“I sometimes feel that I’m impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick, but I love it” – Vincent Price
One of my favorite generations of horror is the 1950s-1960s. From that era and others, many horror icons flourished and continue to be recognized today. Of all the performers and personalities that lent their careers to horror films and culture, my favorite is Vincent Price. Born May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, Price became one of the few American actors who are practically royalty in Gothic cinema and horror culture.
There are three films I want to focus on in this post: House of Wax (1953), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). I intend to delve more fully into (possibly) each of these films and more starring Price in later blogging excursions, but for now I will simply use these examples to demonstrate the evolution of Price’s acting career and his influence in popular culture.
House of Wax changed Price’s career to that of a horror icon in this game-changing cult classic (not to mention the first color 3-D movie from America). Following more dramatic or relatable leading roles, he leads this film which entered new realms of horror and set the bar for subsequent genre films. Price plays Professor Henry Jarrod, who owns a wax museum of historical figures with his business partner. After an argument over the future of the museum, Jarrod’s partner sets the building on fire, leaving Jarrod inside. Jarrod mysteriously survives the fire, visibly unscathed. He eventually reopens his own wax museum, with a macabre twist. House of Wax introduced new fears to widespread audiences, complete with cinematic technology to experience horror in new and chilling ways. In this performance, we see the charming and warm side of Price, which he seamlessly transforms into something terrifying and violently evil throughout the film.
House on Haunted Hill more fully grounded Price into his penchant for portraying villainous but charming characters. Playing the role of Frederick Loren, a millionaire who enjoys twisted games, Price delivers one of the most dynamic performances of his career. The film begins with the iconic shot of Price’s floating head superimposed on a wide shot of the house (Figure 2) as he introduces himself and his plans for the evening ahead. After this introduction, we see each of the five guests arrive in funeral cars while Loren explains, one by one, their unique reason for accepting his invitation. Upon their arrival, Loren informs the guests that many have already died in the house, and it is likely there will be more. Loren promises anyone who survives until morning $10,000, with $50,000 divided among remaining survivors if any number of them die. There is even more at play than the audience is initially made aware of, particularly involving Loren’s most current wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). The story unfolds in a frightful, mysterious sequence of events. Price’s presence commands the film even when he is not on screen. Loren represents someone audiences of all generations dislike (obnoxiously rich, abusive, and sadistic), and he is one of Price’s many villainous performances that have remained legendary in horror cinema.
Now, on to my favorite Price movie: The Masque of the Red Death. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe story by the same title, this vibrant film tells the story of Prince Prospero (Price) as he and a large selection of guests take refuge from a plague, the Red Death, within his lavish castle. What I love most about this movie is its balance of beauty and darkness, upheld through the film’s opulence and Price’s emotional performance. The film is visually stunning, from its saturated colors, luxuriant decor and costumes, and fantasy-level Gothic imagery. Price demonstrates the deterioration of Prospero’s character by transitioning from confidence and power to fear and vulnerability when his measures fail and the Red Death finds him in his fortress. With his undeniable flair for Gothic aesthetic and ability to portray the deepest of human emotions, Price was a clear choice for multiple leading roles adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Other Poe adaptations in which Price starred include House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963).
A book I found in my local library, from which I learned much of the information shared in this post, is titled Vincent Price: The Art of Fear by Denis Meikle. This book delves into Price’s life as well as his vast portfolio of performances. If you enjoy film analyses such as what I do on this blog, but much more in-depth, check it out!*
In addition to his illustrious acting career, Price was also an art collector, a cookbook author and gourmet chef, and an open supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. Vincent Price died October 25, 1993 in Los Angeles, California, less than a few weeks before I was born.
Vincent Price and his performances have captivated me since I first saw him on screen as the inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990) when I was a preteen. When I think of Vincent Price, the first thing that comes to mind is that voice. If you’ve heard it, you know what I’m talking about. That iconic, chilling, but comforting voice. In many ways, his voice represented who he was. Behind his believable performances as countless vengeful antagonists, Price lived his life with kindness, humor, and empathy. Although he was not around during my lifetime, I feel a connection with him as an artist for all of the stories he told as an actor and as a human being. If you have not become familiar with Price’s work just yet: I hope you decide to do so, and I hope you end up feeling the same way.
Until next time,
*Analyses, synopses, etc. in this post are my own