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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Vincent Price
Why it’s daunting: From his film debut in the 1938 romance Service de Luxe to his final on-screen performance as the Inventor in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), Vincent Price was in a lot of movies. He did guest spots on dozens of TV series, from Playhouse 90 to The Muppet Show to the Adam West Batman (appearing as the villainous Egghead, who liked… eggs), and loaned his distinct dulcet tones to The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Price’s imposing 6’4” height, devilishly urbane features, and dark humor made him a distinctive presence in any medium, and while he never hit matinee-idol status, he worked steadily throughout his career.
So the trick here isn’t so much seeing Vincent Price play a role as it is finding the particular roles that established the Price persona. The man does a terrific job in classics like Leave Her To Heaven and Laura, but as good as those movies are, they aren’t really Vincent Price vehicles. To understand his legacy, and the reason his iconic status looms large even today, it’s necessary to look to some of his less critically accomplished work; and since there are a fair share of clunkers in there (or, at the very least, movies that need to be approached with the right kind of expectations), it’s a good idea to know where to begin.
Possible gateway: The Tingler (1959), directed by William Castle
Why: Vincent Price played a lot of villains in his career—madmen who sought revenge on their enemies with a level of meticulous craft and ingenuity that would make a Bond villain jealous. It may seem odd, then, to introduce new fans to the actor through one of his rare non-villainous leading roles. Dr. Warren Chapin, the main character of The Tingler, is something of a slippery bastard; he torments his unfaithful wife, engages in dangerous scientific experiments for no understandable gain, and is at the very least indirectly responsible for the horrible death of an innocent deaf woman. Yet he’s not really a bad guy. Price plays him as a long-suffering man just trying to get his work done, and Chapin never dips below anti-hero on the morality scale.
Tingler is best remembered as the ultimate William Castle gimmick movie. In order to simulate the spine-quivering effects of its titular monster, Castle had certain seats in movie theaters equipped with electric buzzers; during the film’s climactic sequence, the projectionist would activate the buzzers and give a handful of audience members something approaching an immersive experience. If that’s all The Tingler had going for it, it wouldn’t be much for home viewing; but stripped of its more exotic tricks, it’s still a hell of a ride. Castle is remembered as a down-market Hitchcock. That’s fairly accurate, but sometimes being cheaper means not having to worry so much about following the rules. The Tingler’s plot is a few fever dreams away from sense, but it moves quickly, and the dialogue—by frequent Castle collaborator Robb White—is surprisingly sharp. Everyone’s obviously having a good time, and the mood becomes infectious. Some of the scares remain surprisingly effective as well, particularly the final gas-lighting of the poor, doomed Mrs. Higgins that has the movie’s only brief splashes of color. (Red, of course.)
The lion’s share of the fun, though, comes from Castle’s leading man, which is what makes The Tingler a great way to get novices hooked on Price. It’s movies like this that made him an iconic figure in the world of horror; goofy, weird little flicks that manage to stay grounded through Price’s calm, thoroughly engaged performance. Later films would exploit his sense of humor in a more self-conscious way, but here he plays things absolutely straight. To do otherwise would be to spoil it. The sequence where he ingests LSD—a first in a mainstream movie—in an attempt to learn more about the Tingler (a giant centipede-like creature that feeds on fear and can only be killed by screaming) turns into a brilliant piece of fully committed absurdity. And such is Price’s natural conviction that when he gives the audience instructions during the film’s climax, it’s hard not to shout back at the screen.
Next steps: Those who enjoyed the Price-Castle experience should definitely check out House On Haunted Hill (1959), their first collaboration; it’s just as fun, and has Price playing a somewhat more malevolent role. (He’s also stuck with yet another wandering spouse. Was Castle trying to make some kind of point?)
Price’s work with producer/director Roger Corman is also essential, primarily for the Poe pictures; starting with The House Of Usher in 1960, the two collaborated on a series of adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous work, including The Pit And The Pendulum, The Raven, and Masque Of The Red Death. In House and Pit, a blandly heroic young man comes to see Price in his house on the cliffs. Invariably, Price is already halfway to crazy; then circumstances dictate that he make the rest of the journey. The Raven has Price playing the straight man to an all-star cast (including Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court, and a young Jack Nicholson) with a bad case of the zanies. The humor is hit or miss, but it’s charming, regardless.
Corman’s Poe movies reached their pinnacle with Masque, an ambitiously impressionistic take on Poe’s tale of privileged debauchery and comeuppance. It gives Price one of his best purely villainous roles in Prince Prospero, a Satan-worshipping sociopath; he’d only be darker when playing the corrupt and murderous Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General. Both parts are notable for the near-complete absence of Price’s usual charm. Prospero has a certain malevolent glow about him, but Hopkins is a despicable bastard through and through. Watching him rape and embezzle his way across the British countryside provides a terrific reminder of the depths of Price’s talent.
And then there are the two revenge films: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater Of Blood (1973). Both have the same basic plot—Price, presumed dead, commits a series of absurdly elaborate murders targeting a group of men and women who did him some presumed wrong. The police fail to stop the killer, who has a preternatural ability to not only plan each Rube Goldberg-ian killing to perfection but to also slip through the fingers of authority again and again. Each story ends with Price trying to kill the last member of the group, who represents the closest to a traditional hero in the film, before going off to death himself.
A macabre wit and a deep sense of style characterize both films. Of the two, Phibes has the lighter touch; director Robert Fuest cut his teeth working on The Avengers, and the movie shares that series’ dry tone and visual panache. Theater Of Blood is grittier by far, and bloodier. Price plays an actor who kills his critics in the manner of Shakespearean tragedies, with a surprising amount of gore. But for viewers with the stomach for it, Theater is the better of the two, and the best of all of Price’s films. (Diana Rigg plays his daughter, and everything’s better with Diana Rigg in it.) Most importantly, the premise gives Price a chance to tear into a number of the Bard’s most famous monologues, and he does so with delightfully malevolent aplomb.
Where not to start: Last Man On Earth (1964). It may be based on a terrific Richard Matheson novel (I Am Legend), and it may be the most faithful adaptation of that novel yet made but, despite Price’s best efforts, it’s a slog. Oh, and don’t be tempted by the titles of Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs (1966). They’re “wacky” in all the worst ways.