A while ago I decided to have a weekend watching movies starring Vincent Price, an actor who, in my mind at least, has come to embody those wonderfully camp horror films I used to watch and love in the halcyon days of my teenage years. Then, and still now, with his chiselled good looks, beguiling voice and elegance of expression, Vinnie seemed the very epitome of the suavely sinister that so appealed to me.
Oh, and here be spoilers. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Vinnie plays millionaire Frederick Loren and along with his wife Annabelle throws a party at the allegedly haunted house of the title, inviting an assortment of oddball guests (a test pilot, a gossip columnist, a secretary, a psychiatrist) to spend the night there for the sum of $10k each. The guests arrive at the house in funeral cars, and as the servants depart it is locked up tight, becoming a prison in all but name. Soon after the ‘supernatural’ events begin, with one young woman driven close to madness and Mrs Loren apparently killing herself. Of course appearances are deceptive and something else entirely is going on. Vinnie has matinee idol good looks here, and there’s some delicious dialogue between him and his termagant wife, as they play a game of cat and mouse with each other. But, while the concept is intriguing, with its echoes of “The Haunting of Hill House”, this is a film where you really have to not just suspend disbelief but tear the definition out of the dictionary. So much seems silly, not least the presence of a pool of acid in the basement, and the way in which the ‘ghost’ manifests. Don’t get me wrong – it’s all great fun, with some neat tricks along the way, such as the tiny coffins containing guns, but not to be taken seriously. And I imagine modern day sfx experts feel embarrassed for their predecessors when watching this.
The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Vinnie is older and wiser, and horribly disfigured as the eponymous Anton Phibes, who has the good fortune to be both wealthy and talented in many disciplines. With the aid of the statuesque Vulnavia he visits Biblical plagues on the ten members of the surgical team who failed to save the life of his beloved bride. Again, this is a film that is impossible to take seriously, but redeemed by the way in which it eschews all attempts at realism and just goes wonderfully, gloriously over the top. The baroque come art deco sets with their distinctive colour schemes, combined with the funereal strains of Phibes’ organ, offer a treat for the senses, and with odd touches of humour, such as the band of mannequins who accompany the organist. This is very much a black comedy, seen most obviously in the elaborate death scenes, with the various victims falling prey to locusts, rats, boils etc, each murder enacted with a gleeful invention. In fact, given the presence of Phibes, with his mask and broken voice, and the nature of the killings, I think you can find in this film a forerunner of the “Saw” franchise, though there is to it, despite all the nasty death, a feeling of innocence that later films don’t have. If “Saw” is torture porn, then perhaps this is the seaside postcard equivalent.
Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972)
He’s back, and how (and, to my shame, for many years I thought this film was titled “Dr Phibes Rides Again”). Having wreaked his revenge and outwitted the law at the end of the last film, Phibes heads off to Egypt in search of a magical underground river that will revive his deceased wife and confer immortality on them both. Already prepared and waiting for him is a tastefully decorated home away from home built into the side of a mountain, complete with organ. But other parties have thrown their hats into the ring, including an archaeologist who appears to have already mastered immortality, and now needs another infusion from the river to sustain his life, while hot on the heels of everyone are the forces of law and order. The stage is set for some suitably macabre mayhem in the Egyptian desert, with Phibes and Vulnavia wheeling out their latest death dealing devices. Highlights include the murderous mannequin musicians, a person size vise and a deadly combination of mechanical snake and exploding telephone. Admittedly some of the novelty has worn off, and the plotting is even more absurd, but Vinnie is as over the top as ever and there’s enough juice left to carry it through to an ending in which our hero and his lady swan off into the sunset, or something like that. Egypt wasn’t this much fun again until Indiana Jones came along.
The Pit and The Pendulum (1961)
I absolutely adore the Corman/Matheson adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, and this is one of my favourites, actually improving on its source material (which isn’t much of a story at all, if we’re honest). Vinnie plays Don Medina, the son of a Spanish Inquisitor, who has a complete set of torture instruments hidden away in his cellar, including the infamous pendulum of the title. Always a bit unstable thanks to the family history, he is haunted by the idea that his dead wife was buried prematurely, and the arrival of his English brother-in-law, who simply won’t accept the ‘official’ account of his sister’s death, finally pushes him over the edge, with the help of the wife, who isn’t really dead but planning on eloping with the family doctor after her husband has been driven to suicide. It all leads up to the finale in which, adopting the persona of his father, Vinnie cranks up the pendulum and looks to visit sweet revenge on the one he considers to have done him wrong. There’s more than a bit of “House on Haunted Hill” reprised in this, with the alliance between Vinnie’s wife and doctor, but this time around he himself is an innocent victim of their duplicity, and the family history provides a convincing psychological backdrop to Don Medina’s madness. It really is a first rate film all round, with lavish Gothic settings created on a shoestring budget and a lurid colour scheme, solid script and acting from all concerned, especially Vinnie, and the torture implements, not least the pendulum itself, create a genuine sense of expectation and tension. The best moment of all though is the closing image of Barbara Steele’s desperately pleading eyes, as she is left alone in the dungeon, trapped in the iron maiden. That’ll teach her to cheat on Vinnie.