“It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.”
-Vincent Price (1911-1993)
This past Halloween I had one of the biggest shocks of my life. No, it wasn’t from taking the Cursed Movies Challenge, or from a well-concealed monster popping out a Haunted House, or anything cool like that. It wasn’t even when a group of fruit bats dive bombed me at dusk while I was taking the puppy for a walk, although that definitely came as a surprise. Like all good surprises, my shock occurred in the most benign of circumstances: While I was taking my preteen niece to the pumpkin patch. Michael Jackson’s Thriller came on Jack FM, prompting my wife to instantly begin frenetically imitating the moves and raucously singing along. My niece devolved into peals of laughter, right up until she heard Vincent Price delivering his ghoulish monologue at the end of the song, at which point she fell into a trance of intense and eerie concentration.
“Darkness falls across the land…The midnight hour is close at hand!”
I watched her face and saw that special kind of excitement that occurs when something you’ve taken for granted your whole life, something you’ve maybe never even noticed before, starts to take on new meaning. Her eyes said it all. She was really listening for the first time, thinking about the words. The song came to its conclusion and that’s when she said something that blew my mind, something I’ll never forget if I live to be a hundred years old.
“Wow. That was cool. Who was that speaking at the end? His voice is so creepy!”
“That’s Vincent Price,” I explained, just after picking my jaw up off the ground.
“Oh,” she said, the blank look on her face making it clear she hadn’t a clue who that was. I prodded anyway.
“Do you know who that is?”
“No,” she admitted. My mind reeled in disbelief. THE HORROR!
Vincent Price is so engraved into my experience of horror as a child that the thought of someone growing up with no clue who he was seems unfathomable. Then it struck me: If you’re under 40 and don’t know much about horror, there is a chance you might not be familiar with Vincent Price or why he is important. So, just in case you happen to find yourself in this woeful category, I thought I’d give you all a quick refresher on one of the greatest legends in all of horror, a man who, like many of his contemporaries, played blood curling characters onscreen but was known as kind and gentle.
When most people talk about the classic horror films from the golden age of horror cinema they immediately reference the titans – Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Christopher Lee. True horror aficionados will insist a single name is missing from that hallowed list of names -Vincent Price. So who was he?
Appearing in well over 90 movies, Vincent Price had nothing short of an extraordinary life. He was born into a wealthy, cultured family in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of the four children, and received a private school education before attending Yale where he graduated with a degree in art history in 1933. While there, Vincent famously worked on a campus humor magazine called The Yale Record. After graduation Price taught for a year before attending the University of London where he intended on getting a master’s degree in fine arts. Fate had a different plan for the talented actor, however. Price was lured in by the dramatic arts and fell in love with the theater. His first appearance on stage professionally came in 1934. It went well, and he never looked back.
In 1935, Price played Prince Albert in his first major stage role for a London production of Victoria Regina – that show eventually moved to Broadway. It was a huge success, catapulting Price into the spotlight. It wasn’t long before he made his way into movies, starting out as a dramatic actor and chalking up a resume full of rich parts that would be the envy of most working actors today. Although he’s best remembered for his work in horror – hell, some even call him the Master of Mayhem – Price didn’t take a horror role until House of Wax in 1953, the first 3D movie of the time. At this point known as a character actor, Price played an evil artist who makes disturbing wax sculptures out of unwitting living people. Price received rave reviews, but his journey into the dark dream was only beginning.
His next hit came with the release of The Fly in 1958, the now well-known sci-fi horror film about a scientist who takes his curiosity too far and accidentally turns himself into an insect. Just as with House of Wax the movie was a hit, cementing his reputation as one of the leading horror figures in the world at the time. Over the next decade Price appeared in several low-budget Roger Corman horror films and a bunch of adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. His distinctive voice and comic timing added to Price’s allure as a great villain, bringing depth and tension to the roles he played and elevating some of them to iconic status. Before long, his deep, rich timbre and timed delivery became synonymous with horror. Price created a template future generations of bad guys would follow for years to come.
His success on the silver screen led to countless television appearances, from starring roles and juicy cameos, like The Brady Bunch and Batman, to children’s television programs and pop culture hits like Sesame Street and The Hollywood Squares. It even led to his inclusion in Thriller.
Yes we’re back to the Michael Jackson song. Here’s how it all went down:
Songwriter Rod Temperton wrote Thriller, including the rhyme, which he came up with on a cab ride over to the studio, with the intention of incorporating “a talking section at the end” by “a famous voice in the horror genre.” Peggy Lipton, the wife of Michael Jackson’s producer Quincy Jones, knew Vincent Price and suggested him for the role. Price accepted, nailing it in two simple takes. His inclusion was so popular that he was referenced in the now legendary music video. The poster from his first horror film, House of Wax, is on the wall of the theater as Jackson and his date leave and the camera pulls back to reveal they’ve been watching “Vincent Price – THRILLER,” a fictional film tribute to the horror legend.
Price later admitted to talk show host Johnny Carson that he was given a choice between a percentage of total sales of the iconic song or a flat $20,000 payout. By this point Price was doing well and opted for the cash. The album went on to sell over 110 million copies, a fact that wasn’t lost on Price – who acknowledged he could have made far more but remained lighthearted about it when asked.
But Vincent Price was far from a one trick pony. The accomplished actor also enjoyed considerable success outside the world of Hollywood. He was an art consultant to Sears, as well as a popular lecturer on the subject. A true aficionado, Price wrote books about his love of art and donated part of his personal collection to help establish the Vincent Price Gallery in Los Angeles. Price was obsessed with the culinary arts as well. In fact, he co-wrote several cookbooks and even had a short lived cooking show called Cooking Pricewise.
His final big film moment came in 1990 in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Price plays a kinder, gentler version of Dr. Frankenstein, showing enormous patience and love to the deformed boy he created with sharp metal blades for hands, played the young Johnny Depp. In the film Price’s character passes away before he can complete his work and transform the boy magically from a monster to a real boy, accepted and respected by his peers for his artistic abilities. It was a role Price must certainly have felt an affinity for, having made that very leap himself – at least in terms of his career.
Around the same time he was filming the movie Vincent learned that he had lung cancer. The disease took his life on October 25, 1993. Price passed away at his home in Los Angeles. The outpouring of love he received from the world after his passing proved definitively that Price had transcended simply playing believable villains and had become larger than life.
So now you have a basic understanding of who Vincent Price was and why he was important to horror. As always, feel free to let me know what you think and to share your own favorite experiences with Price’s immortal work.
P.S. – The original Vincent Price monologue for Thriller was much longer than what they eventually cut down and used. Rumor has it they’re on the special anniversary release. Here are the lyrics from the popular version.
Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y’all’s neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse’s shell
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller!