Vincent Price happily created terror in the aisles RETROSPECTIVE

October 27, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,New York Times News Service READINGS Film Critic

Mellifluous of voice and regal of bearing, with an aristocrat's cheekbones, the unflappability of a butler and a sense of hamminess large enough to fill all the smokehouses in Virginia, Vincent Price, who died Monday at 82 of lung cancer, may not have been a great actor but he was a great movie personality.

Best of all, he was the total professional, and even in the shlockiest of vehicles -- try "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine" (1965) -- he exuded the savoir faire, the sangfroid, the self-possession of the effete cad that was his cinematic niche and was, by all reports, the exact opposite of his private personality.

He lacked a tragic dimension, a sense of seething anger, or that ability to reveal whole webs of complexity inside his brain at a single given moment with the raise of an eyebrow or the shape of a smile. He never fully escaped the forces that formed him -- the stage of the '30s, art history and English literature studied at Yale and the University of London -- and he had all the virtues that could make a man a star in those days: the voice that could raise dust off the rafters, the matinee idol's good looks and the trim yet soaring body of a champion dressage rider.

So it was not surprising that the youngest son of a candy magnate began what appeared to be a very conventional career a junior leading man in 1938, after five years of stage prominence, in a typically highbrow project like "Service de Luxe," and quickly moved on to "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (1939) and "The Tower of London" (1939), where he displayed his noble profile, wore costumes to perfection, and never bumped into the furniture.

Yet it's odd to look back on a career that began in the highest precincts of refined culture but seemed to "plunge" in midcourse to the most vulgar of genres -- the American horror movie -- and recall that he was at his best after the fall.

His first "serious" career was somewhat scanty of distinction. He was marginally amusing as a lummoxy Southern suitor of Gene Tierney in Otto Preminger's "Laura" in 1944, though not nearly so interesting as Dana Andrews' haunted homicide detective. Does anybody remember him in "Wilson" (1944)? What about "The Keys of the Kingdom" (1945)? Great commercial movies, but in memory untainted by acquaintances with Vincent Price.

In fact, had he not taken his considerable dignity into "House of Wax" in 1953, which in turn led to two brilliant decades scaring the pants off America and the world, he'd hardly be remembered after his death at all. A minor, callow pretty-boy actor who almost always played weak and foolish men, a figure of the marginalia, as perishable in the memory as Dan Duryea or Peter Lawford.

But . . . Dr. Phibes? With that grotesque death's face, that frozen visage of dry horror, and that stiff carriage as he enacted a terrible vengeance on those who had maimed him and murdered his wife. What about the terrifying zealot of "Witchfinder General" (1968), that Eichmann of 17th-century England who prowled the Cotswolds looking for apostasy and its possessors, to burn them at the stake in a ritual of pious rectitude. (Scary movie, maybe his best; also called "The Conqueror Worm" in its American release.)

TC And Poe, thank God for Poe and Price. In the 1960s, the American schlockmeister Roger Corman churned out a series of well-produced "classic" films derived from the great American poet and short story writer's macabre oeuvre, mostly on the abandoned sets of bigger movies, and found in the fading Price a perfect vehicle. By that time, Price's beauty had collapsed almost into a parody of itself, and he had the ravaged look of a debauched intellectual. With considerable energy, he threw himself and his ample theatricality into the projects, and became a legend: "The House of Usher" (1960), "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "The Raven" (1963), "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964).

In fact, Price was at the center of a renaissance in horror movies in that decade, when horror reached its pinnacle of expressive fear in some elegant and resonant productions,both American and English. The movies were almost always visually ravishing as well as witty. In "Theatre of Blood" (1973), for example, he played with marvelously controlled irony a "bad actor" who avenges a career of nasty notices on the London drama critics.

It all changed when horror movies sold their soul in an orgy of brainless stalker films. Price had the integrity to steer far away from them. He became a commercial spokesman, an art connoisseur, a lecturer, a writer, and dipping in for an ironic, almost camp cameo now and then, most memorably bringing some of the old chilly zip to Michael Jackson's 1982 album "Thriller."

He once said, "I sometimes feel that I'm impersonating the dark unconscious of the whole human race. I know this sounds sick, but I love it."

, And he made us love it, too.

VINCENT PRICE

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