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


The man who made The Avengers assemble


(c) The Guardian


Barely had I finished writing a tribute to the recently-deceased actor Rod Taylor than I read about the death of writer Brian Clemens.  So before I post anything else on this blog, here is yet another eulogy.


Clemens was a TV and film writer who was never short of ideas and was astonishingly prolific.  He’ll be remembered primarily for being the main creative force behind The Avengers.  No, I’m not talking about the American comic-book and movie franchise about the group of superheroes who include Captain America, Thor, Ironman and the Incredible Hulk.  I’m talking instead about the long-running British TV show featuring an altogether cooler group of superheroes: Dr David Keel, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Tara King, Mother, Purdey, Mike Gambit and their leader, the debonair, bowler-hatted, brolly-wielding John Steed (played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee).


What started out as a conventional action / thriller show with Macnee and Ian Hendry’s Dr Keel as a pair of crime-fighters gradually mutated, under Clemens’ guidance, into a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms.  It became determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.  It was also funny, silly, fantastical, baroque, occasionally gothic and even a little kinky.  This was no more so than in the mid-1960s when The Avengers had begun to be broadcast in colour and Macnee was now partnered by Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel.  (The kinkiness factor was dialled up to 11 in the episode A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)


(c) ABC / ITV / Thames


The show’s cocktail of humour, espionage, science fiction, fantasy and surrealism has been imitated from time to time – including by the attempted Hollywood film adaptation of it in 1998 starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed, Uma Thurman as Emma Peel and Jim Broadbent as Mother, which Clemens had nothing to do with and which he, quite rightly, detested.  However, it’s never been equalled.  Indeed, I don’t think anything else has come remotely close to equalling it


My all-time favourite Avengers episode is The Superlative Seven, which like so many others was scripted by Clemens.  It sees Steed invited to a mysterious fancy dress party – Steed turns up dressed as Napoleon – which takes place on an equally mysterious remote-controlled jet plane and is attended by six other guests with remarkable skills and abilities: one is a champion bullfighter, another is a first-class swordsman and so on.  The plane eventually delivers its passengers to a spooky, fogbound and seemingly deserted island where the party-guests start to be murdered one by one, Agatha Christie style; and Clemens even manages to work in a sub-plot about a sect of superhuman assassins.  On top of everything else, The Superlative Seven features a guest cast that includes Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed.  Wow!


In the early 1970s, after The Avengers had finished its original run, Clemens worked in films.  With Terry Nation, he wrote the psychological thriller And Soon the Darkness about two English girls, played by Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice, being stalked by a killer whilst on a cycling trip across rural France.  He also wrote Blind Terror, in which another girl, played by Mia Farrow, is stalked by another killer in another rural setting, this time the English countryside.  The twist in Blind Terror is that Farrow is sightless and during its opening scenes the film is horridly clammy whilst Farrow potters around in the house of some relatives she’s staying with, unaware that those relatives have all been murdered; and the culprit isn’t far away, either.


In 1971 Clemens also wrote the script for Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, an inventive reworking of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson – as its title suggests, its cheekiest innovation is to have Dr Jekyll undergoing not only a personality-change but also a sex-change when he drinks his famous potion.  And three years later Clemens tried his hand at directing as well as writing.  For Hammer Films, he made the ahead-of-its-time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, which has as its vampire-killing hero not some sanctimonious, dark-clad, rosary-bead-clutching priest or doctor – as had been the norm up until then – but a swashbuckling mercenary-for-hire played by Horst Janson.  Janson carries a samurai sword, smokes pot and has as his sidekicks a witty hunchback (John Cater) and a saucy babe (Caroline Munro) whom he’s freed from the stocks – she was imprisoned there for dancing on a Sunday.  I’ve read that when a teenaged Peter Jackson started experimenting with homemade movies in New Zealand in the late 1970s, one thing he attempted was a Super8 version of Captain Kronos.


(c) Hammer Films 


In the mid-1970s, Clemens and his long-term producing partner Albert Fennell re-launched The Avengers as The New Avengers, which partnered Macnee with Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley.  The show had less impact than its predecessor and it was plagued by money problems – Clemens and Fennell had to recruit French and Canadian financial backers, with the result that later episodes of this most British of shows were set in such unlikely places as Paris and Toronto.  Still, I’m highly partial to such New Avengers episodes as The Eagle’s Nest, House of Cards and Last of the Cybernauts.  Also, the show made an icon out of Joanna Lumley, playing the high-kicking ballerina / martial-arts expert Purdey.  And the reworking of the original Avengers theme that composer Laurie Johnson did for The New Avengers is one of the most stirring TV theme-tunes ever.


(c) The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd


What had been planned as a third season of The New Avengers in 1977 eventually morphed into a very different show – the supposedly hard-boiled spy / action series The Professionals.  With The Professionals Clemens and Fennell had another big hit on their hands; but despite the presence of actors as good as Gordon Jackson and Martin Shaw, and despite another superior (and this time rather jazzy) theme tune from Laurie Johnson, I’ve never had much time for it.  Even at the age of 14 or 15, it seemed to me a bit too macho, right-wing and thick-headed.  Come to think of it, The Professionals was much in keeping with the mood of those late 1970s / early 1980s times in Britain.


For me, a better example of Clemens’ TV work was the anthology series Thriller, which he’d masterminded in the early 1970s.  For a while, Thriller was an important staple of the Saturday-evening TV schedules – broadcast at 9.00 PM, just after the watershed, there was something grim and ominous about it for a kid like myself.  Only occasionally did Thriller stray into the realm of the supernatural and try to be deliberately frightening, but even the crime stories that made up the bulk of its content seemed unrelentingly bleak and disturbing.  (Typical of this approach was the episode I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill, about a witness to a murder who gets trapped in an office building overnight with the murderer.)  Thriller was yet more evidence of Clemens’ endless knack for churning out irresistible and ingenious plotlines.


Responsible for many memorably-flamboyant moments in an artistic medium, television, which traditionally hasn’t been noted for its flamboyance, Brian Clemens died last Saturday at the age of 83.  He was, by the way, a descendant of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, which is why he named his two sons Samuel Joshua Twain Clemens and George Langhorne Clemens.


(c) ABC / ITV / Thames