Friday, February 1, 2013

The Immortal Vincent Price

Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times carried on the front page of its arts section two different stories that connect with the legacy of Vincent Price. One Times critic reviewed a local performance of The Fall of the House of Usher. This obscure 1987 chamber opera by Philip Glass has at its center a character most of us associate with Price from Roger Corman’s 1960 film. The second article described a contemporary art exhibit, the MexiCali Biennial, housed at East L.A. College’s Vincent Price Art Museum. The show’s Latin-American artists had chosen -- of all things -- cannibalism as a dominant motif, and Christopher Knight of the Times found that fact quite apt, “given the venue, which is named for an erudite actor who was both Yale-trained in art history and popular for ghoulish turns in horror movies.”

Later on Tuesday, during a game of Trivial Pursuit, I had to answer the question, “Who supplied the spooky voice at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller?” (Remember? “Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is now at hand . . .” ) Who else but Vincent Price?

The eerie coincidence made me realize the extent to which Price, who left us back in 1993, is still around. He’s even in my recipe box. Among his many other talents, Price was a gourmet chef, who published (along with his then-wife Mary) a cookbook that many still treasure. I don’t own the book, but I do have –- typed out on two faded index cards –- his complicated recipe for Caesar salad, complete with anchovies, coddled egg, and homemade croutons. Yum!

A version of Vincent Price also surfaces in a novel, first published in 1971, that was reissued in paperback in 2011. The Late Great Creature, a National Book Award finalist, is a bizarre and inventive tale of a world-famous actor filming a macabre screen version of Poe’s “The Raven.” Author Brock Brower makes clear that the central character is a wholly original creation, neither Karloff nor Lorre nor Lugosi. And his screen version of “The Raven” is hardly the goofy, spoofy one that Corman had filmed in 1963. But Brower did tell me, when I tracked him down in Santa Barbara, that much of his inspiration came from the time he spent, during a Hollywood layover, hanging around Corman’s film set. And his novel does contain a character named Quincy Adams who is meant as an affectionate portrait of Vincent Price.

Brower’s Quincy/Vincent is both brilliant and emphatically effeminate. Longstanding questions about Vincent Price’s sexuality are complicated by daughter Victoria’s writings about her famous dad. Her article, “Vincent/Victoria,” published in 1999 in The Advocate, hints that his preferences were, at the very least, complicated.

I take no sides in this debate, but would rather remember Price as a man of talent and class. When he died twenty years ago, I helped Roger Corman gather his thoughts into a press release that we titled “Vincent Price as I Remember Him.” In eulogizing the star of nine of his best-known features, Corman praised Price’s consummate professionalism. Roger pointed especially to The Raven, in which Price successfully adjusted to three different acting styles, that of the young Jack Nicholson (trained in the Method), Boris Karloff (classically schooled in the English manner), and Peter Lorre, who “did anything that came into his mind at any given moment.”

I also continue to cherish what Price told one interviewer: “I sometimes feel that I’m impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick but I love it.”

For Craig Edwards’ tribute to his favorite actor, see his “A Price Far Above Rubies.”

Heather Presley just shared with me a great family story about Vincent Price. It seems Price signed the wall of her mother's close friend. No, we're not talking about Facebook. The friend owned an art gallery in Marion, Illinois. Upon entering, Price pulled out a marker and dramatically signed his name near the store entrance. What panache! What chutzpah!


  1. A wonderful remembrance of an incredible man. His talent, charm, humor, grace, and kindness made him the epitome of what we want an actor to be. I enjoyed his daughter's article - and like you and she don't much care what the answer might have been. I'm pleased that Mr. Price worked as often as he did; I'm still finding new things to watch with him after all these years. Thank you for this terrific post, Ms. Gray; and thank you very much for the shout out and the link to one of my blog posts spotlighting Vincent Price.

  2. Many thanks for your kind words, Mr. Craig. I particularly liked Price's macabre elegance in The Masque of the Red Death.

  3. I enjoyed the book Price's daughter wrote about him. Lovely to have your post about Price, Beverly.

  4. Price is an absolute favorite of mine. THE RAVEN is my favorite Poe picture, too. In fact, it just went off; it was on the Epix Drive In channel again for the umpteenth time and I make an effort to watch it whenever it's on.

    I remember seeing it for the first time around 1979 or '80. NWA wrestling had just went off and it was time for the usual double dose of monster movies to take over the airwaves on ABC at midnight. That particular night it was THE RAVEN and THE SKULL; the latter of which featured Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough. I loved both films, but THE RAVEN stood out for its quasi-dark fairy tale qualities and humor. It was also the moment I became an instant Peter Lorre fan, having previously loved his persona immortalized in a few WB cartoons.

    I also remember coming home from school and would pop in the videocassette recording of THE RAVEN I had made that night on an almost daily basis. My mother thought something was wrong with me, but I loved that movie, and virtually everything else Price featured in.

    I also remember the Time Life Book series he sponsored -- the one about wizards, witches, warlocks and whatnot. I have the old TV Guide ad for them around somewhere. I wanted those so badly, but never got them. I also remember they were a brief subject of scrutiny for religious groups at the time, too, and Price's name was at the center of it all. Do you remember those, Beverly?

    THEATER OF BLOOD is possibly my favorite Price movie outside the Corman/Poe spectrum, and others like THE MAD MAGICIAN and LAST MAN ON EARTH are special pictures in their own right. He did so many wonderful movies, and his appearance on the MUPPET SHOW was a highlight, as well.

    Excellent post, and a good read as always, Beverly.

  5. Thanks for the memories, Brian. And for your kind words, Carl. Does anyone other than me know Brock Brower's novel?

  6. P.S. I almost forgot to mention Price's strong impact on the early films and artwork of Tim Burton.