Oh Edward, My Lionheart!

Another night in with the plum voiced Pri(n)ce of thespians who went by the name of Vinnie.

(NB: Holy synchronicity – I didn’t realise until just now when I saw somebody post on Facebook, but today is Vincent Price’s birthday – he would have been 104. Happy birthday, Vinnie!)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

The frightful foursome of Edgar Allan Poe (story), Richard Matheson (script), Roger Corman (direction), and Vincent Price come together for the first time in an adaptation of a classic story from the American weird canon. Philip (Mark Damon) travels to the isolated Usher mansion in search of his fiancée Madeline, but her brother Roderick (Vinnie) tries to thwart his romantic aspirations as he wants the accursed Usher bloodline to die out. The scene is set for madness and mayhem, and madness and mayhem are what we get, as Vinnie goes full on barking as the urbane Roderick Usher whose fear and obsession is slowly but surely driving him completely insane, with dire consequences for all concerned. It is a slow burn film, though we never doubt that there is flame simmering away somewhere, moving to a Grand Guignol climax. Solid as the story is though, it is the execution that makes this film so memorable, with Price superb as Roderick and the rest of the small cast giving more than adequate back up to their leading man. Each scene is carefully constructed, with a backdrop that looks almost painterly at times (possibly because some of the scenery was actually painted backdrop), and vibrant colour schemes that seem to owe more to the excesses of pop art than gothic melodrama, so that the film is a treat for the eyes. Edgar Allan Poe has seldom been served so well, and in their future Poe collaborations Vinnie and his cohorts soared to even greater heights, with Masque as one of the most strikingly visual horror films ever made prior to CGI.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

And the first adaptation of Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend. As Dr Robert Morgan, Price is the sole survivor of a plague that has turned the vast majority of the world’s people into vampires. By day he divides his time between searching for a cure (he was a scientist working on an antidote before civilisation got flushed down the pan) and hunting/killing as many vampires as he can while they are helpless. At night he stays barricaded inside his house, playing classical music in an attempt to drown out the sound of his former friends and neighbours trying to break down the door so that they can drink his blood. Loneliness is even more of a threat than the vampires, and when there is a chance that another might have survived, a woman called Ruth, Morgan throws aside his natural caution at great cost. I think I like this better than the Heston and Smith versions. It is much more downbeat, something the black and white aspect contributes to. You have a genuine feel for the horror of Morgan’s situation, with the attacks on his house at night putting me very much in mind of Night of the Living Dead. The character’s loneliness and despair are almost palpable, with a back story that shows how he lost all those who were dear to him in the most horrid manner imaginable. His determination to carry on when so many others would simply have ended things is admirable, but at the same time also an exercise in futility and, one suspects, a stratagem to keep the true horror of his situation at bay, the sense of isolation and pointlessness that threatens to overwhelm Morgan at every turn. It is, in a way, a form of madness, obsession compulsive disorder as a survival mechanism, so that he shares something of the nature of the zombies in Dawn, following routines that are now meaningless. Even when a cure of sorts is found, it is rejected by the avatars of the new order who have adapted and cut their coat to fit their cloth. Morgan isn’t the last and best hope for mankind, but someone who has become an object of fear simply as a result of his continued existence. He is the monster now. Bleak and grim, this is a film which does justice to its source material.

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Released in the wake of the Dr. Phibes movies, this pretty much reprises the plot, though in terms of the production itself it doesn’t have quite the same camp feel and gloriously garish look to it. This time around instead of a doctor risen from the dead to wreak vengeance on the surgical team responsible for the death of his wife, Vinnie plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearian actor risen from the dead to wreak vengeance on the critics he holds responsible for his lack of a glittering prize or two. And instead of deaths based on the Biblical plagues, we get murder as by the Bard, with the poor old critics bounced off in the manner of Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice etc. There is method (acting) to Price’s madness, with a subtext about the role of the critic that I don’t want to touch with the proverbial bargepole. While, understandably I hope, I don’t approve of bumping off reviewers, I have to concede that if it’s a route you are determined to go down then for sheer panache and exuberant horror fun this film is hard to beat. As already stated it is a tad or two grittier than Phibes as Price goes about settling old scores with extreme prejudice, ably assisted by daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) and a cadre of alcoholic vagrants. It was almost impossible to take the deaths seriously in Phibes, so absurdly contrived were the methods of execution, almost Heath Robinsonesque, but in Theatre the killings are red in tooth and claw, harrowing in their detail so that the film treads a finer line between horror and comedy. What humour there is comes mainly from Price’s gleefully over the top performance, the suave matinee idol delivering each one liner with a snarl and twisted lip. Overall it was great fun, and possibly Vinnie’s finest hour. But of course I’m not going to take the risk of criticising the film as you never know who might be reading this blog – yes, sometimes subtexts do worm their way into the subconscious.

So, anyone else have a favourite Vinnie film?

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