Famed actor and horror icon Vincent Price once said of his illustrious career that he didn't "play monsters, but men besieged by fate and out for revenge." Looking at some the late, great actor's most impressive works, it's hard to argue.
Price had an uncanny knack for embodying a sense of haunting personality even with some of his most vile and wicked characters. His penchants for theatrics transformed what could otherwise be flat, insipid roles with a sense of urgency and vigor. His performances were alive with passion and enthusiasm, even as the characters were crumbling and dying inside.
Vincent Price was born in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. in 1911. The youngest of four children, he was drawn to art and then theater at a young age. Price's tall stature -- it's easy to forget how tall the actor was, but he stood at an impressive 6 feet, four inches -- landed him his earliest roles on stage, where he quickly began making a name for himself. After turning down initial interest from Hollywood, Price took the time to find himself as an actor before he accepted a role in the Universal Pictures's comedy Service de Luxe. It took Price a bit to find his footing in Hollywood but by the 1950s he began landing the roles that would turn him into a legend we know him as today.
Today, almost 13 years after his death, Price's legacy continues to live on in the massive body of work that he left behind and in the growing fan base he continues to inspire. Continuing their effort to present some of Price's genre outings, Scream Factory's latest Price collection, The Vincent Price Collection Volume 3, gives us five more of the actor's films. To be forthright, of the three collections that Scream Factory has now released, the third volume is probably the weakest.
But while the titles are not overall as strong as the preceding films, the collection feels far more fluid than those earlier releases, which sort of haphazardly collected his 'best' titles. In these films emerges a portrait of men on the verge of madness, and nobody plays the megalomaniacal madman better than Price. Like the film itself, included in this package, this collection is very much the diary of madmen; a snapshot told in five editions of men struggling to control the world around them.
Kicking off the collection is the Richard Matheson scribed, William Witney directed, action adventure Master of the World. Matheson was a regular collaborator with Price, penning some of the actor's best roles including The Last Man on Earth, The Raven, Pit and the Pendulum, and House of Usher. Master of the World comes between the latter two projects and serves to offer quite a different experience.
Based on the novels Clipper of the Clouds and Master of the World by Jules Verne, Master of the World tells the story of madman, genius Captain Robur (Price), who hatches a plan to initiate worldwide peace ... the catch being that he will first have to enact quite a bit of violence. Taking a team of scientists -- including a young Charles Bronson -- aboard as his prisoners, it becomes the team's responsibility to stop Robur from launching his path to destruction.
It would be a hard stretch to say that Master of the World is among the best of the AIP/Price outings. It suffers from a rather laborious pace -- including a five-minute lead in -- cheapish effects (which do have their charm), and a noticeable lack of action for its genre. Witney was predominantly a TV director, and his lack of command clearly holds the film down. With a more competent director like Roger Corman, one could easily see this movie greatly improved, as many of the elements are attractive.
Fittingly, the film is made worthy of a viewing if only for Price's fantastic (and, of course, theatrical) performance as Robur. Anytime that Price is on screen, which is often, audiences are blessed with his wonderful turn. While aspects of Robur are very similar to some of his other famed performances, it's a bit gaudier which makes it quite enthralling to see on screen.
While the direction and effects leave a bit to be desired, the film is quite colorful and some of the sets within Robur's Zeppelin are quite stunning to look at. Gilbert Warrenton, the famous cinematographer behind The Man Who Laughs and The Cat and the Canary, adds a significant amount of flash needed to propel the film forward. Additionally, Charles Bronson delivers a better performance than some may expect. Never an actor known for his delivery, but rather excelling through his stoic, cold presence, the young Bronson handles the dialogue well and emerges positively from the film.
The second disc, The Tower of London, is perhaps the best of the four included in this set. The second film produced with this title, although baring almost no connection to the original 1939 film beyond borrowing some establishing shots that the production couldn't otherwise afford to shoot, Roger Corman's take at Shakespeare combines elements of Richard III and Macbeth to create a stark, dark, and riveting film.
Price stars as the famous hunchbacked king Richard III, depicting his manic and murderous rise to power. Shot in black and white, the moody atmosphere is brilliantly captured by Archie R. Dalzell, a DP who sadly didn't work too much in film and was mostly relegated to TV series and movies. His work here showed a lot of promise and it's disappointing that Corman didn't use him more.
Tower of London appears in the middle of the Corman-Poe cycle and clearly borrows from elements that informed that cycle of filmmaking despite not being based on a work from Edgar Allan Poe. Moving from Poe to Shakespeare places Price at home. As mentioned, Price was a trained thespian, which allows him to really shine in this role. As Richard III, Price humanizes the deeply flawed, megalomaniacal King, and, as he descends into madness, Price's power as an actor can be felt. It's a performance that stays relevant and powerful today; one that easily stands among his best work.
Tower of London is an incredibly short film. At only 79 minutes, the film rushes through Richard III's narrative, and it is to the strength of the screenwriters and Price that this doesn't affect our ability to connect with his plight. While the film could stand to be extended by a few scenes, or at least add more time to slow the pace, it's damn sure that there is never a dull moment in the film. The juxtaposition between Master of the World and Tower of London really shows how much a film can benefit from a masterful director.
Diary of a Madman is the third release on this disc and the one that thematically sets the mood for the entire collection. The film deploys a frame narrative, wherein we learn of the slow descent into madness and inevitable death that Magistrate Simon Cordier (Price) undergoes vis-à-vis a diary that he has written and left to be found in order to explain his otherwise horrific actions.
The story is thrust into motion when, during a visit to a prisoner who claims that a spirit has possessed him, Cordier is attacked. The prisoner soon falls ill and dies in his presence and, in the time following this event, Cordier slowly descends into madness as the spirit appears to take over Codier's body and mind. He eventually falls for a callous, selfish, and married woman, but after wooing her away (she believing Cordier to be a path to wealth), Cordier's madness drives him to kill.
Diary of a Madman is a fantastic piece but one that, like Master of the World, suffers a bit from length and uneven pacing. Again Price delivers a phenomenal performance, and one of his darker ones, but the descent into madness lasts a little too long to be as effective as it could have been. The film may have served better had it been more of a psychological exploration than an explicit take on supernatural themes, but Price's steadfastness allows the material to feel naturalistic despite its somewhat silliness. There are a lot of elements along the way, however, that keep the film interesting, including the gothic tinges that director Reginald Le Borg and cinematographer Ellis W. Carter imbue Diary of a Madman with.
The last disc, The Cry of the Banshee, on this release is also the film produced last, an aspect that is apparent almost immediately. The Cry of the Banshee is one of the more explicit, both in terms of violence and nudity, of Price's films, and certainly in this collection. Appearing two years after the largely more popular Witchfinder General, The Cry of the Banshee again finds Price as a man on the mission of finding and eradicating the presence of local witches in his community.
Where the average witch-hunting picture posits the conflict between maniacal men exploiting their power over helpless, innocent victims, The Cry of the Banshees depicts a world where witches are no longer scapegoats for zealots but real-to-life beings. This could have been the Achilles heel of the film had it been a 'simple evil witches v. just men' narrative, but screenwriter Tim Kelly doesn't write the characters on either side so thinly.
Again, Price plays a man driven by a mad passion, as we see him from the open viciously sentencing women to horrifying deaths. So even as it emerges that Price's Lord Edward Whitman is (at least somewhat) just in his tirade, his actions are never fully justifiable and the audience never sees him as anything but what he is: a complex but vile man.
Overall, The Cry of the Banshee has an interesting premise but meanders quite a bit and, outside of Price, many of the performances are mostly forgettable. Kelly's dialogue is tepid, so it is really up to the performers to elevate the material. Both Essy Person and Hilary Heath have good turns, respectively, as Lady Patricia Whitman and Maurine Whitman, but they pale in comparison to Price. The best aspect of the film comes from its bleak ending, but by this point it's a bit too little too late to truly save the film. Slightly more entertaining than Master of the World, The Cry of the Banshee isn't the best film of the bunch but does offer enough to justify a viewing.
As would be expected, Scream Factory have provided audiences with good-to-great transfers for each title, which, while not without a problem here and there, are quite naturalistic and beautiful to look at. In addition, there are numerous extra features including commentary tracks, TV specials, interviews, and more, adding a significant extra value to the already great collection. As mentioned, this may be the weakest of the three collections of Price's work from Scream Factory, but it is still very much worth a buy for fans who were pleased with Scream's work prior.
The Vincent Price Collection Volume 3 takes a look into some of Price's darker characters -- murderers, maniacs, vengeful, and driven -- and what emerges is a true testament to Price's ability: that no matter how despicable his characters are, Price always finds a way to make them feel both human and real -- and more often than not, sympathetic. There will never be another actor quite like Price and thankfully the actor left us with an impressive body of work to continually watch, rewatch, and enjoy.
The Vincent Price Collection Volume 3 is now available on Blu-ray via Scream Factory.
Joe Yanick is the managing Editor of Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Vice, Cineaste Magazine, Hopes and Fears, and Popdose.