The Set (4/5)
Vincent Price is one of the most iconic actors in the history of horror films. His charm and sheer presence, coupled with a voice that could be instantly recognized made him an instant hit with the horror crowd from the moment he appeared in his breakout hit House of Wax (De Toth, 1953). Although Price appeared in a variety of genres, and many films throughout the years it was the horror genre that he most frequently returned to.
His films have been released multiple times in every physical media format that has existed. The fact that it was taken so long to get his films on to Blu-ray was truly the only truly surprising thing this time, as most genre fans had to know that the films would be coming eventually. In the last 2 months we fans of Vincent Price have been treated to a total of 3 releases, and 8 films of Price's on the Blu-ray format. There have been releases of The Fly and House of Wax in 3-D, and now Scream Factory comes to the table with their glorious 6 film, 4 disc Vincent Price collection. A collection, I truly hope is a Volume 1.
The films in the set contains some of prices best known work from the 60's and early 70's. 4 of the earliest films in the set contain collaborations with producer/director Roger Corman, and are part of what is referred to as Corman's Poe cycle of films. The two latter films are also exciting entries into Price's filmography. We get the final directorial feature film from director Michael Reeve, Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm), and Price's 1971 The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
The set does not go chronologically through Price's oeuvre. The first 2 disc are the Corman-Poe films while the latter 2 are reserved for Phibes and Witchfinder General. The first disc contains Corman's adaptations of The Pit and the Pendulum and the Masque of the Red Death. Obviously, Poe's stories and poems were quite short so throughout the film adaptations liberties were taken, some created creepy gothic horror films like the ones on this disc, others like The Raven (not included on this set) created something more silly and fun.
The Pit and the Pendulum tells the story of Francis, a young man who travels from afar upon the news that his sister has died. He comes to investigate the home of her husband Don Nicholas Medina, a mentally tortured soul, whose Father was known for the physical torture of many people throughout his own lifetime. Francis' investigation returns information that his sister was buried alive in the family tomb, but his prying into the Medina famiy is not without consequence, and he ends up at the sharp end of a bladed pendulum.
Pit and the Pendlum offers wonderful performances from the cast including Price, and Italian horror mainstay Barbara Steele. It also has fantastic and elaborate sets combined with wonderful gothic imagery brought to the screen by director Corman. The script is written by the legendary Richard Matheson.
The Masque of the Red Death is a more traditional adaptation of the Poe story of the same name. It is also one of the most beautiful, yet dark of the adaptations in this set. It tells the tale of Prince Prospero who during the time of the plague of the red death, throws a party high above the nearest town in his castle, in an attempt to isolate himself and his guests from the sickness below.
The film is clearly inspired by Ingmar Bergman's late 50's fantasy works most notably the Seventh Seal and possibly the Magician. The former has been acknowledged as such by Corman in interviews. It has a wonderfully elaborate color palette that clearly owes a debt to some of the early color films of the Italian maestro Mario Bava. Price is in top form here offering a fantastic interpretation of Prince Prospero. The film also features Hammer starlet Hazel Court as a partygoer that is tortured by the prince.
The second disc in the set contains the Fall of the House of Usher, and the Haunted Palace. Fall of the House of Usher is the first film in Roger Corman's Poe Cycle, but he comes to the film with many of the concepts that he would use throughout fully realized. The film stars Mark Damon as Philip Winthrop a young man who has traveled a great distant to visit a woman, Madeline Usher who he previously had a love affair with. He has come to her family home to ask her hand in marriage, only to find out through her brother Roderick, that she is mentally unwell, and is on the verge of death.
Philip unconvinced by Roderick decides to stay in the house, and find out more about Madeline's condition. He is given a reason along the lines of each time a member of the Usher line bears more than one child, those children get terminally ill early in life, and die young. Philip unmoved by Roderick's various explanations, tries to convince Madeline in secret to leave with him to be married, but is constantly thwarted in his attempts by Roderick.
The Fall of the House of Usher takes place in one location, and has a cast of 4 people making it feel more like one of Ingmar Bergman's later chamber dramas (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light) than a traditional horror film. The film certainly has elements of the horror genre running throughout, but most of the true scares in the films come through the performances from Price as Roderick Usher and Myrna Fahey as Madeline as they descend further into their genetic madness. The visual style for this one is less extravagant than what Corman would do for the later Poe features, but the simplicity here allows for the writing (once again by Matheson), and performances to really shine through.
We then get the film I’ve always considered one of the two Poe series anomalies (The other being Premature Burial, which stars Ray Miland rather than Vincent Price). The obvious reason for this status is it’s not a Poe film at all with the exception of its title which is taken from one of Poe’s poems which features at the films conclusion. The film itself takes its inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
The story opens with the burning of the notorious warlock Joseph Curwen, who curses the people of Arkham, MA., and swears to come back and have his revenge. The film then cuts to 100 years later Curwen’s descendant Charles Dexter Ward inherits his estate, and plans on moving in. He, of course, has a noticeable resemblance to the dead warlock, which is immediately picked up on by the townsfolk, and he is encouraged to leave the community. However, upon arrival he begins to become possessed by the spirit of Curwen, and starts to take over in the world of black magic where Curwen left off.
As an adaptation Corman and writer Charles Beaumont only take the bare essentially elements from the Lovecraft story. As an adaptation of the source material, it is not quite up to snuff (I won’t call it a failure, as it gets enough right, and has a nice atmosphere). However, as a haunted house/possession film the film works like a charm. The performances from Price and Debra Paget as his soon to be suffering wife are quite good. Also, it is always nice to see Lon Chaney Jr. (who plays the groundskeeper in the film) in any role, especially this late into his career. This film is not a high point of the Corman-Poe cycle, but it is an effective little chiller with a nice atmosphere. It also manages to do a decent enough job of bringing Lovecraft to the big screen for one of the very first times.
We are now at Disc 3, and are no longer in Roger Corman territory. The film included on this disc is the lush, over the top (in more ways that one) Abominable Doctor Phibes from 1971. It also has the distinction, depending on your opinion of the film (mine is quite favorable) of being the last true classic in Price's filmography in a starring role. The film would receive a sequel one year later, but the first is truly the better of the pair, and a truly unique entry into the horror genre in it's own right.
The film stars Price as the titular Dr. Phibes who has in the past lost his wife on the operating table during a failed surgery. Not being remotely what anyone would call sane, Phibes decides to seek revenge on the Doctors who failed her. Being quite creative in his madness (he plays organ in a band of automated robotic creatures in his spare time), he decides to kill them in a method akin to the ten plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament of the Bible (was the screen writer of Seven watching this?).
That is pretty much the plot of this, there is a detective story going on about the officers trying to get to the bottom of the murders, but this is the truly the Vincent Price show, and considering this was one of his last starring roles, it's truly a great way to go out. The film combines creative death scenes, with a wonderful visual style, it's a very colorful film with fantastic set design, and the Blu-ray really brings that out. Also, the writing is quite sharp, aside from the creative premise the film has an interesting and fun sense of humor running through it that helps it make stand out from both Price's filmography as a whole, and the other films in the set.
The final disc of the set is also at the most serious and possibly violent film in the set. The final directorial film from director Michael Reeves who would die at the age of 25 one year after this film was completed. Witchfinder General stars Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins the titular witchfinder of the story. He is active in a few counties in rural England, and is known to capture and execute accused witches. Matthew Hopkins gets word that Father Lowe, his daughter Sarah, and a few other women in their shared community may be practitioners of the dark arts, and plans on accusing and executing them. To save her Father from death, and also her own life she has sex with Hopkins. This does not end up fully doing the trick, and eventually Lowe is executed. Sarah's fiancee Richard, swears revenge on Hopkins, but word gets back to the witchfinder who then kidnaps Sarah and begins to torture her in a manner so violent as to extract a witchcraft confession from Richard.
This is the most deeply serious, historically accurate (mostly), and well-acted film in the set. Price, gives a more subtle, nuanced performance as Hopkins than he was known for in his prior roles. This was alleged due to the direction by Reeves, and brought the two of them into frequent conflict on the set of the film. The film is also quite violent, more violent than most of the films included in the set, and much more serious in tone than the more fun horror shows included elsewhere. It is also, in my opinion, the finest film in this collection, and a certifiable classic of British horror cinema.
All 6 films in the Scream Factory's Vincent Price Collection looked quite excellent to my eye for the most part. They all feature 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The aspect ratios are as follows, All 4 Corman-Poe pictures are framed at 2:35:1, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General are framed at 1:85:1. The Corman-Poe films looks very good for the most part with the colors being their high point and practically bursting from the screen. I did, however, notice some minor issues during a few exterior portion of the Haunted Palace that took me out of the film for a moment. The colors in Phibes are also very bright, lush and over the top, while in Witchfinder in accordance with the look of the film are more natural. Aside from that the flesh tones are accurate, black levels are deep, and detail is excellent throughout each film.
All 6 films in the Vincent Price Collection are presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Track. They are fine for the most part. The dialogue comes through nice and clear as do the music and effects. I did not detect any issues with pops, cracks, or hissing on the tracks.
Scream Factory have put together a nice set of extras for their Vincent Price Collection set. Every disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a still gallery, while 5 of the 6 films (every one but Phibes) includes an Intro and Outro created by Iowa Public Television. These PBS segments were possibly my favorite parts of the set aside from films themselves. I grew up on a steady diet of PBS, and horror host, and having Price essentially playing the horror host brought both those worlds together for me in a big way. I hope there is a second set, and they get the rest of these segments.
As far as each individual film Pit and the Pendulum includes a Roger Corman commentary track, and a rare theatrical prologue to the film. Masque of the Red Death includes a commentary track by film critic Steve Haberman, and a 19 minute on camera interview with director Roger Corman. Fall of the House of Usher features 2 commentary tracks. The first is with director Roger Corman, the second is with Vincent Price expertse Lucy Chase Williams and Pitor Michael. We also get a 40 minute audio interview with Price by film critic David Del Valle. The Haunted Palace also includes 2 commentary tracks this one includes Lucy Chase Williams and Richard Heft. The second includes author Tom Weaver. We also get an 11 minute interview with Corman on the film. The Abominable Dr. Phibes features 2 commentary tracks, the first commentary track is with director Robert Fuest, and the second is with author Justin Humphreys. There is also a very interesting interview with Duane Hueys, the executive producer who was in charge of the creation of the PBS bits that are on the other features in the set. Witchfinder General opens with an audio commentary feature the films producer Philip Wadrove, co-star Ian Ogilvy, and author Steve Haberman. There is also a 25 minute featurette entitled Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves Horror Classic. We also get a 62 minute career spanning interview with Vincent Price conducted by David Del Valle. The sets last big extra is Vincent and Victoria a 47 minute long interview with Price's daughter Victoria Price who discusses her relationship with her Father. We also get a bunch of Vincent Price trailers, and additional material from the Conqueror Worm variation of Witchfinder General.
Scream Factory's Vincent Price Collection is probably the best horror box set release of the year. The A/V restoration on these releases is fantastic, and the extras are elaborate, interesting, and entertaining. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.