2017 Film Essays

Vincent Price and the Art of Darkness

Actor Vincent Price’s ubiquitous presence in tales of the macabre ensured that his persona became synonymous with horror for an entire generation of viewers and beyond. Whether or not today’s audiences know him by name, his textured voice and distinctive features — the one roving eyebrow that turned his face into a question mark, the smirk, the slight stoop — are deeply ingrained in the public consciousness. Over the course of his career, Price also starred in comedies, dramas and noirs, but his artful portrayals of villains made him an icon.

Price was notorious for embodying a charming but shrewd character who plays both sides, dispensing dark truths disguised as witticisms. Unlike the monsters of Universal Studios or Hammer films, Price’s characters were rarely more or less than human — a quality that made them both realistic and frightening. His intelligent performances elevated the films, which were casually dismissed as schlock, though audiences continued to flock to them.

Price’s exploits onscreen and off helped to create the persona that remains as arresting today as ever. His enduring legacy as an actor is only rivaled by the one he left as a humanitarian. Price was an advocate for racial/religious equality and gay rights (he himself was rumored to be bisexual). He was also something of a Renaissance man: a gourmand and art lover who earned a degree in art history and lived by the credo that “a man who limits his interests limits his life.” For many years, Price partnered with Sears Roebuck to sponsor and curate its art collection.

His democratic taste blurred the distinctions between high and low art, a perspective that mirrored his onscreen career. Price produced a huge body of work in horror, a genre he felt his colleagues never truly respected. But this didn’t stop him from trying to gain their esteem. As Price’s daughter Victoria wrote in Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, “ultimately, he decided to embrace villainy on his own terms — to raise it to the level of art, or at least to a standard in which he could take pride.” In the 1970s, he toured the country, giving a lecture titled “The Villains Still Pursue Me,” which provided historical context for his roles and sought to educate audiences on his villainous performances.

Price’s association with horror led to a role everyone is familiar with, even without necessarily knowing the actor behind it: the narrator in Michael Jackson’s hit song “Thriller.” Price’s voice brings greater credibility to a song that is itself an homage to the types of films he starred in. Among other things, “Thriller” is a tribute to the cathartic ritual of watching scary movies, the hope that the genuine horrors of the world can be safely subsumed into the nightmares on screen, to which the narrator alludes: “Though you fight to stay alive, you’re body starts to shiver, for no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller.” He finishes with maniacal laughter, perhaps at the naivete of audiences who temporarily forget that real horrors are still out there, lurking, unavoidable. The song encapsulates much of Price’s body of work and his decades-long career in the horror genre, where his knowing irony creates a buffer between the audience and the macabre acts on screen.

Price’s first true venture into horror was the 1953 film House of Wax, Directed by André De Toth. The part paved the way for many following roles where Price was featured as a two-faced villain, both literally and figuratively. In House of Wax, he plays Henry Jarrod, an artist who operates a humble museum to display his realistic wax sculptures. After his life’s work is destroyed in a fire, Jarrod reopens the museum, this time vowing to give the people what they want: thrill and spectacle. He creates a house of horrors drawn from history, including the deaths of Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette. This time, with its combination of realism and grotesque scenes, the museum is a resounding success.

There is, however, a secret to his success. Jarrod creates his lifelike artworks by murdering people who resemble great figures in history and dipping them in wax. By night, he takes his victims; by day, he leads throngs of visitors through his museum of corpses. Jarrod’s eyes alight with pleasure at his deception, allowing viewers to swoon gleefully in front of genuine human remains. In the end, Jarrod’s face is revealed to be a mask — his face, too, was injured in the fire. What remains is a mutated lump of purple flesh. The mask is perhaps Jarrod’s greatest work of art yet, as it happens to be as malleable as Price’s own. Navigating layers of deception in such a way would become Price’s calling card. You could never quite trust him — his face was really a mask all along.

William Castle’s 1959 film House on Haunted Hill further exploited Price’s tongue-in-cheek persona. In the film, eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Price, of course) lures five desperate people to a haunted house with a pledge to pay each of them $10,000 if they manage to stay the night. In the opening scene, Loren’s disembodied head directly addresses the audience, introducing himself and even extending an invitation to his party. He is pulling the strings the whole time, as becomes clear in the film’s denouement, which features a feat of puppetry involving a skeleton and a vat of acid.

Throughout the film, Loren mugs for the camera, lips pursed and a single eyebrow raised, daring viewers to ask just how much he knows and what he’s hiding. This film quite literally bridged the gap between film and audience through the theatrical gimmick Castle dubbed “Emergo.” During the film’s gruesome finale, a fake skeleton was actually suspended over the heads of theatergoers, giving the impression that Price is a puppetmaster controlling the narrative and the audience from beyond the screen.

Price’s work with director Roger Corman on a series of Poe movies (1961-1964) showcases some of his best and most subtle performances. While his characteristic irony was in place, Price also had the opportunity to explore increasingly sophisticated roles. Throughout the series, he plays characters whose visions of darkness drive them to horrific acts. As Corman noted in his afterword to Denis Meikle’s book Vincent Price: The Art of Fear, Price worked so well in the Poe films because he portrayed “a man with a brilliant but tormented mind that works on a register beyond that of ordinary men and thus inspires a deeper fear.” In these films, Price often becomes a conduit to a creeping darkness only he can perceive.

In 1971, Price starred in an interesting counterpoint to House of Wax with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, directed by Robert Fuest. Price plays Anton Phibes, who avenges his wife’s untimely death on the operating table by killing off the doctors who attended her. The film features a series of intricately plotted, grisly murders worthy of the Saw franchise, and Phibes clearly enjoys the elaborate machinations. One murder utilizes a mask that gradually tightens on its wearer, crushing his skull; another involves brussel sprouts.

The film subverts Price’s iconography by withholding the assets that made him famous: the expressive voice and impish face. In a conceit similar to that in House of Wax, Phibes wears a plaster mask to hide his own disfigurement. And once again, Price’s face, albeit with a heavier coat of makeup than normal, is offered up as a mask. Unlike House of Wax, however, his face is uncharacteristically immobile except for his intense gaze. In addition, Phibes is unable to speak normally. He communicates with others through a gramophone-like device that reproduces his voice in a stilted croak. He doesn’t utter a word until halfway through the film. With his mask and mechanical voice, he is an automaton, as though the dark deeds from his career have taken him to the limits of human nature. As he tells his final victim, played by Joseph Cotten, “you can’t kill me. I am already dead.” Such was Price’s relationship with the beyond.

In Madhouse (1974), directed by Jim Clark, Price essentially plays himself in the form actor Paul Toombes, which offers an instructive look at his persona. Toombes has become so in tune with Dr. Death, the violent monster he plays on screen, that he begins to lose track of where one ends and the other begins. As Toombes returns once again to the role that made him famous, someone dressed as Dr. Death begins killing cast and crew members one by one.

Meanwhile, Toombes appears in a talk show to promote the film he is shooting. The interviewer shows some of Tombes’ “classic roles,” which include clips from Poe films House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum. The interviewer asks Toombes why he thinks the Dr. Death films have been so successful. In his reply, it seems as though Price himself is addressing the audience:

“[The films] are not about the everyday world around us. They’re about a world that deep inside of us, a world of impulses and instincts that we have been taught to suppress.” He continues, “they’re impulses that we don’t dare admit, impulses that sometimes we don’t even know we have. These films set them free.”

Price understood better than many other actors that horror in itself is about a ritualistic encounter with the abject. He always took the horror genre seriously, and that often meant daring to laugh in the face of the darkest horrors, toeing the line between irony and total seriousness. We go to the movies because we know it’s fun to be scared, but we also crave safe, structured encounters with fear. What made Price’s performances so powerful was this implicit understanding of this desire of audience: how to invite them in on the joke in one moment, and reveal its terrifying secrets in the next. The horror ritual may help keep the demons at bay, but only for so long. In the meantime, Vincent Price was and remains the ideal master of ceremonies.

Kate Blair (@Selective_Kate) enjoys writing about all things film. Her previous work can be seen at Film Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Bitch Flicks, among others. She currently resides in Chicago with her wife, cat and dog.