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

 

Nowt as queer as folk-horror

 

(c) British Lion

 

Establishment film critics and film historians in this country may find it an uncomfortable truth – a source of embarrassment and dismay, even – but for long periods a sizeable section of the British film industry has been dedicated to cranking out horror movies.

 

Specifically, there are two periods when British horror filmmakers have been prolific.  The first was from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s,  This was when studios like Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the British wing of American International Pictures (AIP) knocked out macabre products, some of them full-blooded gothic fantasies, others more downbeat, psychological and set in the urban present.  The directors who made such fare ranged from the critically acclaimed (Michael Powell, Jack Clayton and Roman Polanski) to the – at the time, at least – critically derided (Pete Walker, Michael Armstrong and Norman J. Warren).

 

The second period has run from the late-1990s until today and again the directors involved have ranged from the critically applauded (Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright and Gareth Edwards) to the critically frowned-upon (Alex Chandon and Jake West, whom I’m sure are bothered not one jot that most critics don’t like their films).  This time, though, the emphasis has definitely been on the downbeat, modern and urban – and indeed, grungy, nasty and nihilistic.  Even at the moment, while reports appear in the media about the British film industry being, yet again, in deep shit, these usually-unheralded and beneath-the-radar British horror movies just keep on coming.  In the past two years, off the top of my head, I can think of Before Dawn, Byzantium, Cockneys vs Zombies, Berberian Sound Studio, Sightseers, A Field in England, The World’s End, The Seasoning House, In Fear, Borderlands, The Quiet Ones, Stalled, Scar Tissue, Soulmate, Blackwood, The Last Showing,  Following the Wicca Man, White Settlers and Monsters: Dark Continent.  (Okay, I haven’t mentioned Strippers vs Werewolves, but who’d want to?)

 

Curiously, what British horror films in the past and nowadays have seemed reluctant to do is to embrace the macabre folklore, traditions and history of the British Isles themselves.  When they haven’t been dealing with deranged killers in contemporary settings – Carl Boehm as the crazy photographer stalking models and dancers in Michael Powell’s notorious 1960 movie Peeping Tom, Sheila Keith as a cannibalistic granny drilling people’s heads open in Peter Walker’s grim 1972 epic Frightmare, feral kids and / or psychotic hoodies running amok in James Watkins’ 2007 movie Eden Lake and in a dozen other modern British horrors – they’ve dealt with tropes that’ve been borrowed en masse from Hollywood and from continental Europe: vampires, werewolves, zombies (a lot of zombies recently).

 

To be fair, even before the cinematic era when Britain – and Ireland – had a burgeoning gothic literary tradition, writers like Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley,  Charles Maturin, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker often used the European mainland for both the settings and the inspiration of their most famous stories.

 

And when the first wave of British horror-filmmakers did mine Britain’s past for ideas, they often didn’t look beyond the days of the British Empire (which admittedly loomed large in recent British history at the time).  Hence, you get a strain of ‘colonial horror’ films like The Reptile (1966), The Oblong Box (1969) and The Ghoul (1974), in which upper-class Brits went abroad, behaved badly, got cursed by the natives and then returned home with guilty, horrible secrets as their punishments.

 

(c) BFI

 

Nonetheless, over the years, critics and cultural commentators have come to identify a British-horror-movie sub-genre known as ‘folk-horror’, wherein the horror springs from sinister things that, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, bustle in the hedgerows of eerie, mysterious and rural old Britain.  In August 2010 even the ultra-prestigious British film journal Sight and Sound saw fit to devote an issue to ‘the films of old, weird Britain’.  So in this post, and in a later one, I’d like to write about what I consider to be the best ten (or so) British folk-horror movies of all time.

 

Night of the Demon (1957)

“It’s in the trees!  It’s coming!”  Fans of Kate Bush will recognise this line from the opening of her 1985 song Hounds of Love.  It’s sampled from Night of the Demon, an appropriate choice with which to start this list because it appeared just as the first British horror-movie boom was kicking off in the late 1950s.  Furthermore, it’s based on the short story Casting the Runes by M.R. James, one British writer who wasn’t reluctant to dig into homespun folklore and legends for scary ideas.

 

The druidic runes in question are those inscribed on some parchment given to investigator Dana Andrews by black-magic cult leader Niall McGinnis, after Andrews has antagonised him with his scepticism.  Not only does the parchment foretell Andrews’ death at a particular point in the near-future, but it also seems to be bait for something big and diabolical, presumably pagan in origin, which has begun to stalk him – and it’s going to catch up with him, fatally, at the time predicted.  If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because Sam Raimi quietly borrowed it for his 2008 horror opus Drag Me to Hell.

 

With filming locations that include Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, the British Museum and – where better? – Stonehenge, Night of the Demon is an atmospheric and intelligent movie.  It has a wealth of lovely little details.  Reference is made to the celebrated lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Like one that on a lonesome road / doth walk in fear and dread / and having once turn’d round, walks on / and turns no more his head / because he knows a frightful fiend / doth close behind him tread.”  Disconcertingly, McGinnis makes his first appearance performing magic tricks at a children’s party.  And it’s creepy – up to a point.  The sequences where Andrews notices something trailing after him, getting ever closer, signified by a weird rattling sound and an odd-looking ball of smoke floating in the distance behind him, are wonderfully unsettling.

 

Alas, producer Hal E. Chester didn’t believe that the scariest things are those left to the imagination.  Overruling the wishes of Andrews, director Jacques Tourneur and writer Charles Bennett, he insisted on inserting, into the movie’s climax, footage of a big, scaly, warty monster.  (The bloody thing has always reminded me of the clay-motion creature featured in 1970s TV advertisements for the British sweets, Chewits – “Chewits!  Even chewier than a 15-storey block of flats!”)  Needless to say, this wrecks the suspense that Tourneur has built up during the preceding movie.  Bennett was particularly incensed and once claimed that if Chester “walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”

 

(c) BFI

 From zillastyle.blogspot.com

 

Witchfinder General (1968)

East Anglia is one of my favourite parts of England and 1968’s Witchfinder General, which starred Vincent Price and was directed by Michael Reeves (who died shortly afterwards at the age of 25), is possibly the most East Anglian movie ever.  It deals with a figure from local history, the notorious 17th century ‘witch-finder’ Matthew Hopkins, and it turns the County Suffolk countryside into an unsettlingly pretty backdrop for Hopkins’ brutal activities.  Among the movie’s locations were Brandeston Village, St John’s Church near Thetford, and Dunwich and Orford on the Suffolk coast.  Also used in the area were two aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, which were converted into studios for filming the interior scenes.

 

Witchfinder General’s climax was shot inside the castle at Orford and locals old enough to remember it recall how screams emanated from the castle dungeon for three days solid.  Orford Castle belongs to English Heritage and I’ve heard that originally the film was supposed to finish with a deadly conflagration.  However, when Reeves realised he couldn’t set fire to an English Heritage property, he toned things down slightly in his script – instead, he had hero Ian Ogilvy hack Price bloodily to death with an axe and gouge out another villain’s eyeball with the spur on his boot.  As you do.

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

Price and Reeves didn’t get on at all 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 villainy, which is now considered as one of his best performances.

 

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970)

Tigon Films, the studio responsible for Witchfinder General, made this movie two years later.  It’s also set in rural England in the 17th century and comes across at times like a particularly phlegmy BBC costume drama, one where actors and actresses clad in wigs, cloaks, stockings and buckled shoes tramp through the mud between thatched cottages and address one another in heavy accents as ‘Master Gower’, ‘Mistress Vespers’ and ‘Squire Middleton’.  However, it’s suffused with far more blood, nudity and paganism than you’ll ever get in a BBC costume drama.

 

The film begins with a farmhand accidentally turning up a hideous something from the soil whilst ploughing.  Before long, there’s an outbreak of devil-worship, human sacrifice and general debauchery among the local youngsters as they come under the spell of a supernatural entity – presumably the thing unearthed in the field.  Blood on Satan’s Claw seemed particularly freaky to me as a kid because it contained a number of young actors and actresses whom I knew from watching various innocuous comedy and drama shows on 1970s TV: Simon Williams (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Michele Dotrice (from Some Mothers do ’ave ’em) and, playing the spectacularly ill-fated Cathy Vespers, Wendy Padbury, who’d just finished a stint as Patrick Troughton’s companion in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Tigon Films

 

The best performance, though, is given by Linda Hayden as Angel Blake, the local minx who becomes the entity’s voluptuous high priestess and worships it in a ruined and deconsecrated church.  In real life, the church is to be found at Bix Bottom in Oxfordshire.

 

Directed by Piers Haggard, who filmed many of the outdoor scenes at low angles to give the impression of something looking up at the human world, out of the soil, Blood on Satan’s Claw is distinguished too by a lovely, folky but sinister score by the Australian composer Marc Wilkinson.  Wilkinson uses a cimbalom (an East European hammered dulcimer, once popular with gypsy musicians) to great effect and I’ve heard that he later gave advice to composer, singer and musician Paul Giovanni – who’d be responsible for the equally beguiling folk music featured in the next film on my list.  Which of course is…

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

However, I’ve written enough posts about this film in the past, so I won’t go on about it here.  Except to mention the locations it was filmed at in Scotland: Anwoth, Burrow Head, Castle Kennedy, Creetown, Gatehouse of Fleet, Kirkcudbright, Port Logan and St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway region; Culzean Castle in Ayrshire; Plockton on the Highland coast; and the Isle of Skye, which provides the view of the Old Man of Storr rock formations in the movie’s credits sequence, seen while the doomed Edward Woodward flies his seaplane to the island of Summerisle.

 

(c) British Lion

 

And that was really it as far as folk-horror was concerned in the UK’s first horror-movie boom.  A few other films used the idea that witchcraft was being practised behind the curtains of rural Britain’s cottages and farmhouses – for example, the 1964 black-and-white movie Witchcraft, directed by Don Sharp and starring an ailing (at times visibly drunk) Lon Chaney Jnr; the 1966 Hammer movie The Witches, with a script by Nigel Kneale based on Norah Lofts’ novel The Devil’s Own; and 1976’s Satan’s Slave, directed by Norman J. Warren, scripted by film critic David McGillivray and starring Michael Gough with an unfeasibly bushy moustache.  However, I don’t consider any of them to be much good.

 

(c) AIP

 

In 1970, after Witchfinder General, director Gordon Hessler and scriptwriters Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking mounted an Elizabethan-set horror movie called Cry of the Banshee, wherein a witch-hunter, again played by Vincent Price, is punished by a witches’ coven who summon up a Celtic faerie demon called an aos sis – not the banshee of the title – and send it after him and his family.  However, the film was low-budgeted and interfered with by its producers and the result was disappointing.  Still, the credits sequence, animated by a very young Terry Gilliam, is worth seeing.  Some movie fans, meanwhile, have expressed love for another Don Sharp movie, 1973’s Psychomania, which incorporates witchcraft and a pagan stone circle into a plot about English Hell’s Angels becoming indestructible zombies.  I like Psychomania, though it falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category rather than into the ‘actually good’ category.

 

‘So bad it’s good’ is the only way to describe 1988’s Lair of the White Worm, directed by the once-great Ken Russell, and of which the Guardian once said: “Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesiser and then pressed the buttons one by one…”  It stars Hugh Grant as Lord James D’Ampton, a languid aristocrat living in the remote English countryside who finds himself having to do battle with a monstrous worm-snake-dragon creature that’s inhabited a local cave since prehistory – the film’s cave scenes were shot in Thor’s Cavern in the Derbyshire Peak District.  Grant also comes up against one of his neighbours, played by the sultry Amanda Donohoe, who’s actually a snake-vampire creature in human form and who acts as the beast’s high priestess.  Yes, I bet these days Hugh Grant doesn’t advertise the fact that he has this movie on his CV.

 

Helping Grant out is Peter Capaldi, playing a resourceful but very stereotypical Scottish archaeologist who discovers that the snake-vampires can be hypnotised by the sound of the bagpipes, just as real snakes are by snake-charmers.  Meanwhile, the scene where the fanged Donohoe bites Capaldi under his kilt makes Lair of the White Worm worth its DVD rental price alone.

 

(c) Vestron Pictures

 

The film has a chaotic script.  When Ken Russell isn’t loading on the psychedelic flashback scenes that see early-Christian nuns being raped by Roman legionaries and crucified Christ-figures being crushed by giant snakes, he goes to town on worm / snake / phallus imagery – the shot where a vacuum-cleaner tube entwines itself around Catherine Oxenberg’s ankle is just one of many.  Still, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some interesting references to British legends about monstrous ‘worms’ – eel-like dragons – terrorising the countryside, such as the one about the Lambton Worm that supposedly took place by the River Wear in north-east England at the time of the Crusades.

 

The legend of the Lambton Worm was commemorated in a lusty folk ballad written by Clarence M. Leumane in 1867 and the song gets an airing here – with its title changed to The D’Ampton Worm, in acknowledgement of the name of Grant’s character.  Unfortunately, its performance by Emilio Perez Machado and Stephen Powys, who show more enthusiasm than subtlety, makes it the most clodhopping folk song ever to grace a British folk-horror movie: “John D’Ampton went a-fishing once, a-fishing in the Wear / He caught a fish upon his hook he thought looked mighty queer…”  Paul Giovanni it is not.   (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJEq6_foO-o.)

 

There were, thankfully, better things to come…  (To be continued.)