Horror movies haven’t generally gotten any respect from the Oscars. Yeah, the Academy has tossed a handful of nominations to the genre over the years, but wins for anything other then technical matters have been few and far between. Back in 2010, they attempted to make up for this with a montage of clips from classic horror movies. It was pretty decent – Jaws, The Blob, Nosferatu, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dracula, The Shining – but there was one colossal and unforgivable oversight….
Where was Vincent Price?
For about fifteen years, Price was a reliable and versatile supporting actor in Hollywood, including a couple of roles in horror movies. Then a chance meeting over lunch with producer William Castle, and Price agreed to star as Frederick Loren in House on Haunted Hill. A couple of subsequent lead roles in Castle’s movies, and his career was set.
A series of films by Roger Corman loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe confirmed his reputation as a Master of Horror. He began to cut back on his film work soon after that, enjoying his life as a celebrity while lecturing on his favorite topics of art and cooking. His last on-screen role was in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands in 1990.
When you look over Price’s body of work, it’s hard to see why he never really got critical acclaim. There’s a great diversity of roles, from straight drama to comedy. It cannot simply be that horror isn’t taken seriously by critics. Perhaps it’s just that Price’s most famous work was in lower-budget works by the schlockmeisters Castle and Corman.
That’s not really fair to anyone. William Castle’s primary goal in his movies was – for all intents and purposes – to scare the crap out of kids at the Saturday matinee. His movies were filled with plot holes and promoted through gimmicks, but they worked. As the star, Price clearly knew what he was being asked to do for the prospective audience. Likewise, if you look at Corman’s Poe films, they are really, really, good – arguably Corman’s best work – but it was still Corman, and by the time those movies came out, that style of literary Gothic horror was falling out of favor.
If there is one movie that perfectly encapsulates Price’s career, it’s Theater of Blood from 1973. Price plays Edward Lionheart, a popular Shakespearean actor who, upon being passed over for a prestigious Best Actor award, disappears after a suicide attempt. Then the critics who snubbed him start being killed in methods reflecting the plays that Lionheart performed in that final season.
We see Lionheart take on various widely diverging roles in his revenge schemes – a policeman, a flamboyant hairdresser, the host of a cooking show – and we can see just how versatile an actor Price was. Every one of these is spot on – especially when you consider that Price is playing a hammy actor playing those roles!
It’s suggested in the movie that Lionheart’s acting was more of the “blood and thunder” type that pleased the masses rather than the more subtle type that pleases the critics. You could say the same about Price. It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable; you can see his talent in the movies that required more straightforward and low-key acting (from 1944’s Laura to 1968’s Witchfinder General). And it’s not Price’s fault that most of his work was in movies that required him to ham it up.
For Price’s greatest strength as an actor was that he knew exactly what a role demanded. Whether to take it over the top, go as close as possible to the top without going over, or keep things restrained and subtle. Compare the tortured Verden Fell of The Tomb of Ligea to the smirkingly villainous Frederick Loren in House on Haunted Hill… Not many actors can play such divergent roles, and do both convincingly.
Price deserves all the accolades we can give him, but probably the most appropriate is this short film by his young disciple, Tim Burton:
House on Haunted Hill and The Last Man on Earth are both in the public domain, so check them out:
“The horror thriller offers the serious actor unique opportunities to test his ability to make the unbelievable believable.” – Vincent Price