The Importance of Being Vincent Price

By David Weiner

Horror legend Vincent Price was not only a horror genre great, but a great actor. His range was broad and his performances skewed from drama to cartoons to comedy. Yet most film fans place him firmly in the horror category alongside the likes of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Peter Lorre, Lionel Atwill, Claude Rains, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi. 

Creepy voice and haunting features aside, my original perception of Price was a bit of a mixed bag, having first been exposed to more of his later career choices that cast him as a guest star, a voiceover artist, a pitchman, a connoisseur, and a known horror icon. It’s an interesting thing to chart my personal appreciation of the larger-than-life personality, as I essentially discovered his greatest hits first, and then the deep cuts working backwards chronologically.

As a child of ‘70s TV, my Vincent Price seemed to be a jack-of-all-trades performer. I’m not entirely sure how I first crossed paths with his presence, but it was most definitely by way of the small screen, perhaps watching him terrorize Adam West and Gotham City as the comically villainous Egghead in BATMAN ’66 reruns. Or was it watching him terrorize the Brady kids in cursed Tiki Caves on the infamous BRADY BUNCH three-part Hawaii episode?

Perhaps I first saw him on the cover of my friend’s Hangman board game, or guesting on THE MUPPET SHOW, or HOLLYWOOD SQUARES, or in commercials hawking everything from Tilex and Time Life books to Halloween Easter Seals and Chips Ahoy cookies. Or was it simply seeing his A Treasury of Great Recipes cookbook sitting on my folks’ kitchen counter? All I knew was that as far as the pop-culture landscape was concerned during that era, Vincent Price was a permanent fixture. Who else could persuade moms to buy Monster Vitamins for their kids after enticing, “Come a little closer, madam,” then declaring, “My children love them — right kids?” through a creepy trap-door cellar?

It wasn’t until I rounded the age of 10 that I probably realized that Vincent Price was a bonafide movie star and marquee draw who carved a solid niche in film history as a horror icon. That education came by way of Saturday afternoon TV and week-long matinee fests on my local station. The 4:30 Movie, which aired weekdays on ABC in suburban New York, was well known for its theme weeks spotlighting genre films. At any given time of the year, the programming would celebrate Monster Week, PLANET OF THE APES week, Sci-Fi week, Supernatural Week, Ray Harryhausen Week, and so on, as well as weeks devoted to particular actors. My formal exposure to the horror oeuvre of this wonderful actor was by way of Edgar Allen Poe Week and Vincent Price Week. Curated titles by The 4:30 Movie would include THE RAVEN, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE MASQUE OF RED DEATH, THE OBLONG BOX, THE HAUNTED PALACE, THE CONQUEROR WORM, and other favorites. In a sort of backwards way, Vincent Price legitimized Edgar Allen Poe for me as a literary force to be reckoned with. Why else would he do so many movie adaptations if this dead writer wasn’t legit?

What I loved most about Vincent Price was that he was not always the heavy, but he was rarely the good guy (a great example being 1964’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, based on Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND). That was much more fun to watch. The looming threat of menace was offset by his charismatic, charming voice. Sitting down for a Price film guaranteed a certain amount of unpredictability; there was always the promise of crafty manipulation and potential cruelty behind his wit; I knew I was in for a ride, and it was that consistency that made me a die-hard fan; his name alone would guarantee the escapist thrills I was seeking. 

Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine would fill in the missing pieces of Price’s horror resume for me. Founding editor Forrest J Ackerman’s friendship boyish enthusiasm for Price’s films (they were good friends in person, too) ensured that there would be ample coverage of his films every couple of issues, with great pictures to pore over. Famous Monsters was an invaluable tool for me to better understand Price’s place in horror history and to learn about just how many different genre projects he was a part of. The star appeared on several covers of FM, taken from such films as TALES OF TERROR, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and MADHOUSE, and legendary artist Basil Gogos notably launched his FM career with his compelling portrait of Price from HOUSE OF USHER.

Fast-forward to adulthood, the home-video boom, my career in entertainment journalism (and coming full-circle to become executive editor of Famous Monsters) and the On-Demand revolution. We live in a world of convenience with the ability to do an instant-gratification deep dive on practically any topic imaginable. By investigating and understanding just how much Vincent Price accomplished throughout his career, I’ve rounded out my full appreciation for him as more than just a horror icon and TV personality. The freedom of the Internet allows me to have easy access to most of Price’s legacy, including radio performances such as The Undecided Molecule and his first-step performances in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater company. I only wish that I could have had the opportunity to see some of Price’s stage performances with my own eyes, such as Angel Street, the Broadway play which provided the perfect role for a younger Price to tap into his sinister side; shades of things to come. At the very least, if I ever wanted to try my hand at acting opposite the master thespian, I know that I could drop a needle on the vinyl release of Co-Star: The Record Acting Game and volley back and forth with him in scenes like The Importance of Being Earnest and The Gambler. Fun stuff.

Most importantly, the joy of watching Vincent Price perform always was and is rooted in the knowledge that the man truly enjoyed practicing his craft. And no matter what type of project he took part in, he fully embraced his place atop the horror genre mantle. As he often liked to say, “It’s as much fun to scare, as to be scared.”

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