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Scream Factory now brings us Part Two of its Vincent Price offerings, this time including a title from Fox and another from Warners. Last Fall's The Vincent Price Collection laid out a series of Roger Corman's Poe-inspired American-International hits, while this time we get perhaps Corman's most accomplished horror effort plus two Richard Matheson-penned spook shows that make use of Price's comedic talents. The official release date is three weeks away but some orders are already being filled, so I rushed the review forward.
Throughout the disc set commentators, authors and other interview subjects talk at length about Vincent Price. Everybody who knew the man was deeply impressed by him. He seems to have loved his work, and he was fortunate to be so versatile -- Hollywood tried him out as a brooding leading man for period pictures, a sophisticated urbanite for mysteries, and eventually every kind of character that could be played by a tall actor capable of being both coldly hostile or winningly sly. And don't forget the velvet voice, which probably won him as many jobs as did his good looks. Price joins the other so-called horror greats because he's always good and often terrific -- and a few choice horror pictures brought out his best. 1
A tag line in the trailer for House on Haunted Hill reads, "It's the Shiver and Shake, Quiver and Quake Picture of the Year!" I think this is the movie where Vincent Price finally became typed as a horror actor. He had never been more than a year or so away from a horror role but his range of parts extended across genre barriers. The stigma of the horror ghetto never touched him, in that bigger stars and producers didn't reject him for doing lower-class work. This is also the picture where William Castle's special gimmicks and promotions really took off. The poster shows a hanged woman dangling from the fingers of a skeleton, while Price gives us an ominous stare... the image that would stick with him from here forward.
Robb White's compact script enlivens a standard haunted house situation, and Carol Ohmart and Elisha Cook Jr. are standouts in the cast. For a morbid thrill the Price character gives his guests loaded pistols, just for fun; I wonder if that's where John Huston's people got the idea to distribute derringers to the cast of Night of the Iguana, which became a successful publicity stunt. We can't decide if Vincent Price's character is a murderous maniac or just an irate husband teaching his wife a wicked lesson... although how sane can a person be who constructs a pool of acid in his basement? Price keeps it all on edge throughout this gem, and makes it fun as well. He has a knack for projecting warmhearted diabolical sincerity. Best of all, Castle's movie has several superior surprise shock moments, including one spectacularly successful "Boo" that carries a jolt even on repeated viewings. It's worth examining to see how it works ... modern horror pictures don't even attempt basic scares like this.
House on Haunted Hill gets its own separate disc. It's an atypical licensed title from Warner Bros. Although it seems everybody but my dog has exploited it as a public domain item, this HD copy betters all others, especially the colorized version. Even the sound is more robust, making the most of some moody audio tricks as well as Carol Ohmart's impressive screaming.
The feature commentary is from Steve Haberman. Because this disc holds only one 75-minute movie, Scream Factory has used the space for some featurettes that cover Price from his early life to his career in acting, cooking and art.: Renaissance Man, The Art of Fear and Working with Vincent Price. There's also a widescreen trailer, which looks up-rezzed from the web.
1959's Return of the Fly handles the problem of a sequel to Kurt Neumann's more respected The Fly by re-thinking it as a Universal-style horror item from the 1940s. When all is said and done, it's about a misshapen monster stalking victims in the night. Edward Bernds' screenplay has more than enough standard monster mayhem. Vincent Price's character in the first movie mainly asked questions and worried, but here he gets to be the Uncle who saves the day. Business crooks now use the first film's matter transmitter to commit horrible crimes, and unlucky son Phillippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) has to go through a repeat of the whole fly-head business. The Halsey-Fly becomes a vengeance machine, enjoying some insectoid payback as much as he likes slobbering over his fianceé at midnight. "Gee, she never let me into her bedroom before I was a hideous Kafka-creep!"
All MGM Home Video discs are now licensed through Fox, and it looks like the Fox people have let one of their own titles hitch on for the ride. The CinemaScope image has many distorted "mumps" close shots where the lens wasn't adjusted well, but the transfer quality is excellent. The obvious new twist to this sequel is the fact that the icky fly head mask is now the size of a large beach ball. It's so big that the actor wearing it has difficulty clearing doors. He occasionally looks in danger of toppling over.
Price is the pro's pro here. One could say that he took any job that came along, but he never seems above the material. He definitely holds this show together. Return was probably one of the last studio-released monster movies motivated by the fun factor of seeing a guy stomp around in a grotesque costume. It's original co-feature The Alligator People was reportedly concocted to fill out an A.I.P.- style double bill.
Still collector and film historian David Del Valle is a major contributor to this disc set. On Return he hosts a commentary with actor Brett Halsey. They acknowledge the film's connection to Guild-blackballed producer Robert L. Lippert. Del Valle reports that Price felt the film was a step down because it wasn't in color. An effective trailer is included -- "Blood-curdling giant fly creature runs amuck!" -- followed by a TV spot that indeed pairs Return of the Fly with The Alligator People. I remember having a big response to that commercial, at age seven.
Making a Poe picture as an out-and-out comedy must have been a real risk for A.I.P.. The crowds of kids rushing to see The Raven expected another Price-Poe nail-biter, and the serious-looking poster didn't give away the change of tone. The Raven reaches further into broad farce than the previous year's Tales of Terror. The movie works thanks to the committed input of stars Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, who I imagine were tickled by the challenge. Price lampoons his own hammy qualities, Karloff is a Grand Old straight man and Peter Lorre gets to act sassy and occasionally ad-lib. He has a fine time, even when moping about after being transformed into a feathered bird. Hazel Court is another perfidious leading lady, but this time in on the joke as well. The only performer left out of the limelight is young Jack Nicholson. He has said in interviews that he just wanted to keep up with the horror stars (although he obviously didn't).� The bit where he keeps picking lint off Lorre's cloak was ad-libbed, as was Lorre's reaction.
Most of the show plays at a Laurel & Hardy- pace, but watching these horror-clowns never gets old. We didn't expect the pinchpenny Corman to end with a special effects barrage, for its time a pretty substantial display. The final battle of the wizards employs so much animation and special opticals that we now wonder if A.I.P. thought to compete with Disney for the kid audience. Corman's direction and Les Baxter's music make Price's amiable mugging and Karloff's growing ire a grand and funny set piece.
This pulls more color out of The Raven than we've ever seen before. The sets look lavish and the colors really pop in the gaudy end titles. The two extras are from 2003 and were produced by Greg Carson, whose work pops up all through this collection. The first of three Richard Matheson featurettes sees the author-screenwriter explaining that it was his idea to make the movie a comedy. Just as the short story of The Pit and the Pendulum could only account for one scene, Matheson had to make up everything that followed a raven showing up at Price's chamber door to say, 'Nevermore.' The second featurette is built around a Roger Corman interview. Four or five movies into the Poe cycle, the director was running out of serious reasons to have Vincent Price chase people around a castle interior set, so a switch to comedy seemed a natural.
Price appears on another Iowa Public TV intro, as seen on many of the films in the first VP collection. Steve Haberman carries the commentary track for this title. An original trailer announces the three horror stars as the "Titans of Terror!". A very nice item is an audio encoding of a promotional 45 rpm record in which Karloff, Lorre and Price read parts of Poe's Poem. The announcer Paul Frees has his "Disney's Haunted Mansion" vocal intonations down pat.
"Death Knows the Tortures of the Damned, when the Dead Persist in Living." That doesn't exactly sound funny, but it describes well the kind of humor in the A.I.P. picture The Comedy of Terrors. Written by Richard Matheson again, who this time comes up with a knockabout comedy about skullduggery at a funeral parlor, with plum roles for Price, Karloff and Lorre, plus an enthusiastic Basil Rathbone, who surely knew his Shakespeare.
Even when he recycles and re-sells the same coffin 13 times, crooked undertaker Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) can't make a living. He torments his sweet wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), threatens to poison her elderly, senile father Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff) and threatens to expose his meek coffin-maker Felix Gillie as a wanted criminal. Forced to kill people to drum up business, Trumbull eventually settles on murdering his impatient landlord John F. Black (Basil Rathbone). He and Gillie bumble and fumble the job at first. But after the funeral they discover that Mr. Black isn't dead, and he refuses to stay dead no matter how much persuasion Trumbull applies. It's an undertaker's worst nightmare.
The one mistake, alas, may have been hiring Jacques Tourneur, the superb director of the noir classic Out of the Past and a number of equally brilliant horror films with Val Lewton. I don't recognize any comedies in Tourneur's filmography, but one would hate to limit a man so obviously talented. The Comedy of Terrors is written much like a classic Ealing film, with fairly sophisticated dialogue interspersed with raucous slapstick. Everybody is on character and doing good work. Karloff is hilarious as a dotard with a Cockney accent and Peter Lorre looks quietly heartbroken as the coffin-maker in love with the boss's wife. Price has fun being a complete dastard, while Rathbone is energetic as the murdered man who refuses to die, who plays entire scenes from Macbeth each time he pops back to life
At one point a gag reminds us again of Laurel & Hardy, and Price even says, "It's a fine mess you've made of things.". The show has laughs, but for some reason it doesn't build on its humor. Perhaps it's a matter of pacing. In the essay by David Del Valle, co-star Joyce Jameson remembers that Tourneur was rigid in his direction, while Corman just let his actors loose. It's true that Tourneur's comedy scenes are cut from separate character coverage, while Corman's simpler approach just lets a static camera roll on a situation. People like Lorre and Price can make a picnic of such material whereas Tourneur's approach separates the funny lines and face with cuts, lessening the 'comedy chemistry' between actors. Are we to believe that Tourneur sucked the life out of the show? I find individual scenes in Terrors very funny but the movie doesn't build on its laughs. I love Jacques Tourneur so much that I'd rather blame composer Les Baxter's innocuous music track. Scapegoating solves all problems.
The Comedy of Terrors is a beautiful production. Even the many matte paintings are better than usual. '30s comedian Joe E. Brown is present with his signature howl of a laugh, but his bit role isn't integrated into the comedy. Tourneur's camera direction is beautiful for the final melee in the funeral parlor, and it really looks like the stars are doing some of their own fighting, with swords and an axe. It ought to be funny, but our attention wanders to the talented cat, that seems so unimpressed by all the mayhem around him. The filmmakers use the cat for an end credit sequence seemingly inspired by Walk on the Wild Side.
The transfer looks a bit dirtier than other copies I've seen of this film. We're given an Iowa Public Television intro with Vincent Price and a trailer that identifies the buxom leading lady as "The abundant Joyce Jameson". The one extra is another Richard Matheson piece. He apparently had a lot of input into the shooting and remembers the cast fondly. He talks enthusiastically about a follow-up horror comedy he prepared for A.I.P., which unfortunately sat idle for years, until most of the actors it was written for had passed away.
The reputation of the The Last Man on Earth (1964) has certainly risen since MGM Home Video put out a widescreen DVD in 2005, and the B&W images of this Italian co-production look better than ever in HD. Vincent Price does very well in what is often a nonverbal role, as the lonely survivor of Richard Matheson's plague of vampirism. George Romero surely found an inspiration in the pale, weak zombies trying nightly to break into Price's house: "Morgan, come out!" I've covered the interesting Last Man in an earlier review, here.
I now pay less attention to the occasional car visible in the background, and more to Price's professionalism. It looks like he's performing without much in the way of directorial help, and the film sags badly in the flashback scenes. As for the idea that Price is miscast, I don't buy that at all. Morgan stakes vampires, rigs garlic and burns corpses as part of a practiced daily ritual. Price probably looked much the same when cooking in the kitchen. Well, he was a little more cheerful when cooking.
The extras include a lengthy stills section and a 2004 MGM piece with Richard Matheson opinionizing about how his story migrated from Hammer Films to producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert made some weak movies in the 1960s but this one holds up well, even better than his The Curse of the Fly. David Del Valle and Derek Bothelho's star-oriented commentary mixes up some production and release dates, but has a good handle on Vincent's feelings about Last Man.
Roger Corman went to England for a creative change (and cheaper filming costs) and made the terrific The Masque of the Red Death. But he really didn't advance his filming style until Tomb of Ligeia, which to these eyes and ears is his best horror film. The Robert Towne screenplay makes the difference, with its literary feel and more individualized characters. Vincent Price seems more committed than ever, the dialogue scenes have more gravity, and Corman's direction takes a big leap forward -- it actually looks as if scene effectiveness has been prioritized over shooting efficiency. He has a superb actress in Elizabeth Shepherd, a performer who also keeps Vincent on his toes. This script is more adult and complicated than any of the others. No giant pendulum or lavish Danse Macabre is needed, but Price does have to work around some cat performers that could not always be counted on to respect the Corman shooting schedule. The cat material is excellent. Every cat-oriented story has lame shots where some grip simply throws a tabby into the frame. In Ligeia Price gets a black cat tossed into his face, and it really looks like he's being attacked.
Price's antique dark glasses were the coolest thing in 1964. All the old Corman/Poe tricks are rejuvenated, except perhaps the been-there-done-that fiery finale. The new setting is a big plus. Lush English country locations give us a breather from the claustrophobic studio interiors, and a location at a crumbling abbey hits just the right note. The story is not far removed from Japanese cat-possession tales, and in this case a weird nobleman's wife #2 discovers that a black cat seems to be carrying the spirit of the dead but apparently very possessive missus #1. Towne's screenplay works up a Vertigo- like frenzy of shifting identities. The weird solution is just a little too confusing to satisfy completely, but we're genuinely moved by Shepherd and Price's performances. It's a quality experience in all respects.
The source element comes from England, as it bears an Anglo-Amalgamated logo. The disc extras begin with another Iowa TV introduction and include a still gallery and an excellent trailer: "Unbelievable Terror as the Living and the Dead Become One!" Roger Corman's commentary shows him more excited than usual, explaining how much he liked filming in England. Producer Constantine Nasr provides another heavily-researched commentary, covering all bases on this great picture.
An impressive NEW extra, and perhaps the best thing in the whole disc set, is a third commentary from actress Elizabeth Shepherd, moderated by Roy Frumkes. I assume Ms. Shepherd studied up before the recording session. She provides fascinating background info on her fellow actors, such as one who was a flyer in WW1, and was shot down by the Red Baron. It's an interesting Roger Corman connection. Ms. Shepherd explains details shot-by-shot and gives the best description of Corman's working method and the atmosphere on the set I've yet heard. Even better, she explains shot-by-shot exactly what happens in the film's somewhat blurred final sequence. Elizabeth Shepherd has every right to be proud of her magnificent performance, which to me is up there with that of Deborah Kerr in The Innocents.
When we last saw the slippery Dr. Phibes he was settling into his secret crypt to hibernate with the body of his beloved lost wife Victoria. The sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again keeps director Robert Fuest's high style intact but changes the locale. The art direction tries again for campy nostalgia, but still can't compete with the stylish panache of, say, Danger: Diabolik. Vincent Price is consistent, his Vulnavia (Valli Kemp) not half as graceful as Fuest thinks she is, and new competitor Robert Quarry only so-so. The one appealing character is Fiona Lewis, who looks both gorgeous and intelligent. As in A.I.P. pix like Scream and Scream Again, guest stars make pointless one-scene appearances: Peter Cushing, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas.
Although we like the idea of Phibes finding peace and happiness in the next world, Rises Again is still just a catalogue of bizarre deaths in the campy Avengers mode. It's a spoof that can't identify its target, and another picture that keeps up interest through the presence of Vincent Price. American-International got a bargain... Vincent Price's horror appeal outlasted Sci-fi monsters, beach parties and biker gangs.
Although Dr. Phibes Rises Again has a devoted corps of followers, extras for it are scarce. Scream Factory scared up a trailer and a stills gallery. The Robert Fuest loyals will have to be content with Deluxe Digital's excellent transfer, in which the good sets look marvelous and the bad ones less tacky. Final note: how unforgivable is it for this film to hire the gorgeous Caroline Munro, and then use her only as a mannequin and a few still photos?
Scream (Shout!) Factory's Blu-ray set The Vincent Price Collection II has its share of classic titles and enough good Price vehicles to make it equally as entertaining as the previous set. There are enough horror fantasies in the A.I.P. library alone to make up several more collections like this, but it's surely the Price connection that provides the commercial draw. All of the transfers are excellent, if you can put up with an errant scratch here and there, often just some dirt on an opening scene. A scratch in Tomb of Ligeia may have been made in the camera, for it shows up in the film's trailer as well.
I may have missed one or two extras above. Scream Factory's attention to detail reminds us of the heyday of DVD (what, 1999-2006?) when it seemed that every notable boutique release came with a little featurette and every scrap of marketing material that could be found. And the commentaries are always welcome. Finishing off the set is a glossy sixteen-page insert pamphlet with an extended David Del Valle essay in praise of actor Price.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Vincent Price Collection II Blu-ray rates:
1. I assure you, it only seems like I've seen a lot of celebrities in Hollywood.. we're talking maybe fifty ten-second sightings in forty years. I saw Vincent Price only once, while working on the General Services lot in 1975. I decided to accompany Doug Haise on his mail run in the company truck. As we drove out of the lot this man was walking in our direction; the reason he got my attention was that he was wearing a white bib over the top of his suit, and he was tall -- I was up in the cab of the pickup, and his face was level with my own. He had to be twenty feet away when I could see who it was, without mistake. My reaction was just a big grin. He returned it, with a full twinkle in his eye. That was it. He didn't even talk so I didn't hear "the voice". Price could have been making anything from a TV movie to an appearance on a Marty Krofft kid show, but he looked as happy as a lark. How can one forget a great guy like that?
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.