Price on Poe: Thoughts about the Horror that Made him Famous
Long before Vincent Price was asked by director Roger Corman to star in a screen version of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960), he had been a fervent admirer of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Price relates “I’ve been enchanted by Poe ever since I was forced to read him as a kid.” Later, as an English major at Yale, Price had further time to become immersed in the world of Poe, and he bristles at the lack of acclaim Poe received in his lifetime. “The American people relegated him to a second place in the history of American literature,” says Price. “In the rest of the world, Poe is considered to be our major contribution to literature. He invented the detective story, he influenced all of the great French poets: Baudelaire, Valery, Verlaine, as well as all of the great English poets. And almost every major artist of the 19th century illustrated Poe: Gustave Dore, Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon. His influence on the world of art was enormous.”
Poe was also an inspiration for many early filmmakers, such as silent great D.W. Griffith who adapted Poe’s stories to the screen as early as 1909. It wasn’t until I960, however, that Vincent Price was approached by Roger Corman to play the role of Roderick Usher. “I was thrilled with Roger’s ideas,” says Price, “but when I first read the script, I felt it was somewhat overwritten. The speeches were too long, so they concentrated them, and cut them down so it came off better. I also felt they should keep it as close to Poe as possible. The trouble was, Poe wrote short stories, and we had to make long movies. So they had to be expanded and padded. How the characters got into Poe’s settings was part of the problem the screenwriter’s had, but Roger tried very hard to keep them close to Poe.”
Corman concurred, saying “we had only a five or ten page story, so we would simply utilize that as the third act of a structure which we created to lead up to Poe’s story. Then, since we had to expand so much on the original, whenever possible we would try to follow Poe, especially in the art direction. Therefore, in THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, the concept of the different-colored chambers was a conscious decision to remain as close to the description in Poe’s story, as I could get.”
Price says working with Corman was a very stimulating experience. “Roger was very interested in all sorts of Freudian implications of things,” he revealed. “So we discussed these things a lot.”
Corman’s theory was that Poe was working largely from unconscious mind, so he felt the best was to express the unconscious mind of Poe, would be by making everything stylized and unreal. To do this, Corman decided to film entirely in the studio, with no use of natural locations, except for brief scenes of travel. Then, before the start of shooting, Corman would hold a two-day rehearsal.
Price says “we all welcomed the rehearsal, because we were able to walk around the sets and familiarize ourselves with the ambiance of the story. We were supposed to do one day of that, and then we’d start to be paid, but we would all get so carried away, knowing we only had such a short shooting schedule.”
Price laughingly recalls another aspect of making HOUSE OF USHER, namely it’s very low budget of under $270,000. “God, it was done on a shoestring,” he says. “That is where Roger was terribly clever. He planned the picture very carefully, and he had a genius for getting the very best people. The art director, Danny Haller was capable of taking nothing and making it into a very exciting thing. In THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM I think he was the first person ever to use a complete stage. He went right up to the ceiling and removed the catwalks, which gave an enormous sense of depth and height to the pendulum room. The cameraman was Floyd Crosby, who was one of the best in the business [Crosby won an Oscar in 1931 for F.W. Murnau’s TABU]; they all loved the challenge of doing these pictures.”
Indeed, Floyd Crosby’s color cinematography was quite spectacular, often tracking down long corridors or panning around rooms in unusually long and intricate takes. As Price recalls, “Roger loved working on setting up the shots. He would work all day on lighting a scene, to create the right mood.”
On THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM Price said he had to sneak through a maze of tunnels, as he is lured into the dungeon by the voice of his (supposedly) dead wife (Barbara Steele). “I said to Roger, ‘This is great, but lets rig up some cobwebs. If there’s one thing men are really afraid of, it’s cobwebs. So I walked right into a cobweb and had to claw it away from my face. It worked beautifully. ”
After doing three Poe films, Corman felt he was in danger of repeating himself and decided to vary his approach with TALES OF TERROR in 1962. “I liked the idea of doing a trilogy of Poe’s stories,” said Corman. “This way we could deal more effectively with a short Poe story that wouldn’t go to a full 90 minutes.”
For two of the episodes, Corman saw that co-staring parts were developing, to go alongside the leading parts that would be played by Vincent Price. Price says, “Peter Lorre fit in perfectly with the wine tasting segment and Basil Rathbone was perfect for the Monsieur Valdemar story.”
Price’s episode with Peter Lorre was based on both “The Black Cat” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” and was done as a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy. It highlights a wine tasting bout between an elegant Price and a slovenly Lorre.
Price remembered it fondly, saying, “Peter and I played two drunks, but before we did it they brought in this very famous wine taster, to show us how it’s done. We enjoyed that enormously. We got very drunk in the afternoons! I did it exactly the way he showed us, but just a little bit more, while Peter was doing it exactly the way they didn’t do it.” In contrast to Price’s dainty sips of wine, Lorre would grab a full glass and quickly gulp it down. “That really made it a funny scene,” exclaimed Price. “It’s something that remained in people’s minds, because Roger allowed us to comedy it up.”
In fact, the episode worked so well, Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson decided to turn their next Poe film, THE RAVEN, into a complete farce. Price gleefully remembers the excitement he felt when he first heard he would be acting in the film with his old friends Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
“We all called each other up,” declared Price, “and Boris said to me, ‘have you read (the poem) lately?’ I said, ‘yes’, and he said ‘what’s the plot?’ Well, of course there is no plot, and the script had nothing at all to do with The Raven, but we all thought it was great fun, particularly the magic thing that went on between us. So what we did was to try and figure out among ourselves how we could send it up.”
The main thing the trio of horror stars did to “comedy it up ” was to improvise comedy bits on the set, especially Peter Lorre. “Peter had a genius for not saying many of the lines in the script,” noted Price, “but he knew them all. He just loved to invent.”
One of Lorre’s trademark ad-libs came at the end of Price’s tormented question, “Shall I ever see the rare and radiant Lenore (Hazel Court) again?” “How the hell should I know?” replies Lorre. “What am I? A fortune teller.”
“Another time, we were sitting around talking,” says Price, “and I said to Peter, ‘It always kills me that in these pictures I keep my family conveniently buried downstairs.’ As a result, when Price says, “My father is interred below,” Lorre replies, “Where else?”
Undoubtedly, the highlight of THE RAVEN is the magic duel between Price and Karloff at the film’s climax. It’s a eight-minute tour-de-force, without a single word of dialogue. Price recalls that making some of the scenes scared even him.
“When Boris throws a scarf at me,” he recalled, “it’s was supposed to turn into a snake and wraps itself around my neck. Well, I hate snakes. It was a boa constrictor, and it started to strangle me, because it felt the fur on my costume!” Luckily for Price, after some careful prying, the snake was duly removed.
In another harrowing scene, Karloff and Price both levitate from the ground in their chairs. “We both hated being strung up in the air on those chairs,” says Price. “Boris was very crippled, and we were both on these wires, floating in the air. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling!”
Although the picture had it’s tough moments, Price still remembered it with special fondness, due to the presence of Karloff and Lorre. “They were divine people, with great a sense of humor,” says Price. “We used to sit around very seriously and say, ‘How can we scare the little bastards?’ Then one time a reporter from one of the big magazines, Look or Life came on the set, to try and make fun of us. He was really sort of grand, but when he saw that we were really enjoying making the picture, he ended up writing the most wonderful article about the joy we had in doing something that was really pure entertainment.”
For his final two Poe films, Corman returned to more serious themes, and went to England in November, 1963 to make a stunning version of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964). Price played Prince Prospero, a 12th century Italian nobleman, who holds court in a baroque castle, while the plague rages outside in the village of Catania. As Prospero, Price delivers a truly frightening portrait of screen villainy, who calmly delights in torturing innocent men, and corrupting the souls of attractive young women, all in the name of his master, ‘The Lord of Flies’.
Stylistically it was the feverish apex of the Poe series, featuring the lavish wide-screen photography of Nicolas Roeg, and as Corman noted, with more time and his biggest budget to date, “We got the best look out of any of the Poe films.”
Price recalled shooting a scene where he delivers a speech to the crowd of masked revelers, just before the masked ball begins. “I was up on this dais,” says Price, “and I came down the stairs wearing these long flowing capes, and I tripped! I fell down and knocked myself out cold.” Like THE HAUNTE PALACE the year before, Price also plays a dual role in the picture, as both Prince Prospero and the mysterious red-cloaked figure in the climatic scenes, when Prospero rips the mask off the face of the Red Death, only to find he is staring face to face at his own image.
Price almost didn’t appear in what turned out to be his final film with Corman, TOMB OF LIGEIA. To vary the series, Corman and writer Robert Towne wanted to make the film more romantic, and initially planned to cast Richard Chamberlain in the role of Verden Fell. “We were going to get a young English actor,” reveals Corman, “who would be no older than 30. Our original concept was to make it a full romantic love story, using a much younger man, like Vincent had played in his youth. However, AIP wanted to go again with Vincent, and while he was very good in the picture, he was really wrong for the part.”
Ironically, Price thought TOMB OF LIGEIA was the best of his Poe films, saying, “It captures the flavor of Poe, more closely than any of the others.” He was also gratified by being able to work on location in an authentic 12th century monastery Corman discovered in East Anglia. “I had always wanted to do a picture in a ruin,” says Price, “but have the ruin completely dressed, as a real house, and have the ruin around the house, as if it were a place where people still lived. So Roger found this ruin, which was a fascinating place, but they wouldn’t let him do anything to it, because it was a national monument. We were allowed to shoot there, but we couldn’t put any furniture in it.”
For the fourth time in a Poe film, Price once again ended up in a massive blaze, which also proved to be a terrifying experience for him. “They coated the walls with liquid cement,” says Price, and then spent hours arranging Elizabeth Shepard and myself under the burnt timbers and stuff. Then some joker came in and lit a match and the whole stage went up in flames. We weren’t ready for it, so I grabbed poor Elizabeth and dragged her out of there. We were both scarred to death, because we were pinned under all the debris.”
In contrast to the true evil of Prince Prospero, Price points out that the character he played in TOMB OF LIGEIA (and most of the other Poe films) are not really villains. “Verden Fell would probably have led a very normal life,” explains Price, “except for the fact that he married a woman who would not leave life, even after her death. However, the characters in Ligeia were a little strange. I mean, who is a man who sleeps with his dead wife? It’s a little peculiar, but it was a very exciting film.”
After TOMB OF LIGEIA , Corman had plans to make Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” which would have returned the series to comedy. “I had a script by Chuck Griffith that was a complete farce,” explains Corman. “It was set in the South, after the civil war. Vincent Price was going to play a plantation owner who had convinced his one remaining slave, to be played by Sammy Davis, Jr. that the South had won the Civil War. Basil Rathbone was going to be a visiting English carpetbagger who comes upon this deserted plantation, and it was really very funny, but it was becoming outrageously distanced from Poe, so we eventually decided not to make it.”
Price said he really wanted to make THE GOLD-BUG, but as Poe wrote it, noting that AIP “wanted to turn it into a horror film and you can’t do that without completely perverting the story, because it’s a story of detection.”
Looking back on his Poe films, Price reflected by observing: “None of the pictures at the time received very good critical notice. Yet in the years since those pictures were made an extraordinary thing happened. World wide they have received enormous praise. The French and English take them very seriously. They consider them to be very artistic. They never stop playing. I was just in Brazil, and they had a festival of all the Poe movies!” Then turning a bit wistful Price said, “I enjoyed working with Roger enormously. One of the things I’ve always regretted is that he stopped directing.”