24 Lies a Second: What Fame Price?

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What Fame Price?

Well, believe it or believe it not, but here we are in the 650th edition of 24LAS, and I still don't really have any new movie insights to share with you. One fears that the reopening of cinemas could well be a long way down the list of priorities if and when things begin to recover: it's a dead cert at this point that last year's record of 103 trips to the cinema will not be broken in 2020, but could the movie industry as we have known it turn out to be another casualty of the pandemic? Potentially worrying times are surely to come.

Let us try to take our mind off it with another Vin-related double bill – but something a bit more soothing and pleasant this time, as there are many Vins other than Diesel. Let's try a Vin with a bit more class, refinement and erudition than Vin Diesel – yes, it's hard to believe, but one does exist, in the shape of Vincent Price. Ah, even typing the name makes me feel so much better.

As you might imagine, I have seen a lot of Vincent Price movies over the years, but the lockdown has given me the chance to scour the internet and catch up with one that has previously eluded me: Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace, released in 1963. This is ostensibly one of the Poe adaptations Corman and Price made in the early 1960s, but was skipped when the BBC ran the whole lot as a season thirty years ago, which is the main reason why I hadn't seen it until quite recently.

The movie opens in the New England village of Arkham in the 18th century, but we could just as easily be in a Hammer movie set in eastern Europe a hundred years later from the look and feel of the thing. Young women are being spirited away to the expansive mansion of a wealthy local grandee with a very bad reputation (Price, naturally) and so a mob of angry locals with blazing torches is hastily convened. They don't actually have a stake, so improvise by tying Price to a tree and inaugurating the east coast holding of the Burning Man Festival.

Price quotes some Poe on the soundtrack and then we are back in Arkham a century later, where the great-great-grandson of the incinerated malefactor (Price again) turns up, having just inherited his ancestor's big spooky old house. The locals are not pleased about this, as the village has acquired a baleful reputation in the interim, plus the birth rate of inhuman hybrid mutants has shot up too. Price ignores them, and soon gets himself possessed by the vengeful spirit of his dead forebear…

This was one of the last of the Poe-Price-Corman movies, which by this time had become genuinely impressive in terms of scripts, production values and performances. This has all the strengths of the series: a memorably brooding atmosphere, surprisingly good sets and costumes, and a terrific lead performance from Price (effectively a dual role here) – there's also an unexpectedly effective supporting turn from Lon Chaney Jr as his equally evil housekeeper.

The thing that really makes the movie distinctive, however, is the fact that it's only really a Poe adaptation in name only – Poe gets top billing in the credits, but film also acknowledges it is based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, a hugely influential (and controversial) writer of weird fiction and horror who was still very much a cult figure at the time it was made. There has been the odd adaptation of his work down the years (some of them very odd indeed) but on the whole Lovecraft has influenced more than he's been adapted (even the recent Underwater left the presence of Lovecraft's alien-monster-god Cthulhu in it as essentially an in-joke). So there is something very startling about a film from the early sixties containing dialogue about Cthulhu and the writer's other creations, and the effect is only heightened by a film which gets the writer's obsession with heredity and the influence of the past quite so right. The result is a film with a rather different flavour to the other films in this cycle, but it's still an effective and classy horror film for its period.

However, if I had to name my absolute favourite Vincent Price film, it would not be one of the Poe movies (although The Masque of the Red Death would certainly be thereabouts). That honour would go to the 1972 movie Theatre of Blood, which is one of those very peculiar films where some sort of inexplicable creative catalysis seems to have occurred: the direction is great, the script is brilliant and the music is wonderful, and yet the director (Douglas Hickox), writer and composer have either undistinguished or marginal careers in all other respects.

A series of bizarre deaths amongst London's preeminent circle of theatre critics leads the police to conclude a homicidal maniac is on the loose – the killer's quirk seems to be that he is restaging various famous Shakespearean death scenes, with critics as the victims. Could it be that the outrageous ham actor Edward Lionheart (Price), believed dead for years, is in fact alive and taking vengeance for all the bad notices he received? Or could his devoted daughter Edwina (Diana Rigg) be responsible for the spree of killings?

Well, look: this is a film where Michael Hordern is hacked to death by a gang of tramps, Arthur Lowe has his head sawn off in his sleep, Harry Andrews has his heart carved out on stage, and Robert Morley is force-fed poodle pie until he asphyxiates – and all the while Vincent Price is either turning up in outrageous disguises (a policeman, a masseur, a very camp hairdresser with an enormous ginger Afro, and so on) or declaiming his way through various Shakespearean soliloquys. How can it not be a delicious pleasure from start to finish?

The film obviously owes a debt to the two Dr Phibes films Price had made a year or so earlier, but drops their slightly laboured whimsy in favour of (literally) a killer premise with a wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality to it. But it also has a strangely moving sense of melancholy about it: you feel that Lionheart really is passionate about his art, and (despite everything) is somehow more sinned against than sinning: the critics are without exception arrogant, snide, and thoroughly objectionable.

A wonderful cast, obviously (most of the actors playing Price's victims only have a few scenes each), but Price dominates the movie; perhaps the whole thing is a wry comment on the fact that some of the finest actors of their generation only ended up securing lasting fame appearing in horror movies, when they could have been quite at home playing the classics. In the end the only significant criticism one can make of Theatre of Blood is that, as was standard at the time, the ending is somewhat artlessly contrived so that Price isn't allowed to get away with his final revenge. Nevertheless, a fabulous treat, and – understandably – a favourite film for both Vincent Price and Diana Rigg, too.

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