse to help the neighbourhood’s terrified peasants.  However, when they decide to enliven their social calendar with a fancy-dress masque, the masque is gate-crashed by a mysterious, Ingmar Bergman-esque figure swathed in a red robe.  Guess who that is.

 

Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Made the same year as Masque, Corman’s Ligeia has Price in a more sympathetic role, playing a haunted and reclusive man who tries to put his troubles behind him and find happiness with a new wife (Elizabeth Shepherd).  Unfortunately, his former wife, though dead, is still around in spirit form and won’t leave him in peace.  Tomb of Ligeia has a slightly over-the-top ending, but the build-up to it, involving black cats, flag-stoned passageways, cobwebs, candlelight, hypnosis, Egyptology and some imposing monasterial ruins filmed at Castle Acre Priory in the East Anglia region of England, is spookily wonderful.

 

© Tigon British Productions / American International Pictures

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

Directed by Michael Reeves (who died soon after at the age of 25), the uncompromising Witchfinder General sees Price back in East Anglia, playing a real-life figure from local history – the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins.  Among the East Anglian locations are Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford and the coastal settlements of Dunwich and Orford, and they form a paradoxically gorgeous backdrop to Hopkins’ ugly, brutal activities.  Orford Castle, which belongs to English Heritage, is the setting for the movie’s climax, which was supposed to feature a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he changed the script and used a less spectacular but more gruelling ending whereby hero Ian Ogilvy seizes an axe and bloodily hacks Price to death.

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on during Witchfinder General’s production.  Reeves considered Price too showy an actor for the role, but the star had been forced on him by the movie’s producers.  Nonetheless, Price ended up giving a low-key but chilling portrayal of evil, which is now considered one of his best performances.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)

In 1971, Price starred in Robert Fuest’s baroque comedy-horror film The Abominable Dr Phibes.  He played the demented and disfigured genius Anton Phibes, who murders the surgeons he holds responsible for his wife’s death one-by-one whilst using the ten Old Testament plagues inflicted upon the Ancient Egyptians as inspiration for each killing.  I find the film a bit too pleased with itself and prefer the following year’s sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, which was also directed by Fuest.   This has Phibes heading for Egypt to find an ancient temple containing the fabled River of Life, which he believes will resurrect his dead wife.  When he discovers that a rival expedition is also searching for the temple, Phibes lays waste to them using another inventive array of killing methods: hawks, scorpions, a giant screw-press, a sand-blaster, etc.

 

Dr Phibes Rises Again is scrappier but funnier than its predecessor and has a great cast – Price, Robert Quarry, John Cater, Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith, Gerald Sim, Lewis Fiander, John Thaw, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas and Peter Cushing.  Cater and Jeffrey are particularly good value as the hapless coppers who pursue Phibes to Egypt and they get the best lines, for example: “I don’t think.  I know!”  “I don’t think you know either, sir.”

 

© United Artists / Harbour Productions Limited / Cineman Productions

 

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant Theatre of Blood is another comedy-horror movie, this time featuring Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who soon meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  A very distinguished cast of English character actors goes the same way as Morley: Michael Hordern (suffering a demise similar to that of Julius Caesar), Dennis Price (Troilus and Cressida), Arthur Lowe (Cymbeline), Robert Coote (Richard III) and Coral Browne (Henry VI: Part One).  Price even rewrites The Merchant of Venice so that a pound of flesh can be extracted from Harry Andrews.

 

Ian Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who at the movie’s climax is rescued by the police before he gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry’s on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Price’s participation in Edward Scissorhands, written and directed by his then-youthful admirer Tim Burton, was reduced by ill health – he’d die from lung cancer a few years later – but his small role here remains charming.  He plays the kindly, eccentric old inventor who puts together Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) but expires before he can fit his creation with proper hands.  This leaves poor Edward stuck with the temporary hands he’d been given, which are composed of long sharp scissor-blades.  (Price’s character was kindly and eccentric, yes, but not exactly practical.)

 

Price has been dead for 25 years now but it often feels like he never departed.  His films are still shown regularly on TV and people still imitate his velvety tones.  And though I don’t care for the music of Michael Jackson, I like the fact that I’ve been sitting in pubs in different and far-flung parts of the world, in Sri Lanka and Tunisia and Ethiopia, when someone behind the counter has started playing Thriller on the places’ sound-systems; meaning that a few minutes later the pubs have filled with Price’s glorious voice, intoning:

 

Darkness falls across the land / The midnight hour is close at hand / Creatures crawl in search of blood / To terrorise your neighbourhood…

 

And finally, of course, that laugh: “AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAAA!

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Cinematic heroes 2: Ian Hendry

 

(c) BBC

 

“Do you know, I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”

 

If those words, uttered by a sneering Michael Caine in Get Carter, the classic British gangster movie from 1970, aren’t engraved on Ian Hendry’s tombstone, they might as well be – for I imagine they’re what most people think of when they hear Hendry’s name mentioned today.  They come at the end of a tense scene where Caine’s Jack Carter encounters scuzzball Eric Paice, played by Hendry, at Newcastle Racecourse in High Gosforth Park.  Hendry was originally lined up to play Carter, the virile hero / anti-hero of the celebrated Geordie-land equivalent of Mean Streets.  However, by 1970 heavy drinking had taken its toll on his health and physique.  So instead he was given the supporting role of the weasely but memorably villainous Paice.

 

Hendry was resentful at losing the lead role to Caine.  The night before the race-course scene was filmed, an attempt to give it a read-through in the hotel where the cast were staying was reportedly a disaster due to Hendry being three-sheets-to-the-wind.  It’s said that Caine kept his professional cool in the face of Hendry’s drunken uncooperativeness, although he may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.  Director Mike Hodges, meanwhile, thought Hendry’s resentment was a bonus because it heightened the tension between Carter and Paice onscreen.  Every cloud has its silver lining.

 

While researching this entry, I read a lot about Hendry’s alcohol problems, which came as a surprise to me.  When I was a kid in the 1970s, by which time his drinking was well out of hand, he seemed nonetheless to be ubiquitous.  He turned up on TV all the time – I remember seeing him in The Persuaders, The Sweeney, Thriller, Van Der Valk, Churchill’s People, Crown Court, Supernatural, The New Avengers and Return of the Saint – and he was in a fair number of films too.  Mind you, the taxman was giving him as much trouble as the drink, which was possibly an incentive to keep working no matter what physical and mental state he was in.

 

Born in 1931 in Ipswich, the county-town of Suffolk, Hendry worked originally in property management and also did two years of national service after World War II.  But he’d been interested in amateur dramatics since his schooldays and had even done a spell working as a circus clown’s sidekick – an experience that left him with an enduring love for the big top – and in 1953 he packed in the office job and enlisted in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where his fellow students included Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench.  After graduation from the school he spent the remainder of the 1950s doing stage-work and getting bit-parts in films, including one in Jack Clayton’s 1959 adaptation of John Braine’s novel Room at the Top.

 

(c) ABC

 

It was on television, however, that Hendry got noticed.  In 1960 he secured the lead role in a short-lived show, Police Surgeon, and a year later he was the lead in another show, The Avengers, which was anything but short-lived – it lasted until 1969, becoming ever more whimsical, surreal and outlandish along the way, and it made a 1960s icon out of its ultra-suave, bowler-hatted and brolly-carrying hero John Steed and an international star out of the actor who played him, Patrick Macnee.  It’s still talked about in some quarters as the greatest television series ever made.

 

In its earliest incarnation, though, Macnee only had second billing and Hendry was the real star – he played the show’s tragic hero, Doctor David Keel, whose efforts to investigate and avenge the murder of his fiancé by a criminal gang (hence the title The Avengers) bring him into contact with Steed.  Once the case is solved, Keel and Steed form a crime-fighting partnership.  Nearly all the videotapes of the episodes from the show’s first season were wiped, but looking at what remains (bits of the very first episode are viewable on youtube), it’s surprising how much like a standard British crime melodrama the original Avengers is – Steed hasn’t yet acquired his trademark suit, bowler and brolly and wears a decidedly non-debonair raincoat.

 

A strike that held up work at the production company, the Associated British Corporation, and the promise of a successful film career persuaded Hendry to depart at the end of the first season and once he was gone The Avengers morphed into the telly legend it is today.  Steered by producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens – Clemens was also the chief writer – it grew increasingly and gloriously baroque and Hendry was replaced as Macnee’s partner by, in turn, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson.  I suspect the show wouldn’t have followed the iconic path that it did if Hendry had stayed on board – mind you, at least then we’d have been spared the truly horrible movie version with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in 1998.

 

Post-Avengers, Hendry’s 1960s films included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965).  The latter was the first of several quality (if not so financially successful) movies that Lumet made with Sean Connery, who was trying to forge a serious movie career away from the Bond films.  It was set in a British army correction camp in the Libyan desert during World War II and Hendry excels at playing an evil-bastard sergeant who crosses the line in persecuting the camp’s inmates.  Interestingly, five years later in the 1970 film The Mackenzie Break, Hendry played another screw at a wartime prison camp – the twist being that the inmates are German soldiers attempting to escape from a British POW camp in northern Scotland.

 

(c) MGM

 

Meanwhile, in 1963, Hendry married the actress Janet Munro, who’d made her name appearing both in Walt Disney movies like Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson and in sci-fi ones like The Trollenberg Terror and The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  When the Daily Mirror found out about their romance, Hendry’s star was so much in the ascendant that the newspaper reported it on its front page.  Munro, like Hendry, had a weakness for alcohol and a carelessness with money and their relationship seemed to encourage rather than banish their demons.  She died of a heart attack in 1971, a year after she and Hendry had separated, and her death propelled Hendry even further into alcoholism.

 

In 1969, he appeared in the science fiction film Doppelganger, the first venture into live-action filmmaking by producer Gerry Anderson, who was then famous for his TV-puppet shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.  Supposedly, Anderson was simultaneously shocked by Hendry’s drunkenness and taken by his charm – in the studio pub, Hendry had a habit of walking up to him on his hands (a trick he’d possibly picked up in his circus days) and saying to Anderson, “Evening, boss.”

 

After Get Carter, Hendry remained busy but an increasing amount of his work was on television – and although he was a regular face in British movies, it was clear by now that he wasn’t going to achieve stardom and would have to settle for ‘trusty-old-character-actor’ status.  Slightly frail and haunted-looking in appearance and with thinning hair – indeed, according to one account of his life I read, Hendry’s refusal to wear a toupee had damaged his chances of getting lead roles – he was equally adept at playing rodentine villains like Paice in Get Carter, harassed victims and, occasionally, heroes with more than a hint of vulnerability.

 

In the early 1970s Hendry started turning up in horror films, which he may have seen as one more nail in his career’s coffin but which helped to cement him in the affections of weird people like myself.  He was the luckless hero of the second segment of the 1972 anthology film Tales from the Crypt, whose stories were based on strips from old American horror comics like Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear and Tales from the Crypt itself.  The film doesn’t do justice to its source material, although Hendry’s segment about a man who seemingly survives a horrific car crash and then can’t figure out why everyone he encounters runs away in terror – it’s because he’s actually… dead! – comes closest to capturing the comics’ visceral, in-your-face style.

 

He was also the hero of 1973’s Theatre of Blood, a comedy-horror movie that I could rhapsodise about all day.  It features Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts murdering the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murder methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  Hendry plays the youngest and least obnoxious critic, who halfway through the film has a sword-fight with Price modelled on the one between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and then, at the end, nearly gets his eyes put out as the Earl of Gloucester did in King Lear.  Hendry gets rescued by the police, however, and is on hand to pronounce judgement on Price when he finally plunges to his death through the roof of a burning theatre-building: “Yes it was a remarkable performance… he was madly overacting as usual, but you must admit he did know how to make an exit.”

 

Playing Price’s daughter in Theatre of Blood was none other than Diana Rigg, one of Hendry’s replacements in The Avengers.  And incidentally, the penthouse flat that Hendry’s character occupies during the film would later, in real life, become the home of Jeffrey Archer – to give him his full Wikipedia title, the “novelist, failed politician and former jailbird Jeffrey Archer.”

 

(c) United Artists

 

In 1974, Hendry appeared in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, an ahead-of-its-time Hammer horror-swashbuckler written and directed by his old Avengers comrade Brian Clements, who kindly billed him as ‘guest’ star on the credits.  Playing the film’s title role was the German actor Horst Janson, who’d been one of the prisoners in The Mackenzie Break.  Hendry also turned up in the opening sequence of Damien: Omen II (1978) with another great British character actor, Leo McKern.  Hendry and McKern have little to do, apart from die in a freak and presumably Damien-inspired accident, but it’s nice to see the pair of them share some screen-time.

 

Among Hendry’s later television credits was a guest appearance in the The New Avengers, the late-1970s revival of The Avengers that again starred Macnee, with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt as his partners this time.  In the episode To Catch a Rat, Hendry doesn’t play a returning David Keel but a British secret agent who’s spent nearly two decades in a psychiatric hospital suffering from amnesia.  When a blow to the head cures him of the amnesia, he realises he has knowledge of a traitorous double-agent who’s been operating all this time at the heart of Britain’s intelligence establishment, and Macnee, Lumley and Hunt have to rescue him before the traitor has him killed.  Producers Fennell and Clemens saw to it that Hendry was first seen working undercover as a trapeze artist in his old love, a circus tent.  They also ensured that Macnee hailed Hendry at the episode’s end as an ‘old friend’ and told him, “It may be 17 years late, but welcome back…”

 

In the late 1970s Hendry was declared bankrupt and professionally he fared little better than he did financially.  His last film role was an uncredited part in the 1980 prison movie McVicar, although it would’ve been sadder if his film CV had ended with his previous cinematic appearance, which was in 1979’s dreadful Joan-and-Jackie Collins sex / disco / gangster epic The Bitch.  Meanwhile, on television, his 1980s roles were mostly confined to crime shows like Bergerac, The Chinese Detective and Antonia Fraser’s limp lady-detective series Jemima Shore Investigates.  His final role came in 1984, when he appeared in three episodes of Brookside, the flagship soap opera for the recently-launched Channel 4.  (When it started broadcasting, one of the first things Channel 4 did was repeat the mid-1960s episodes of The Avengers, thus introducing them to a new generation – myself included.)

 

Hendry died from a stomach haemorrhage on Christmas Eve, 1984, at the age of 53.  His last TV appearance was as a guest on an episode of This is your Life honouring his old Avengers co-star Patrick Macnee.  The episode also had contributions from Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt.  Hendry looked in terrible shape when he came on stage to greet Macnee, but at this gathering of Avengers alumni it would’ve been tragic if he, the original star of the show, hadn’t been there.

 

In this, the Internet era, there’s been a revival of interest in Ian Hendry.  He has an extensive official website devoted to him at http://ianhendry.com/ and a fan one at http://ian-hendry-true-brit.webs.com/.  Also, earlier this year, the first-ever biography of the actor, Send in the Clowns: the Yoyo Life of Ian Hendry by Gabriel Hershman, was published to good reviews: http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/gabriel-hershman/send-in-the-clowns-the-yo-yo-life-of-ian-hendry/paperback/product-20974696.html.