1964; directed by Roger Corman; adapted by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell; 85 mins
I wanted to use this blog entry as an excuse to talk about Vincent Price, really. Often described (whether in praise or derision) as a ham, Price is an actor who I keep going back to as someone who, no matter the quality of the movie, I will watch because he is so magnetic.
The first time I saw him was in the overrated Theatre of Blood – a frankly shallow and unevenly camp horror flick but with a towering performance from Price (more of which later) with which the movie cannot keep up. Not long after, however, I did see Witchfinder General, which is one of the great horror movies and Price dominates proceedings even when he is offscreen. His presence is felt pumping through the very veins of the film. Why, though? Why is it that every film I’ve seen him in, he is the gravitational centre towards which all other things are drawn? I think it is the movie star factor. Much as there is the constant question of whether he enjoyed his status as the great ham or whether he forever wanted to be taken more seriously as an actOR, like it or not he was a great movie star!
Would it be fair to say that there is a certain blemish that comes with being a star as opposed to an actor? I think this may just be a European thing, though. Maybe more of a British thing, possibly, because even the French love their stars whereas we love our stars to be actors first and foremost and we make a big play of it when comparing them to American actors in particular, because we are wankers. However, being a star is a perfectly legitimate. I think one of my favourite films, the labyrinthine epic, JFK, would fall apart were it not for Kevin Costner who is most definitely a star before an actor. Lest we forget, one of the most iconic movie stars of all time was British – Charlie Chaplin: movie star first, comedian second and actor after that. Humphrey Bogart – star! Marilyn Monroe – she was a fucking star! And Vincent Price – a star!
What is it about being a star that helps? Even attaching the word ‘celebrity’ seems to tarnish the notion of being a movie star. Although, to be honest, when you can call Jon Heder a movie star then the term has been fairly dragged through the mud as is. What actors like Vincent Price had was that unforced mixture of presence, performance and personality. He didn’t try to be Vincent Price, he was playing a role but his stature, his style and his stunning voice were what made him so distinctive. You hear his voice before he even enters a scene and you think ‘Oh great! He’s in this! I’ll stick around”. It’s like rose thorns hidden in a bar of chocolate (particularly his scenes with Carol Ohmart in House on Haunted Hill). Maybe the distinctiveness betrays a certain one-note trait in the actor but as mentioned before, it is unforced. We, the audience, respond to them rather than them saying “Look! It’s me”! Something which the Robert Downey Jrs of this world could do with reminding of.
To fully realise how being a star can hold a movie and a cast together, look at the Price’s work in the Roger Corman movies. Corman was King of the B’s; made movies dirt cheap and on the fly (famously making 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors in two days and one night), he was a one man production dynamo. This, of course, meant that quality varied to quite a vast degree but it was his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Vincent Price that really shone. In House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Price is the baddy playing second fiddle to the hero played respectively and fairly anonymously by Mark Damon and John Kerr. In The Masque of the Red Death, we have Price as the fiendish Prince Prospero who shuts his castle off to the outside world as the Red Death plague decimates the peasantry but for Prospero’s select three – Gino (David Weston), Ludovico (Nigel Green) and Francesca (Jane Asher) who are to be the entertainment of his bourgeois satanist coven to both sexual and bloodthirsty ends. Only Francesca will know to what degree Prospero’s devilry will go and even the Prince himself cannot know what awaits him at the climatic masque ball. By this stage, Price is ostensibly the protagonist. This is because we and Corman just wanna see Price be an evil bastard and also because love interest/good guy, Gino, is played staggeringly uncharismatically by Weston and basically gets shoved off to the side. It should be mentioned that, even though (with the honourable exception of Barbara Steele in Pit) they still cannot stack up against Price, the actresses in these films are always more interesting and more game than the actors.
This brings us to the issue of star vs. actor. The young men are all clearly wanting to be stars and are clearly stoked when they get to grapple with the bad guy or have a swordfight but they are too bland to really do anything. In Masque, you have Nigel Green as the heroine Francesca’s father, Ludovico. Here in Masque, he is sandwiched neatly between his two most famous movie roles alongside Michael Caine in 63’s Zulu an 65’s The Ipcress File. Three parts all of a piece – the stern, quiet, authority figure, both paternal and authoritarian. In all of these films he is an actor, we watch him adding to the scene rather than dominating it. He is a working actor who is part of a cast and is there to add his input to the scene. Price, without intent it seems to me, dominates proceedings. He feels it is the part of Prospero that must dominate any given scene but I think he is unconscious of his own aura as a star and so the scene ultimately wraps itself around him because very few other actors can catch him up. This is what makes him a great movie star and proves the maxim; “You either got it or you ain’t!” Vincent Price never tried to be Vincent Price, he just was and that was what audiences found that they wanted. For me, I keep going back because I see a really great, charismatic actor who I enjoy watching and that is an integral part in our love affair with the movies. Let the snobs be as dismissive as they want, Price was a great movie star and there’s no shame in that.