5. Witchfinder General
What it’s About
The film is the fictionalized story of the real life lawyer Matthew Hopkins who was appointed by Parliament to continue on as the Witchfinder General to hunt down and murder women he believed to be witches. His exploits go to far and he’s pursued by a younger soldier hoping to put an end to Hopkins path of destruction and terror.
Why it’s Great
Throughout his career, Vincent Price would make a name for himself playing various evil doers and crazed men, but even though he’s often the villain there is usually a likeable quality to the way he plays each role. However, his portrayal of Matthew Hopkins is one of the exceptions to this rule, and we’re treated to the most vile character Vincent Price had ever played.
Though Price considered his performance as Matthew Hopkins to be one of the finest in his career, it was no easy task to get him there. Price and director Matthew Reeves didn’t get along well on set and Reeves had said that Price was far from his first choice. Reeves hated the idea of casting Price in the role, but had to because of contract obligations.
Reeves had no respect for Price’s body of work and they clashed constantly to the point that Price refused to watch the dailies from fear that his performance would suffer. Reeves also couldn’t talk to his actors and communicate what he wanted, which lead to confusion.
Even though during the span of the production both Reeves and Price were out for each other’s blood, the proof was in the pudding. When Price had finally saw the film in a theatre he had seen what Reeves had wanted and quick to apologize, Price sent Reeves a long letter praising the film.
The film is quite sadistic and features very gruesome violence for it’s time and has one of Vincent Price’s finest performances as an actor. Not a shred of camp is in this film and it leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling. It’s effective in every way and it’s a true screen gem.
4. The Pit and the Pendulum
What it’s About
In 16th century Spain, a young man by the name of Francis Barnard visits the castle of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Medina, once he hears of his sister’s passing. Medina tells Barnard that his sister passed from a blood disease, but he believes little of this story. Barnard stays at the castle for awhile to get to the bottom of his sister’s death only to discover that the mourning Medina’s family has a dark past – he’s the son of the most violent torturer of the Spanish Inquisition.
Why it’s Great
What’s NOT great about this film! It obviously has Vincent Price pulling double duty as both Nicholas Medina and his father Sebastian Medina, but it also stars Barbara Steele as Elizabeth Medina, Nicholas’ deceased wife. It’s directed by Roger Corman as part of his Edgar Allen Poe series of films and it was written by “I Am Legend” scribe and frequent “Twilight Zone” contributor Richard Matheson.
Roger Corman is known for his shoe-string budgets, short production schedules and cheap, fun films. However, do not discredit the man, as he has shown time and time again that he is one of the most creative low-budget filmmakers in history. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is no exception with it’s brilliant use of color, it’s striking camera angles and it’s use of atmosphere to inspire a general sense of dread.
Corman knowns how to stretch a budget effectively and how to make a memorable film. Corman was also very smart when it came to filmmaking tactics and how to get the full impact out of a scene. One of the more interesting stories from the film involves the editing of the film’s exciting climax; Corman wanted to add to the sense of dread and urgency to the pendulum in the climax, so he had the editor remove every other frame to make the blade appear to move twice as fast!
Out of all his Poe films, I think this one is my favorite not only for it’s pure creativity but because it’s one of my favorite Vincent Price performances. Price plays the part of a mourning husband down to a tee. It’s heartbreaking from beginning to end, so much so that you forget the age-gap between Steele and Price and feel his insurmountable love for her.
The film has a macabre tone but is washed over with bright colors (which would inspire many Italian horror filmmakers) and features some violent, dread-inducing scenes that are very reminiscent of English Hammer films. It’s one of the crown jewels in the American International Pictures catalogue and worth scoping out.
3. The Comedy of Terrors
What It’s About
Vincent Price plays an undertaker by the name of Waldo Trumbull whose not getting nearly as many “customers” as he once did. With mounting money troubles, he decides to kill people with the help of his bumbling assistant Felix (played by Peter Lorre) to get new clients.
Why It’s Great
Vincent Price is doing comedy, and not only that, but he’s having a great time while doing it! Price is known for playing devilish characters, but something about his portrayal of Waldo Trumbull feels more evil than usual. He’s verbally abusive to his wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson) and threatens to poison her father (Boris Karloff) on a near daily basis! Not to mention, he treats his poor assistant Felix like dirt. Felix is one of the sweetest characters on the planet, and to see Price be so darn mean to him makes us all feel bad.
Price plays the role to perfection and the give-and-take style humor between him and Lorre is fantastic. Lorre’s pathetic portrayal blends so well with Price’s sarcasm that I wish they would have done more films like this together. There’s nothing charming or likeable about Price’s character, but that’s what makes it work in a very strange way as one can’t help but love every venomous word and witty one-liner that spews from his mouth.
Price has always been an actor I loved and I’ve often found some of his films to be funny for the wrong reasons, but seeing Price tackle straight comedy worked better than I could have imagined.
2. Theatre of Blood
What it’s About
Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionhart is one of the most talented Shakespearean actors of his time, though he had never gotten the recognition he rightly deserved. Now, with the help of his loyal daughter, he takes his aggression out on a circle of critics who denied him a prestigious acting award, which he felt he deserved after his final season of performing Shakespeare. One-by-one Lionhart picks off the critics with different methods inspired by various Shakespearean plays.
Why it’s Great
This film is very reminiscent of an earlier Price favorite, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, but not in a way where it feels like a copy. Part of the genius that is Vincent Price is his ability to be completely serious while delivering even the most absurd of dialogue, which is what makes his performance in this film so great.
There are some truly absurd moments, for example: Price performing Shakespeare on a derelict stage in front of an audience of bums. Even though scenes like this are batty and weird, you never think twice about Price’s delivery as you believe every word he says; he IS that character. It’s what sells the laughs and raises the bar from camp to comedy. Price also plays one of his most sympathetic characters and makes you root for every move he makes.
Another element that makes this film stand out compared to some of Price’s other work is the choice by Director Douglas Hickox to shoot all entirely on location as opposed to using elaborately built sets on a soundstage. It gives the film a real gritty feeling in stark contrast to Price’s over-the-top, grandiose, Gothic style. Lionhart’s fictional hideout, the Burbage Theatre, was actually the Putney Hippodrome in London, which at the time was vacant and run-down.
Many believe this is the ultimate Vincent Price performance where it mixes everything a fan would want; Shakespearean overtones, a sympathetic character and a sense of humor unlike anything you’ll ever seen again. “Theatre of Blood” is the definitive Vincent Price performance, and lets all hope he doesn’t come back to kill the critics who gave him a poor review.
1. The Abominable Dr. Phibes
What it’s About
Vincent Price plays Dr. Anton Phibes, a disfigured scholar and scientist, who lost his wife during a botched surgery. He believes the nine doctors are to blame and has set out to exact his revenge in a manner based off the nine plagues of Egypt.
Why it’s Great
Anton Phibes, in my opinion, is one of the most iconic roles he’s played in his entire career and a big part of that is because the film highlights Price’s best quality – his voice. Price has arguable one of the most iconic voices in horror history, but in few films is his voice as much a character as he is. Dr. Phibes is terribly disfigured and has lost all ability to use his mouth, so through an ingenious method that’s reminiscent of plugging a guitar into an amp, Phibes has found a way to speak once again.
The result is a creepy, disembodied voice that surrounds you. It’s a very different vocal delivery too for Price as he plays the role with complete seriousness, unlike some of his other roles where he has fun with his performance. You believe every word Price says and honestly believe he’s Anton Phibes.
Price’s fantastic performance isn’t the only reason this film is a gem, a big part of it’s appeal comes the superb direction by Robert Fuest. He creates an almost anti-period picture by the way that he mixes the aesthetic of the 1920s with the sensibilities of the ’70s Mod style. It creates a very unique world filled with fantastical machines, dark humor, a clockwork band and a vibrant color palette.
Author Bio: Michael Viers is an award winning filmmaker from Milwaukee, WI and a graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee with a Bachelor’s Degree in film. He has made two successful short films during his stay at the university: From the Darkness Theatre which screened at the Short Film Corner at the 66th Festival de Cannes and Love You Still which debuted at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival. He’s currently trying to get more work writing articles about film, just wrapped his fourth short and is allocating resources to make his first feature.