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 8: Robert Morley

 

From poorwilliam.net

 

Portly, jowly, invariably cast as a member of the aristocracy and / or the establishment in one of its many guises, Robert Morley was an actor who seemed to appear fully-formed at the start of his screen career, in 1938, and then for the next fifty years seemed to stay the same.  His characters displayed a multitude of vices – snobbery, pomposity, cowardice, greed, deviousness, disdain for something or other – but they usually fell into the ‘loveable rogue’ category and only rarely were they completely unlikeable.  Morley, in effect, spent his career essaying posher, more refined versions of William Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

 

Born in Wiltshire in 1908, the son of a British army major, the young Morley had a miserable school life at Wellington College, a boarding school in Berkshire that then specialised in educating the offspring of army officers.  “Show me the man who has enjoyed his schooldays,” he said famously, “and I will show you a bully and a bore.”  After Morley had become a star, headmaster after headmaster at Wellington tried, unsuccessfully, to get in touch with him to, presumably, exploit his connection with the school.  Morley declared that “the only reason for me visiting Wellington would be to burn it down.”  Morley would no doubt be pleased to know that today on the school’s website it mentions “Peter Snow, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Rory Bremner, Will Young, Sebastian Faulkes, James Hunt and the Right Reverend Richard Harries” as famous old-boys but makes a point of not mentioning him.

 

After a stint as a beer salesman, Morley enlisted in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and made his stage debut in 1928 in Doctor Syn.  I assume this was a theatrical version of Russell Thorndyke’s story of 18th-century smugglers, Doctor Syn: A Tale of Romney Marsh, which, later, was filmed both by Disney (with Patrick McGoohan) and by Hammer Films (with Peter Cushing).  Morley’s second role involved more 18th-century swashbuckling, for in 1929 he played a pirate in a production of Treasure Island.  Over the next decade he worked his way up through the theatre world and even, in 1935, co-managed a repertory company on the Cornish coast with another actor, Peter Bull, with whom he would later appear in a few films.

 

Morley’s big break came in 1938 when he played the title role of Oscar Wilde at Fulton Theatre in New York.  His performance was acclaimed and won him an invitation to Hollywood, where he played Louis XIV in a lavish MGM production, Marie Antoinette – a performance that was good enough to earn him an Oscar nomination.  The rest was history.  With his plentiful bulk, his unruly eyebrows and his plummy voice, Morley was an unmistakeable and much-loved presence in British and international cinema for the next half-century – though as he modestly claimed, “I don’t work.  I merely inflict myself on the public.”

 

I won’t go through the landmarks of Morley’s film career here – Major Barbara (1941), The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), Beau Brummell (1954) and, recreating the character he’d played onstage twenty years earlier, Oscar Wilde (1960).  Nor will I go into his extensive theatrical career, which continued up to 1980 with a performance in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country.  Rather, I’ll simply discuss a half-dozen films I saw as a kid, in which Morley made a hefty, roly-poly-shaped impression on my consciousness.

 

(c) ABPC / Warner Pathe

 

The Young Ones (1961).  Before British rock-and-roll music grew some balls, the clean-cut Cliff Richard ruled the nation’s airwaves and, inevitably, played the lead in a series of innocuous teen-orientated musicals that included this, Summer Holiday (1963) and Wonderful Life (1964).  The Young Ones sees Cliff and his squeaky-clean gang battling to save their beloved youth club from an unscrupulous property developer, who also happens to be Cliff’s dad and is played by Morley.  Needless to say, Morley gets all the best lines.  “I don’t approve of youth clubs, you know,” he says at one point.  “They’re just places where they can go and plot some more mischief.”  And later he tells a delegation of kids, “Have you got a contract?  An agreement?  A lease?  You certainly have no claim except on the kindness of the owner.  Unfortunately, I am a brute!”

 

Considering what a sanctimonious, self-righteous pain-in-the-neck Cliff has become in the decades since I saw The Young Ones, I suspect if I watched the film again today, I’d find myself wholeheartedly backing Morley and his plan to bulldozer Cliff’s youth club into the dirt.  But I’m sure the sequence where The Shadows play The Savage is still good.

 

(c) Hammer

 

The Old Dark House (1963).  A remake of 1932’s grotesque, atmospheric horror / black-comedy movie directed by James Whale and based on J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted, The Old Dark House was the first and only collaboration between Britain’s celebrated horror-movie studio Hammer Films and the American producer, director and showman William Castle – Castle’s films were distinguished by their outrageous marketing gimmicks, such as the promise of a $1000 insurance payment for the family of any customer who died of fright during Macabre (1958), puppet skeletons flying around inside cinemas during The House on Haunted Hill (1959), cinema seats wired up to cause vibrations during The Tingler (1959) and the distribution of ‘ghost viewer’ glasses during 13 Ghosts (1960).  However, The Old Dark House is remarkably anodyne by the standards of both Hammer and Castle.  Not only does it bear little resemblance to the 1932 film, but it’s a generic horror-comedy in which a group of eccentrics in a rambling old mansion are killed off one-by-one, Agatha Christie-style.  British cinema produced a few of these films during the period – see also What a Carve-Up! (1961) and The Horror of It All (1963).

 

If nothing else, The Old Dark House has a decent cast.  To play the hero, William Castle brought in the serviceable American actor Tom Poston, who according to his Wikipedia entry had, by the time of his death in 2007, appeared in more US TV sitcoms than any other performer.  Meanwhile, the British cast consists of some marvellously oddball character actors.  Morley plays Roderick Femm, head of the family, and also on board are Joyce Grenfell, Mervyn Johns, Morley’s old repertory partner Peter Bull and the splendidly vampish and husky-voiced Fenella Fielding.  Morley survives until near the end, when he’s blasted away by a booby trap rigged in his collection of antique rifles.  Watching this film as a boy, I was delighted when Poston’s apparent love-interest during the film, the demure and blonde Janette Scott, turns out to be the evil psychotic killer and is subsequently blown to pieces; so that Poston ends up with Fenella Fielding instead.  Hurrah!

 

The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965).  Narrated by Morley and directed by the incomparable Chuck Jones, The Dot and the Line is a short MGM cartoon that inhabits a universe similar to the one in Edwin Abbot’s 1888 geometrical fantasy novel FlatlandThe Dot and the Line tells the story of “a sensible straight line who was hopelessly in love with a dot.”  Alas, the dot has no time for the staid-seeming line and prefers to hang out with an irresponsible, beatnik-like squiggle, and the line has to figure out a way of winning her heart.  Ingenious, delightful and helped immeasurably by Morley’s fruity tones, The Dot and the Line was good enough to win an Academy Award for Animated Short Film.  The final punchline is worth waiting for too.  (View it here on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmSbdvzbOzY.)

 

 (c) Preben-Philipsen / Rialto Films

 

The Trygon Factor (1966).  Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, an author who in his heyday could boast that a quarter of all books being read in England at the time had been written by him, but who is almost completely forgotten today – Stephen King, take note – The Trygon Factor is a bizarre crime / black-comedy movie.  It has Morley involved with a criminal gang operating at a stately house that is also home to a convent.  Yes, as Stewart Granger, playing an investigating officer from Scotland Yard, finds out, both the aristos and the nuns are secretly ruthless criminals and they’re planning a major heist at a London bank.

 

If this all sounds very camp, it is.  But what took me aback when I saw The Trygon Factor as a kid was how vicious it is too.  The detective who precedes Granger in the investigation gets drowned in a baptismal font.  During the heist the gang casually murder all the bank staff and customers who are witnesses to the crime, and then the gang start to turn on each other.  A bunch of them are gassed to death whilst riding in the back of a van, which feels like something that could have happened at a Nazi death camp.  (The film was a British-German co-production but the German backers apparently didn’t find this sequence troubling.)  Back at the mansion, German actor and comedian Eddi Arent is stuck in a coffin and dumped in an underground river, while Morley ends up being strangled.  Mind you, he gets off lightly compared to what happens to villainess Susan Hampshire, whose head gets a crucible of molten gold poured over it.

 

(c) J. Arthur Rank

 

When Eight Bells Toll (1971).  Adventure writer Alastair Maclean was perhaps the Edgar Wallace of a later generation.  His novels seemed to be everywhere in the 1960s and 1970s, but you barely hear a whisper about them or their author today.  During the 1970s, a succession of Maclean novels were made into movies, generally pretty ropy ones. When Eight Bell Toll, though hardly spectacular, is the one I like best.  Maclean wrote the script and managed to retain some of the witty dialogue from his original 1965 novel; and the film, which is about the hijacking and robbing of ships in the Irish Sea, benefits greatly from being shot around the Scottish Highlands and Islands.  (The locations included Tobermory, Duart Castle, Grass Point, Staffa and Dervaig.)

 

I also like the film’s cast.  Anthony Hopkins plays the agent who’s sent to investigate the mysterious nautical goings-on – he’s a dark and moody character, perhaps reflecting Hopkins’ unease at playing an out-and-out action hero, but I like that because it makes the film feel slightly less conventional.  And Morley is great as Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones, Hopkins’ boss, a pompous and cowardly character who’s less than pleased when, later in the film, he has to join Hopkins on his dangerous investigations.  “Boats would be wonderful,” he laments at one point, green-faced.  “If only one didn’t have to go to sea in them.”

 

(c) United Artists

 

Theatre of Blood (1972).  Regarded by many as the greatest horror-comedy movie ever made in Britain, Theatre of Blood features Vincent Price as a mad, and pretty bad, Shakespearean actor who decides to murder the leading theatre critics in London who in the past had ridiculed his performances.  For inspiration for his murder methods, he draws on various gory killings found in Shakespeare’s plays.  Morley plays Meredith Merridew, the campest of the critics, an owner of a pair of annoying poodles and also an enthusiastic gourmet.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” he exclaims when it becomes clear what Price is up to.

 

Price eventually infiltrates Merridew’s home disguised as a master chef and force-feeds the hapless critic to death with a giant pie – one that he’s cooked using the two poodles as ingredients.  The murder is based on a scene in Titus Andronicus where Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is fed a pie that unbeknownst to her contains the ground-up remains of her sons Chiron and Demetrius.   It is, however, from Romeo and Juliet that Price quotes while doing the nefarious deed: “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death / Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth / Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open / And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food!”

 

(c) MGM / United Artists

 

The Human Factor (1979).  Directed by Otto Preminger, scripted by Tom Stoppard and based on the book of the same name by Graham Greene – in fact, it’s possibly Greene’s last great novel – The Human Factor is a surprisingly stodgy and disappointing film.  However, it does feature a good supporting performance by Morley as Doctor Percival, who’s tasked with identifying, and eliminating, a mole in the British Secret Service’s Africa office who’s been leaking information to the Soviets.  Convinced that the culprit is the unconventional and disrespectful Davis (Derek Jacobi) and not the quiet, sober family man Castle (Nicol Williamson), Percival takes action against Davis using a toxin developed from some decaying groundnuts.  But the mole is, in fact, Castle, and when Davis dies suddenly and mysteriously he realises his own life is in danger.  Ruthless, devious, over-sure of himself and – as we see during a visit to a strip-club – horribly lecherous, Percival is perhaps the most chilling of all the establishment figures that Morley played.

 

Morley gave his final performance in 1989 and died three years later at the age of 84 – a respectable innings, especially for someone who during his life had carried as much weight as he had.  Seen now, some of his films might appear dated, and even back in their day a number of them weren’t particularly high-quality anyway.  No matter how dodgy the material, though, Morley’s films always become gloriously entertaining for as a long as he’s onscreen.  And in my book, the ability to elevate the mediocre to the sublime is a sign of a truly great actor.

 

(c) J. Arthur Rank