Vincent Price’s horror persona often brought to life chillingly pathetic characters seeking hollow victories
Throughout the history of horror on screen, the relationship between characters and actors’ personas has been at the forefront of the genre’s development. From the Universal movies of the 1930s, to the final girls and slasher killers that reigned throughout the 80s and 90s, actors in horror have always played with the gap between the often quickly drawn contours of the characters they played, and their own identity, personality and idiosyncrasies. The way in which these personas are deployed and understood can challenge the ways in which the films themselves are understood, and one actor whose approach to performance — and to the idea of horror itself — continually subverts expectations is Vincent Price.
Price’s relationship to horror and the expectations that are wrapped up in the genre exist in a tension between horror “played straight,” and the ways in which Price’s persona challenges the limits of straightforward horror. While it might be easy to simply dismiss this as Price’s heightened performance style, turning horror into something “camp,” the dynamics at play are rather more complex. Of course, camp and the way that it reacts to horror is a factor in these things, but beyond that and worthy of note is the fact that Price’s horror leads often end up contorting themselves into shapes that simply aren’t, in a conventional sense, all that horrific.
This is partly due to the ways in which the canonical horror texts whose adaptations Price appears in have been modified for the screen. His collaborations with Roger Corman are the most pertinent here; Corman’s 1963 adaptation of The Raven is the most explicit in tearing a text away from its horror origins, turning Poe’s original poem of haunting and longing into a comedy about warring wizards. The beginning of the film plays Poe’s text straight, before pulling the rug out from under the audience. After Price’s Dr. Erasmus Craven asks the Raven if he’ll ever hold again the radiant angel whom the angels call Lenore, the Raven responds with: “how the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?” The original forlorn reprise of “nevermore” is replaced by something that challenges both the expectations of the audience, and the way in which they are to understand the kind of horror on display here.
Among the Price-Corman collaborations, 1960’s The Fall of the House of Usher engages in a similar kind of subversion, then takes it further still. Here, Price’s performance as Roderick also showcases the most surprising aspects of the actor’s horror filmography: more often than not, the characters Price plays are deeply pitiable. Roderick’s introduction, in spite of the imposing gothic architecture that surrounds him, brings forth a character that appears frail, a prisoner of the dark world that surrounds him rather than its master. Roderick describes himself as suffering from “a morbid acuteness of the senses,” something that makes taste overpowering, noise deafening, touch like being run through by daggers. Beyond obviously painting a picture of Roderick as a weak man — certainly weaker than the dark figures of his family history, immortalised in portraits along the walls of the house of Usher — this characterisation in some of the film’s most climactic moments also undermines the idea of Roderick as a figure of horror in spite of his violent acts, and reveals just how Price’s persona, and that heightened style of performance, thwart the idea of horror in a traditional sense.
Decades of horror have presented villains as being gifted not only with immense power, but also with the ability to shy away from weakness, even in films from the same period as the Price-Corman collaborations — from the maniacal surgeon at the heart of Eyes Without a Face (1960) to the hordes of zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968). The Fall of the House of Usher therefore takes a turn towards the unexpected when Roderick, confronted about what he’s done, only cowers in response. While Winthrop — the man betrothed to Roderick’s sister Madeline — puts more pressure on the villain, saying “I’ll tell you what’s evil in this house sir, you! I will not let your sickened fantasies destroy Madeline,” the accused man winces and, unable to meet Winthrop’s gaze, does all he can to avoid the sound of those claims. As the film reaches its climax and Roderick has buried his sister alive, the noise of her re-emergence echoes not only through the house, but through Roderick himself, as he keeps repeating, “do you not hear her?”, his voice full of cowardice and dread. His descent into horror, and the madness that plagues the house of Usher — including Madeline herself — is informed by this pitiable weakness that exists within him; he is a man who seems unable to fight back the tides of madness, and can only wait, either for madness or for the end, whichever comes first. When Winthrop confronts Roderick about what he’s done, there is no real turn towards villainy or elaborate monologuing used to justify the darkness at his heart. Instead, Roderick whimpers and tries to flee from conflict rather than embrace it, running away from our expectations of horror villainy.
In an early confrontation between Roderick and Madeline in Usher, Price is given dialogue of the kind often associated with abuse and violence when delivered by villainous figures, as in the moment when Roderick tells his sister, “can’t you see my love for you makes me act the way I do?” But rather than a prelude to controlling and aggressive behaviour, the remark instead has a desperate sadness to it, something that becomes amplified as madness seems to creep into Roderick’s mind. His brief successes in holding on to shreds of sanity and freedom only serve to highlight the madness corrupting him and his bloodline. The more evil his actions are — burying Madeline alive, and then being haunted by her attempts at escape — the weaker he becomes. Even if he wanted to, he could not use power to keep Madeline in check, because power simply isn’t something that he possesses, a reality that becomes all too clear as the house of Usher comes crashing down around him.
If ever there was a Price character who could be defined by his short-lived and hollow triumphs, it is Edward Lionheart, played by Price in 1973’s Theatre of Blood. Lionheart, an actor who feels he was passed over for a prestigious award, takes revenge on his critics by staging his own fake suicide, then enacting on his enemies the very Shakespeare-penned killings and tragedies the press mocked when he first acted them out on stage. Those critics openly acknowledge that they used this award to humiliate Lionheart, and in the sequence before the actor’s own staged suicide, it becomes clear just what Lionheart seems to want: approval. As heightened and funny as his language might be — he calls his being rebuffed the “culmination of your determined denial of my genius” — Lionheart’s performance of “to be or not to be” is at once legitimately arresting Shakespeare, and deeply pitiful.
But, as in Usher before it, it’s in its climactic moments that Theatre of Blood best captures just how hollow Lionheart’s endeavours have been, how unnecessary the violence becomes, and how pitiable Lionheart — like Roderick — truly is. The final coup in Lionheart’s elaborate vengeance scheme is to either have Devlin, the leader of the Critics Circle, present him with the award he feels was rightfully his, or to blind the man, like Gloucester in King Lear. Devlin refuses to go back on his decision, even as the knives move closer and closer to his eyes, but when the police finally storm the dilapidated theatre Lionheart has been using as his base of operations, his daughter and accomplice Edwina decides to simply hand him the award. The moment further underlines not only the truth behind Lionheart’s motivations — this desperate, twisted desire for recognition, a way to finally bridge the gap between the way he perceives himself and how his critics see him — but also the crushing emptiness of the final result. This ultimate ceremony is as hollow as the award he is given, and amidst the chaos of the theatre beginning to burn down, one of the homeless people taking up residence in the theatre —both co-stars and audience members to Lionheart’s impromptu Shakespearean performance and killings — is seen running across the room to pick up the statue. This isn’t a moment that Theatre of Blood chooses to linger on, but it is precisely the disposable nature of it that brings home how pathetic and pointless the whole endeavour has been. The prize is meaningless, the journey to claim it a needless tragedy. Lionheart was a man engaged in a fruitless attempt to rewrite history — his killings informed by a scrapbook gathering the bad reviews he’d been given — and while there is obvious, visceral horror to the acts that he commits, Lionheart himself is a sad individual, and the empty significance of the award offers a final moment of subversion in Theatre of Blood, a coup before the curtain falls.
Theatre of Blood challenges our expectations from Vincent Price, but in a different way from the subversive horror films that came before it: the real coup of the film is that, often, Lionheart’s Shakespearean performances are played straight, and done well. From his “to be or not to be,” delivered just before his fake suicide, to his rendition of “but I am bound upon a wheel of fire / That mine own tears do scald like molten lead,” Price is able to reveal not only the tragedy of the Bard, but of Lionheart too — a man driven to madness and violence by a fatal flaw. In the context of Theatre of Blood, that flaw is being pitiable, and being pitied — which in fact ties in to the surprisingly potent political undercurrent of the film. The people drawn in to aid Lionheart in his elaborate acts of vengeance are the homeless people of London, squatting in the theatre he has chosen as his base of operations. The spectre of homelessness hovers over the first killing, as a mob descends on a disparaging critic who also happens to be on the board that has decided to tear down the empty building where his assailants live. Later, when another critic, presented as a parody of the privately-educated, Conservative-style public figure, is drowned in wine like Clarence in Richard III, the class contrast between him and Lionheart’s assistants/supporting cast/audience is made even clearer.
It might be easy to look at these performances by Price as precursors to the ways in which much recent horror fare strives to encourage audience empathy with villains, but the reality of his work and persona is much more complex. There is indeed a sadness and an undercurrent of pity to Price’s characters, but rather than being used as justifications for the protagonists’ actions or as a way to brush them off, these emotions instead reveal both how meaningless their endeavours are and, in the same movement, the pointlessness of violence. While the Shakespeareian killings of Theatre of Blood are played brutally straight, the emptiness that comes in their wake reveals that, in searching for vengeance like this, Price’s characters are trying to hold on to a phantasmal prize; one that vanishes as soon as they try to touch it.
This is clearest in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), where Price’s character has already accepted his own demise from the start. In the film, which has a similar narrative thread of elaborate vengeance — this time inspired by the Biblical plagues of Egypt — Phibes’ vengeance too is hollow. As Price’s character goes after the surgeons who were unable to save his wife, he describes himself as “already dead.” There is real sadness in the image of Phibes lying next to his late wife at the end of the film, his blood drained out and the embalming fluid pumped into his veins, as he finally becomes the corpse that, both emotionally and spiritually, he had already been for so long.
As much as these films and performances challenge the ways in which we might expect horror to function, there remains something uniquely unsettling about them. That these characters would go to such lengths and take such drastic, violent actions, all in the pursuit of something that doesn’t matter, is disturbing. A man is driven to madness by his past and his morbid senses; an actor desperately tries to claim an award only for it to be stolen from him in a brief, unimportant moment; a doctor finds himself among the living dead. For all of its associations with hamminess and camp — both embraced and subverted in Theatre of Blood and Dr. Phibes — Price’s persona also challenged expectations in terms of what horror films and horror actors could do. His ability to move between the excessive and the measured, the violent and the mournful, showcased a performer who knew how to take what was expected — of him, and of the films he appeared in — and turn it on its head. Rather than dilute the horror on display, this subversion gave it a new, distinct flavour and, in highlighting the hollowness at its heart, made it seem all the more horrific. The quests for vengeance that Vincent Price’s characters embark on aren’t failures simply because some of his victims survive, but because they reveal an emptiness, something broken that can no longer be fixed.