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

 

Cinematically stoned

 

© Omni Zoetrope / United Artists

 

In my previous post I wrote about the late Anita Pallenberg and her finest cinematic moment, the dark and twisted 1968 crime / rock movie Performance.  This also starred Mick Jagger, fellow Rolling Stone and best buddy of Pallenberg’s then lover, Keith Richards.

 

Performance’s cocktail of rock stars, gangsters, drugs, decadence and debauchery was seen as representative of the culture surrounding the Stones in the late 1960s; and this, along with Pallenberg and Jagger’s participation, surely means it can be classed as a ‘Rolling Stones movie’.  Which begs the questions, “Are there other Rolling Stones movies?  And if so, what?”

 

After all, there’s been plenty of Beatles movies over the years: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968), Let It Be (1970), I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Birth of the Beatles (1979), Give my Regards to Broad Street (1984), The Hours and Times (1991), Backbeat (1994), Two of Us (2000), even The Rutles (1978).  But what of the Liverpudlian moptops’ less wholesome London rivals?  What’s been their contribution to cinema?

 

On the face of it, there isn’t a lot.  That is, if you don’t count the various documentaries made about them like Charlie is my Darling (1966), Jean Luc Godard’s oddball Sympathy for the Devil (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), a chronicle of their 1969 American tour that ended bloodily with Hells Angels-inspired carnage at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival.   And if you don’t count their many concert movies like The Stones in the Park (1969), Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982), Julien Temple’s The Stones at the Max (1991) (the first feature-length movie to be filmed in IMAX – because what you really want to see is a 100-feet-tall close-up of Keith Richards’ face, right?), The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1996) (plug your ears for the bit with Yoko Ono) and the Martin Scorsese-directed Shine a Light (2008), which provided the gruesome spectacle of leathery 60-something Jagger duetting with 20-something pop-moppet Christina Aguilera and prowling around her like a camp velociraptor.

 

There’s been little effort to film key events in the history of the Rolling Stones.  Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is the little-known Stoned (2005), about the possible circumstances of Brian Jones’s death.  And as for movies featuring Stones-members as actors, well, there’s just a couple of items with Mick Jagger – epics such as Ned Kelly (1970) and Freejack (1992).  Ouch and double-ouch.

 

© Walt Disney Productions / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Actually, you could make a case for the Pirates of the Caribbean series being Rolling Stones films as their star Johnny Depp famously based the voice, mannerisms and swagger of his Captain Jack Sparrow character on Keith Richards.  I thought Depp-playing-Keith-playing-a-pirate was a rib-tickling gimmick that elevated the first Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, back in 2003, from being a middling film to being an entertaining one.  Alas, Captain Jack / Johnny / Keith has gradually lost his novelty value as the sequels have become ever-more convoluted, repetitious and tedious.  For the third in the franchise, At World’s End (2007), the filmmakers had the bright idea of bringing in the real Keith Richards to cameo as Captain Jack’s pirate dad.  You can see his cameo here on Youtube, which saves you the ordeal of sitting through the whole poxy movie waiting for him to show up.

 

However, there’s one thing you can say about the Rolling Stones and celluloid.  In the right film, blasting over the soundtrack at the right moment, a Stones song can help create a splendid musical, visual and dramatic alchemy, turning a good cinematic scene into one that’s truly awesome.  Here are my all-time favourite uses of Rolling Stones songs in the movies.

 

© Taplin-Perry-Scorsese Productions / Warner Bros

 

Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets (1973)

Wow.  Martin Scorsese really likes the Rolling Stones.  Not only has he made a concert movie about them, the above-mentioned Shine a Light, but he’s used their music in umpteen films: Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006) and the one that first put him on the map, 1973’s Mean Streets.  Even today, more than 40 years later, the scene in Mean Streets where a young Robert De Niro comes swaggering through a bar, in slow motion, towards a pensive Harvey Keitel, while Jagger hollers in the background about being “born in a cross-fire hurricane”, is a great synthesis of rock ‘n’ roll music and rock ‘n’ roll cinema.  Indeed, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a fitting accompaniment for the arrival in popular consciousness of De Niro, who’d spend the rest of the 20th century showing Hollywood how to do proper acting.  (The 21st century, containing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Little Fockers (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011) and Dirty Grandpa (2016), is a different matter.)

 

Satisfaction in Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Stones’ early, primordial and still potent stomper Satisfaction gets a brief but memorable airing in Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque Vietnam War masterpiece, playing on the radio while Captain Martin Sheen and his not-exactly-fighting-fit crew go cruising up the Nùng River in search of Marlon Brando.  Cue some funky on-deck dance moves by a frighteningly young-looking Laurence Fishburne and some funny / cringeworthy water-skiing moves by Sam Bottoms that knock various Vietnamese people out of their fishing boats.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Alien Nation (1988)

Graham Baker’s sci-fi / cop movie Alien Nation isn’t very good.  Its premise of an alien community getting stranded on earth and having to integrate as best as they can with the curmudgeonly human natives was handled much better in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009).  But I do like a woozy, hypnotic scene in it where alien-loathing cop James Caan enters a sleazy alien bar while a lady-alien performs an erotic dance to the strains of Sympathy for the Devil.  Not the original Stones song, but a correspondingly woozy, hypnotic cover-version of it by the great Jane’s Addiction.  I can’t find a film-clip of the scene, but here’s the Jane’s Addiction cover.

 

© Légende Entreprises / Universal Pictures

 

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? in Casino (1995)

While Martin Scorsese serenades Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel with Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets, he employs the 1971 Stones song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? for another of his regulars, Joe Pesci, in Casino.  Remarkably, Scorsese plays all seven minutes of the Santana-esque Can’t You… as an accompaniment to a lengthy sequence showing how Pesci’s Casino character Nicky Santoro gets established in Las Vegas.  Predictably, the sequence has Pesci doing what Pesci usually does in Scorsese movies: being a psychotic shit, barking orders at hoodlum sidekicks twice his size, eating in restaurants, ingratiating himself with fellow Mafiosi, being a psychotic shit, cursing and swearing, getting a blow-job, being a psychotic shit, talking about food, knocking off jewellery stores, acting the loving family man with his non-criminal relatives… and being a psychotic shit.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Interview with the Vampire (1995)

It’s Sympathy for the Devil again.  And again, this isn’t the Rolling Stones original but a cover version, this time by Guns n’ Roses.  It’s as ramshackle, shonky and (for me) enjoyable as Guns n’ Roses’ other covers, which include ones of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Wings’ Live and Let Die.  In Interview with the Vampire, Sympathy… kicks in during the final scene when, to nobody’s great surprise, the supposedly-vanquished vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) reappears and takes a bite out of reporter Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater).

 

© Strike Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Ruby Tuesday in Children of Men (2006)

Wistful Stones ballad Ruby Tuesday features briefly on the soundtrack of Alfonso Cuarón’s gruellingly pessimistic science-fiction thriller Children of Men.  It’s another cover, sung by Franco Battiato.  We hear it during one of the movie’s calmer moments when Theo (Clive Owen) is visiting his mate Jasper (Michael Caine), whose home provides a small pocket of sanity amid the unfolding dystopian grimness.  Amusingly, Caine, well known in real life for being a right-wing old grump given to moaning about his tax-bill, here plays a left-wing old hippy given to smoking super-strong pot.

 

© Plan B Entertainment / Warner Bros

 

Gimme Shelter in The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese loves the Rolling Stones and he loves their apocalyptic 1969 number Gimme Shelter in particular.  By my count he’s used it in three movies: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.  It’s best deployed at the beginning of The Departed, rumbling in the background while gangland thug Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) expounds his philosophy.  “I don’t want to be a part of my environment,” he intones, imbuing his words with that leery, languid menace that only Nicholson is capable of.  “I want my environment to be a part of me.”  Strangely, in Scorsese’s Shine a Light two years later, Gimme Shelter was one of the songs the Stones didn’t perform on stage.  So Marty missed a trick there.

 

Street Fighting Man in Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Director Wes Anderson also sticks Rolling Stones songs into his movies, but so far I haven’t mentioned him because I find most of his work insufferably smug and pretentious.  (Play with Fire figures prominently in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, an Anderson movie so twee it’s the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed with chocolate cake-mix.)  However, I like the scene in his stop-motion-animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox where, to the sound of the rabblerousing late-1960s Stones anthem Street Fighting Man, Farmers Bean, Boggis and Bunce use three diggers to tear up the den of the titular Mr Fox; forcing the den’s inhabitants to frantically dig an escape-route.  As Keith Richards might say: “We’re the Stones – you dig?”

 

© 20th Century Fox