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

 

Carry on abroad

 

© Penguin Books

 

I have a tiny sliver of a connection with Daphne du Maurier, the popular 20th century English writer responsible for novels like Jamaica Inn (1936) and Rebecca (1938) and short stories like The Birds (1952) and Don’t Look Now (1971).  When I was at college in the 1980s, I knew her great-nephew very slightly.  I was better acquainted with her great-nephew’s flatmate, though, and a few times I visited their apartment.  Its walls were slathered with pictures of George Michael and Andrew Ridgely from Wham, cut out of popular teen magazines of the time like Smash Hits and No 1.  I assume the young du Maurier and his flatmate had stuck up these pictures in an attempt to appear ironic.  Unfortunately, it meant that thereafter when I saw his great-aunt’s name on the cover of a book, I couldn’t help but hear, by way of association, the irritatingly bouncy strains of such 1980s pop-dance numbers as Club Tropicana or Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.

 

Until recently the only thing by Daphne du Maurier I’d read was The Birds, a story that because of its remote Cornish setting feels even more claustrophobic and desperate than the North America-set film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963.  However, over the festive season, my partner gave me a copy of du Maurier’s 1971 collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories as a present.  I’ve just finished reading it.

 

A novella about a grieving English couple who’re taking a break in Venice when they’re approached by two strange women – one of whom claims to be a medium – and told that their dead daughter’s spirit is trying to warn them against danger, Don’t Look Now has been filmed too.  Nicholas Roeg directed a movie version in 1973 and it’s now regarded as a classic, both as a horror film and as an example of Roeg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, which combined fragmented and elliptical narratives, haunting and recurrent images and scenes of both violent and sexual intensity to unforgettable effect.  Having seen the film several times over the years, I was keen to read the piece of fiction that’d inspired it.

 

My first impression when I started reading Don’t Look Now was that film and story felt like they belonged to different eras.  The couple, John and Laura, seem more modern, liberated and chic in the film, though that may be because they were played by 1970s icons Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.  On the page, John and Laura have an old-fashioned English starchiness and they try to get over their loss with stiff upper lips and a strained Keep Calm and Carry On cheerfulness.  The literary John and Laura are also in Venice as tourists, so they seem less confident and more vulnerable.  Their cinematic equivalents are there for work reasons – John is helping to restore a Venetian church – and thus know their way around better.

 

Then there’s the presentation of the story.  Du Maurier’s novella is a briefer and more economical account of the events I was familiar with from the film.  As it stands, it could easily have been made into a 45-minute TV play.  (The film clocks in at 110 minutes.)  It begins in Venice with John and Laura encountering the medium.  The death of their daughter, by meningitis, is mentioned retrospectively.  And the suggestion that the dead girl’s spirit is urging them to leave the city before something terrible happens feels like a simple device to kick-start the main story – wherein John doesn’t leave Venice, through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and further supernatural shenanigans; and then, when he tries to intervene in what he believes is the mistreatment of a child, something terrible does happen.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films

 

The movie opens with a harrowing sequence showing the death of John and Laura’s daughter – not by meningitis but by drowning in a pond in the English countryside.  Roeg and his scriptwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant create a sense of a cosmic, all-encompassing evil at work.  Even as the girl dies, everything that’s still to happen in Venice seems to be prefigured.  We see John studying pictures of the Venetian church where he’ll be working and discovering a mysterious figure wearing a red coat in one of the slides.  When he spills water onto the figure, its redness spreads across the slide like a bloodstain.  John’s daughter is also wearing a red coat when she drowns and, later, so too is the child-figure John sees scarpering alongside the night-time Venetian waterways.

 

Indeed, in the film, John seems to make a connection between the two characters thanks to the coat – is the red-clad figure by the canals the ghost of his daughter?  But this association doesn’t appear in the original novella.

 

Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now is efficiently gripping.  But I think Nicholas Roeg’s brooding cinematic version, spinning a web of portents, visions and uncanny coincidences in which John’s doom seems pre-ordained from the start, is better – a work of art.  That’s despite the fact that, by changing the girl’s death from meningitis to drowning, the film can be accused of illogicality.  As the website British Horror Films observes pithily: “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

Actually, with Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, I preferred a couple of those ‘other stories’ to the title one.  And interestingly, nearly all of them share a similar theme, in that they deal with English people going abroad and coming unstuck as they pass out of their cultural comfort zones.

 

Not After Midnight is about an amateur artist taking a holiday in Crete in order to do some landscape painting.  In a manner reminiscent of the hero of John Fowles’ novel The Magus (1966), he encounters a strange man and becomes embroiled in some equally-strange activities touching upon ancient Greek myths.  However, while Fowles’ novel is an airy and exuberant affair where a Prospero-like figure orchestrates spectacular and elaborate ‘masques’, Not After Midnight is altogether grungier and more low-fi.  The man putting the events in motion is a drunken, debauched brute and, accordingly, the myths invoked concern “Silenos, earth-born satyr, half-horse, half-man, who, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, reared Dionysus, god of intoxication, as a girl in a Cretan cave, then became his drunken tutor and companion.”  Du Maurier doesn’t say explicitly what bacchanalian depravities her hero finally succumbs to; but as he’s a teacher at a posh English boys’ school, we can guess.

 

From famousauthors.org

 

In A Border Line Case, a young woman who works as a theatre actress tries to honour the dying wish of her father.  She goes in search of her father’s long-lost best friend, to tell him that her father had wanted to “shake the old boy by the hand once more and wish him luck.”  She finds the missing friend in the Republic of Ireland, living as a recluse on an island, mysteriously lording it over a cohort of local men and engaged in activities that are probably illegal and possibly bizarre.  Unlike the hapless protagonists in the other stories, the heroine here is a resourceful type.  She uses her skills as an actress to improvise, hide her identity and talk her way out of tight spots.  However, when at one point she suspects she’s stumbled across a group of closeted homosexuals (“They were all homos…  It was the end.  She couldn’t bear it…”), you feel surprised that a London theatre actress should be so wary and intolerant of gay men.  Still, A Border Line Case is well-paced and balanced nicely between an adventure story and a mystery one.  It builds impressively to a nasty, if slightly predictable ending.

 

The book’s most humorous story is The Way of the Cross, about a group of disparate English tourists making their way to and then around Jerusalem.  The characters and plot seem slightly contrived at times – it’s unlikely that a progressive left-wing lady who’s worried about the plight of the Palestinians should be married to a materialistic right-wing businessman, and a climax where two characters are stricken by unconnected illnesses and a third one suffers a serious accident stretches credibility – but nonetheless it’s an enjoyably satirical account of English folk abroad.

 

The final story, The Breakthrough, is the exception to the rule.  Its engineer hero doesn’t leave England for another country, although he is posted to the desolate flatlands and beaches of East Anglia.  There, an ambitious experiment is underway in a scientific / military laboratory, ostensibly involving computers, but really about capturing a psychic energy that surrounds people when they’re alive and escapes when they die.  The Breakthrough’s blending of the scientific and the supernatural calls to mind the famously frightening TV play The Stone Tape (1973), written by Nigel Kneale.  Bravely, du Maurier opts for a non-sensational ending that prioritises character over action or horror.  Admittedly, some readers might find the ending a bit of a let-down.

 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, because of the author’s precise and no-nonsense prose, her ability to pack a lot of incident into her narratives without letting them get too convoluted, and her determination at all times to tell a rattling good yarn.

 

Indeed, on the strength of this, I’m now starting to think of Daphne du Maurier as being in the mould of Stephen King – and not so much in connection with George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  Yes, better the author of The Running Man than the authors of I’m your Man.

 

© Casey Productions / Eldorado Films / British Lion Films