I’ve covered Vincent Price’s film work 17 times here, which must be some kind of record. Can you tell he’s one of my all-time favorite actors? Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was born May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. The elegant, eloquent Price was also an avid art collector and gourmet cook of some note. He’s justifiably famous for his film noir roles, but Price etched his name in cinematic stone as one of filmdom’s Masters of Horror.
Price starred in his first fright film way back in 1940 with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS . But it wasn’t until 1953’s 3-D outry HOUSE OF WAX that he became tagged as a horror star. Later in that decade, he made a pair of gimmicky shockers for director William Castle ( THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL , THE TINGLER), and in 1960 began his collaboration with Roger Corman on movies based (loosely, mind you) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first in the series, 1960’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, helped usher in (sorry!) a whole new genre of horror… Vincent Price Movies!
The story: a rider approaches a fog-shrouded, gloomy, decaying mansion. He’s Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon), betrothed of Madeline Usher, come to fetch his fiancé. Bristol, the Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), tells him Miss Madeline is ill and confined to her bed by brother Roderick. Enter our star, a blonde Price, as Roderick, a sensitive, tortured soul who suffers “an affliction of the hearing… sounds of an exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives”. Roderick warns Phillip to “leave this house” and forget about Madeline, for “the Usher line is cursed”, afflicted with madness.
Madeline (Myrna Fahey) arises from her sick-bed to greet Phillip. The beautiful but haunted girl is “obsessed with thoughts of death”, and leads Phillip downstairs to the family crypt, filled with dead ancestors and two coffins waiting for the last living Ushers. Roderick appears, and upstairs he later explains to Phillip the wicked legacy of his forbearers, whose macabre portraits hang on the walls of the house of Usher. He intones that “the house itself is evil now”, the sins of his family “rooted into its stones”.
Madeline dies following an argument with Roderick, dies, unable to take the strain of her situation. She’s buried in the family crypt, finally at peace… or is she? Bristol lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy, and a frantic Phillip rushes down to the crypt to find her coffin locked! He takes an axe to the lock, only to discover the casket’s empty! The angry suitor, axe in hand, confronts Roderick, demanding to know where she is. Roderick confesses she lives, telling Phillip, “Even now, I hear her, alive, deranged, in fury… twisting, turning, scratching at the lid with bloody fingernails… can you not hear her voice, she calls my name!”….
A subdued, understated Price left his trademarked ham at the table to play the tortured Roderick Usher. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when Price hams it up (see the Dr. Phibes films , for example), but he could tone things down when the role warranted it. The cultured actor was a Poe aficionado, and his performances in this and the subsequent Corman/Poe films rank among his best work. This was also Corman’s first movie with scenarist Richard Matheson, who does a bang-up job despite taking some liberties with the source material. Surprisingly (or maybe not), American-International honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff didn’t like the idea, wanting Corman to stick to their profitable low-budget double features. “There’s no monsters”, he complained, and Corman had to explain that “The house IS the monster” before being given the green light*. The rest is horror history.
If Boris Karloff was the King of Horror and Lugosi its Dark Prince, surely Vincent Price has an exalted rank in the horror hierarchy as well. High priest, perhaps? He and his British compatriots Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who was also born on this date) kept the torch of Gothic horror burning well into the 1970’s, before gore and slasher shockers started dominating the marketplace. Happy birthday, Vinnie, and thanks for the nightmares!
(BTW, those weird paintings of the family Usher were done by Burt Shonberg, a little known artist whose feverish works have never been truly appreciated. Since Vincent Price was an ardent collector of art, here’s a sampling of some of them. I think Vincent would approve!)
*according to the book “The Films of Roger Corman” by Alan Frank, pg. 88 (BT Batsford Ltd, 1998)