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Vincent Price's career kept humming along in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to his ongoing series of American-International horror films. This Vincent Price MGM Scream Legends Collection features seven titles between 1962 and 1974. Only one of the films, Witchfinder General is a hotly-desired title; most of the others are already out on DVD in identical transfers. The appeal of the set will be largely to fans still unacquainted with Vincent Price's late-career turns as America's most genteel horror villain.
Tales of Terror
Just two years into his cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, Roger Corman varied the formula by splitting Tales of Terror into three separate stories. That structure offers more variety but also shortens the segments into extended sketches. As compensation, we get to enjoy more performers than usual. Writer Richard Matheson edges one episode into comedy mode, with very good results.
Variety is the key to Tales of Terror; by this time we'd become rather tired of seeing Roger Corman's characters wandering through the same cobwebbed sets and carrying the same squiggly red candles -- watching all the films in a row, it's fairly clear that Corman bought a gross of the candles in 1960 and they lasted him the whole decade. With an exception here or there, most of the lighting is flat and unimaginative. The spirit of the stories is conveyed by the actors and Corman's no-nonsense direction.
Morella is the least interesting story, with Price assaying another morbid moper like Roderick Usher concerned about yet another dead wife come back from the grave. The best lesson to be derived is that giving a daughter a mellifluous name like Morella or Lenora will only encourage someone to immortalize her in morbid poetry. Corman's eye for talent is apparent, but we only get a glimpse of beautiful Leona Gage (A House is Not a Home), and not much more of Maggie Pierce. The short segment ends with -- guess -- the Locke mansion going up in flames, with the possession-incest theme barely scratched.
The Black Cat scrambles several Poe stories, most notably The Cask of Amontillado, into Corman's first comic effort in the series; The Raven and A Comedy of Terrors would follow. Ad-libbing Peter Lorre plays nicely off of Price's fussy wine gourmet. Joyce Jameson's sweet wife manages pretty well considering that her drunken husband hasn't worked in seventeen years. The comic tone adds interest to a segment that would otherwise be a simple case of a cuckold's revenge, and Peter Lorre is always great, no matter what he's doing.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar skirts several adult themes and courts morbid ideas probably unsuited to the kiddie audiences that flocked to the Poe pictures. Price's Valdemar prepares to die by telling his wife and their best friend that he wants them to marry when he's gone, while the diabolical Carmichael has plans to blackmail the living-dead Valdemar into deeding him both his property and his beautiful wife. One look at Debra Paget and we understand why all three men want to be her consort, whether alive or dead. Carmichael's hypnotic spell cheats death and almost gets him what he wants, until a ghastly revenge that surely pleased the audience.
Twice Told Tales
Twice Told Tales is the odd title out in this collection, being a United Artists release written and produced by the prolific Robert E. Kent. A clear attempt to horn in on A.I.P.'s Edgar Allan Poe series, the film repackages two stories and a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne into another three-part Vincent Price horror-thon. The immediate difference between Matheson/Poe and Kent/Hawthorne is that Hawthorne's stories are longer and more literary in tone, which isn't always a good thing. Corman's Morella comes off as rushed and superficial, while director Sidney Salkow's The House of the Seven Gables distills a complicated novel down to a murderous treasure hunt. Much of Twice Told Tales is slowly paced and overly wordy, but its stories also seem richer.
Although the direction is nowhere near as fluid or expressive as Roger Corman's -- Sidney Salkow's camera just sits there, no matter what weird things are happening -- the lighting Twice Told Tales is more dramatic than most of Corman's Poe films. Rooms are allowed to fall into shadow and the actors' faces stand out better.
Dr. Heidegger's Experiment elaborates on Hawthorne's much simpler story about water from a fountain of youth in Florida, rethinking the theme into another Poe-like revival of a long-dead wife. Sebastian Cabot and Vincent Price do well with a script that has them talking without interruption for the better part of twenty minutes. Yet we feel for Cabot's character, who has remained faithful to his dead fiancée for thirty-eight years. The miraculous rejuvenation simply allows the two men to compound the mistakes and crimes of their youth, and the ending is very effective. One technical problem that surfaces is with Mari Blanchard's impersonation of a corpse: her twitching eybrows and visible breathing are distracting.
The best episode, Rappaccini's Daughter, is a highly interpretable tale of a Paduan scientist (Price) so embittered by a faithless wife that he turns his own daughter into a "kiss the girls and make them die" poison killer. Young Beatrice (Joyce Taylor of Atlantis, the Lost Continent, and clearly evoking Dante) is literally untouchable, and her beau Giovanni (Brett Halsey) enters her garden (of Eden/Evil) at his peril. Rappaccini regularly infuses Beatrice with the poison from a purple plant in the garden; anything she or the plant touches sizzles to a crisp. The fable-like story suggests themes of incest (this is a kid's movie?) but also seems a criticism of one generation's foolish attempts to force its morality on the next. If Rappaccini is meant to be God experimenting in his Garden of Eden, the allegory becomes even more complicated.
The House of the Seven Gables is a hurried, condensed version of the much more complicated original novel, again skewing Hawthorne's story of New England evil into a standard ghost tale. Greed and a century-old family injustice motivate Price's Pyncheon and his sister Hannah (Jacqueline deWit of The Damned Don't Cry) to hold onto a haunted house; Beverly Garland is the bride who can sense the presence of the ghosts and Richard Denning the latest heir to the Pyncheon-Maulle feud. Portraits and walls bleed and a skeletal arm reaches for Price's neck as the story rushes to a hasty conclusion.
Twice Told Tales features Vincent Price in three interesting and serious character turns, as opposed to some of his A.I.P. work where he seems to act while winking at the audience. The sets are dinky but the film's overall impact is a little stronger. In the short omnibus format Kent/Salkow come out slightly ahead. Corman/Matheson simply rush to their 'scary' moments, while the Twice Told Tales stories are more thought-provoking. This non-A.I.P. terror show stands up well against the Corman Poes.
Price played in a full-feature version of The House of Seven Gables for Universal back in 1940.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a clever, elaborate and frequently eloquent twist on The Phantom of the Opera that unnecessarily restricts Vincent Price's participation in his own leading role. With an immobile mask for a face, Price has to perform with his eyes and a few facial twitches; his voice is heard but his lips do not move. Although this gimmick surely streamlined film production, much of Vincent Price's part could have been played by a double in makeup.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was fashioned as a campy semi-comedy and enjoys a substantial fan following. Director Robert Fuest manages some excellent stylized art direction, with Dr. Phibes' art deco lair a standout. Phibes emerges from his crypt/bedroom on a Wurlitzer as if rising from the theater's orchestra pit. The costumes for Phibes and his beautiful Vulnavia occasionally hit an amusingly arch note. The best part of the movie are the musical interludes, when we cut back to Phibes and Vulnavia in the middle of one of the Fred 'n' Ginger-like celebratory rituals that follow their outlandish killings.
Fuest and his writers James Whiton and William Goldstein can't sustain the mood; despite good work from Joseph Cotten the show drags from one predictable murder to the next. Most of the attempts at a comic tone fall flat, once we perceive the pattern. The diabolical ending forces Vesalius to perform an operation on his own son to keep him from being bathed in acid, but the expected melodramatic thrills never arrive. Phibes is much more diverting than Fuest's later Sci-Fi disaster The Final Programme (The Last Days of Man on Earth), but is still the work of a director more concerned with artistic effects (which he delivers quite efficiently) than energizing a story.
Terry-Thomas is in for a couple of scenes as one of the victims. Seen only in photographs and one The Black Cat- like necrophiliac tableaux, future genre cult figure Caroline Munro has a too-brief cameo appearance as Phibes' lost love Victoria.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Dr. Phibes Rises Again doesn't do much more than extend the story further, with Dr. Phibes reviving himself to compete with another necromancer for an ancient Egyptian secret of life. With a much larger canvas to paint, returning director (and co-screenwriter this time) Robert Fuest has to spread A.I.P.'s limited resources much thinner. The sequel does manage a weirdly satisfactory ending.
It's a shame that Dr. Phibes Rises Again is so dull; it uses the services of a potentially impressive cast that includes A.I.P.'s new horror hopeful Robert Quarry, Hugh Griffith (returning as a specialist in antiquities), Gerald Sim and beautiful Fiona Lewis. Beryl Reid and Peter Cushing appear in cameos. Although presumably wiped out in an acid bath in the previous show Vulnavia is back, played this time by Valli Kemp (Richard Squires tells us that Virginia North was pregnant, and couldn't resume the part). Terry-Thomas has a new role, and favorite baddie Milton Reid plays a nice game of snooker.
Once again a potentially serviceable thriller slows to a crawl. None of the film's set-pieces are presented with a sense of mystery or suspense, and the lighting is mostly high-key whether on an Egypt-bound ship or in a subterranean tomb. Robert Quarry does what he can with the ruthless Darius, and is quite good at the finish. Most everyone else is stuck in unimaginative roles, failing to see the obvious traps laid by Vincent Price's Phibes.
The conclusion works because both Phibes and Biederbeck want to take the 'styx'-like journey to the promised new life. A merciless villain through both movies, Phibes finds a moment of grace. Horror movies always frustrate the desires of the bad guys -- Karloff's similarly motivated Im-Ho-Tep crumbles to dust just short of his goal. Since deep down we feel that Vincent Price is an okay Joe, it's nice to see his character get what he wants.
Theater of Blood
Theater of Blood is fondly remembered as a classy, campy comic-horror bloodbath that allows Vincent Price to ham it up with unrestrained glee. It references Shakesperian theater and lets a happy string of English stars play a pack of the profession's most hated parasites -- critics! Popular enough to be refitted for the stage in 2005, the show is yet another multiple-murder story like Dr. Phibes.
In terms of casting, this may be Price's most prestigious vehicle. Plenty of name talents seem to have been eager to play a stuffed-shirt critic and then suffer a flashy death scene; either that or the collapse of the Brit film industry made any paying part seem desirable. The roll call includes Harry Andrews, Robert Coote, Coral Browne, Michael Hordern, Arthur Lowe, Ian Hendry, Robert Morley and Dennis Price. Still recovering from throat cancer, Jack Hawkins is dubbed by Charles Gray. Director Douglas Hickox knows how to tell a story and the finished film is much smoother than many another Price vehicle from this time.
Each time Edward Lionheart strikes, we get another twisted replay of a scene from Shakespeare, emphasizing the grand guignol possibilities. Among Price's nearly dozen masquerades is a gay hairdresser -- showing us that there's a big difference between his 'normal' flamboyancy and camping it up. Price even gets to put a couple of inside jokes into Lionheart's schtick. He pauses to assess one victim's fancy painting, and fusses with culinary details while preparing a 'puppy chow' meal for Robert Morley's wonderfully insufferable victim.
Lionheart's daughter (Diana Rigg) doubles as a confederate, helping to lure the critics into his deadly traps. One by one they're stabbed, burned, beheaded and electrocuted, while Lionheart orates the appropriate verses verses from the Bard. The basic structure is patterned after Dr. Phibes and has the same drawback in that the killings have style and spirit, but little surprise. The critics never seem to deserve what they're getting. When the movie is over, there's nothing much to savor, except perhaps the memory of Robert Morley's eyes bugging in terror. Horror movies kept Price active and vital in these years, but we can't help thinking that his great talent wasn't finding the best possible outlet.
Bringing up the tail end of the collection is the sadly unremarkable Madhouse, an un-mysterious show biz mystery from the Amicus team of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. A poor man's All About Eve has Price as a famous horror star haunted by a murder in his past. It's pretty tepid stuff.
Underwritten and badly plotted, Madhouse is almost a male version of one of Joan Crawford's transparently phony comeback horror movies, like Berserk!. Happy horror star Toombes is upset when he finds out that his intended was an actress in hardcore movies, and she suddenly turns up minus a head. Trying to resurrect his career in an English show, Toombes is confronted by intrigues, weird characters and more murder. Rat-faced producer Oliver Quayle (does he have a brother named Dan North?) treats Toombes shabbily and various perfidious females (like beautiful Linda Hayden) meet Giallo-like bloody demises. His old pal Herbert Flay allows another woman from Toombes' past, Faye, to live in his cellar. Horribly disfigured, Faye gobbles up spiders and creeps about like a phantom.
Perhaps the idea was to present the world of filmmaking as a 'madhouse' that would drive anybody nuts. Price and Cushing manage to keep their dignity until the end, when a badly-written scene makes their final confrontation painful to watch. Cushing was never as bad as this, and it's clearly not his fault. Jim Clark's direction is merely okay, and the 'English movie studio' is clearly Subotsky-Rosenberg's rented studio space with cheap cardboard signs put up over the real ones. Back when it was new Madhouse was greeted with a big 'skip it' by horror fans; it's strictly for Vincent Price's faithful admirers. He's the only actor to come out relatively unscathed.
Horror fans probably didn't appreciate A.I.P.'s method for representing Paul Toombes' old horror classics. Scenes from Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe series are reprised in pan-scan, with new shots of Dr. Death cut in and the soundtracks replaced. We still have plenty of time to regard Price's old co-stars Boris Karloff, Debra Paget and Anthony Carbone. Basil Rathbone is acknowledged by name when "Paul" has fond memories of working with him.
The extra Vincent Price Collection Disc of Horrors contains three slight featurettes totaling only 66 minutes. Vincent Price:Renaissance Man is an interview docu featuring authors and experts Christopher Wicking, Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, with most of Price's early life and stage work covered by Richard Squires. A great many spokespeople weigh in on Trailer Park's The Art of Fear, a patchy piece that starts as a random overview of horror themes and then becomes a scattered tour through the films in the collection. Working with Vincent Price comes back for more interview anecdotes from the same commentators, this time about Price's favorite acting partners.
The Vincent Price MGM Scream Legends Collection boxed set will be attractive to fans not already possessing the earlier disc releases of most of its contents. Witchfinder General is the only really new title. For Vincent Price followers who've been snapping up the previous versions there's little or no incentive to buy. The packaging lists everything as widescreen, but neglects to mention 16:9 encoding. Except for Witchfinder, Tales of Terror and the Phibes films, all of the offerings are non-enhanced re-pressings of the old MGM discs, complete right down to the old MGM logos and other content, like the website plug that Savant did the sound effects for back in 1998. The Abominable Dr. Phibes looks wonderful but its sequel is drab and grainy. The other four titles are flat-letterboxed at 1:66 when they really should be enhanced widescreen; newer HD transfers exist for some of them but were not used. The relatively prestigious Theater of Blood would have benefitted most from a proper remaster, but has a muddy picture and slightly distorted audio.
With the exception of Witchfinder each title comes with a trailer for an extra. Subtitles are offered in Spanish and French but not in English as claimed on the packaging; some of the titles have alternate Spanish and French tracks. Horror icon Vincent Price has always been a moneymaker for A.I.P., Orion and MGM, so it's a shame that only some of his pictures are receiving the respect they deserve.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vincent Price MGM Scream Legends Collection rates:
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