Of all the people to make my Icons of Horror list this year (I’ll probably do more next year; I don’t know, man, quit pressuring me), Vincent Price was the one who got the least fair shake from me. Because he made so many super-B movies in the 1950s, when—let’s face it—horror movies weren’t the best, I’d sort of written him off. But, oh how mistaken I was, friends. Price is very likely one of the best actors of his generation, and, like the others on this list, always brought gravitas and a strange believability to all of his roles. He’s a statesman of horror, aware of his lot but also very proud to be an icon for so many. Plus, he’s also the only American in this series, so that should tell you something about how I currently regard him. He’s the tip-tops.
Below are my seven favorite horror movies starring Vincent Price. This was a pretty hard list to narrow down, because he’s always great—no matter the quality of the film itself—but I’m pretty happy with it. As always, your mileage may vary.
7) House on Haunted Hill (1959)
You can’t very well have a list of great Vincent Price movies without including at least one from the William Castle camp. Castle was a showman producer who was all about gimmicks to get butts in seats. Price was the marquis name for a lot of these silly movies (another favorite is The Tingler where the seats in the theater were rigged with joy buzzers for a scene when the titular giant insect gets loose,) and perhaps the most fun of these is House on Haunted Hill. Price plays an eccentric millionaire who—alongside his fourth wife—invites five strangers to their big weird house for a “Haunted House Party,” where they have to contend with ghosts, murderers, and other horrible things. He offers each of them $10,000 if they can last the night. Price is terrific when he’s playing a sinister figure who’s also conflicted and tortured. This isn’t the best movie, but it’s a lot of fun and has some excellent scares.
6) House of Wax (1953)
I love how O.G. Price was in the horror genre. His career began all the way back in the late-30s when he appeared in a number of different types of films—from Noir to historical drama to comedy. He’d appeared in a few horror movies in bit parts, but in 1953, he got the starring role in a lavish, colorful Warner Bros. shocker that’s actually still super creepy. It was a remake of WB’s earlier Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933, without all the comedic elements. Price plays a talented sculptor of historical wax figures whose business partner wants to bring in more money so sets the museum on fire. Years later, Price’s character has disfigured hands and can’t sculpt, so he uses a large deaf-mute man (Charles Bronson) to do be his hands for him. This movie has one of the best shock reveals ever put on film, and the inherent tragedy of Price’s character permeates the whole thing.
5) The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
This is actually somewhat similar to House of Wax, but played mainly for supremely dark humor. Price plays this movie almost silently, but his performance is all about his eyes and scowl. He plays the titular Dr. Phibes, a theologian and musician who was supposedly killed in a car crash in the early-1920s, following the death of his beloved wife on the operating table. But he didn’t die and is now out to get everybody he perceives as culpable for his wife’s death. This is a movie where you know from the beginning that Phibes is the baddie and he’s definitely gonna kill hisself some people, but it’s the joy of watching him do it—and finding out why—that makes for such enjoyable viewing. Latter day Price is just as good as any other Price.
4) The Last Man on Earth (1964)
If you read Richard Matheson’s seminal vampire/end-of-the-world novella I Am Legend, you probably have an image of who would play the only human man left in a planet full of the undead, and it probably wasn’t Vincent Price. The film was intended to be produced in America, but after some foibles became the prospect of an Italian company which made it as a low-budget, black and white affair—but still with Price in the lead role. Matheson sort of disowned the project, however it still remains the most faithful adaptation of his novel to date. Price is the only survivor of a mysterious plague that has turned everyone in the entire world into shuffling, shambolic vampires. He spends his days traveling around Los Angeles and staking them as they sleep, (he has a very strict timetable of how far he can go before a certain time), so he can get back to his fortified house before sundown when his neighbors get up and again try to coax him out or break in and kill him. It’s a pretty sad existence. While Price isn’t probably as strapping or lantern-jawed as Matheson intended, he is able to give the part the necessary heft and pathos befitting a man who is literally alone among friends.
3) House of Usher (1960)
It was really difficult to choose just one of Price’s collaborations with director-producer Roger Corman based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (I’m already planning a whole article about the cycle, so come back for more!) I decided to go with the first one, mostly because nobody knew at the time that there’d be six more; this was just everybody wanting to make a vibrant and colorful horror film. Price shaved off his trademark mustache for this film and dyed his hair bright blonde to play Roderick Usher, the oldest male of the ill-fated family. He vehemently opposes his sister’s pending nuptials to a nice young man on the grounds that the Usher bloodline is cursed, and so they argue. While not an outright villain, we get that Usher would rather see his sister dead or demented than for her to leave the house. It’s a glorious version of Poe—and Price plays it for the drama and not for campy horror.
2) Theatre of Blood (1973)
Where he DOES play things for campy horror—on purpose of course—is this movie directed by Douglas Hickox. This is a gloriously dark and violent comedy that plays like a slasher movie in a way. This is exactly the kind of thing that stage actors, or any kind of performer, might find as a fantasy. Price plays the greatest Shakespearean actor in London who has not played anything else for most of his long career. A group of critics, all of whom hang out together in catty sort of ways, dislike his latest performance, and an awards ceremony gaffe garners him humiliation and ridicule. He attempts suicide by throwing himself out a window into the Thames, but he’s saved by a group of vagrants who nurse him back to health. They’re all meth-addicted and docile, so he recruits them to be his helpers for his revenge: he will kill all of the critics who ruined him in methods based on horrible ways people die in Shakespeare plays. So, someone’s stabbed on March 15th like Julius Caesar; someone gets their heart cut out—Shylock’s “pound of flesh” like in The Merchant of Venice; another is made to eat his own beloved dogs, like the children in Titus Andronicus. Price plays the character with delicious over-the-top and highly theatrical fervor and it proved to be one of the actor’s favorite roles of all time.
1) Witchfinder General (1968)
This is number one with a bullet for one very specific reason: This is the movie where I ended up despising Vincent Price. Not as an actor, of course—he’s superb in the role—but because he’s so good at playing the villain, it fills me with rage. Price plays a real-life witch hunter during the English Civil War in the 1600s (Matthew Hopkins) who claims to have been given leave to hunt witches by the crown. In reality, he was given no such orders and basically just went around the countryside raping and pillaging and murdering people who didn’t do what he wanted. He becomes obsessed with a comely young peasant who is betrothed to a soldier and makes her do terrible and debasing things, lest Hopkins kill her loving father for “witchcraft.” People are unjustly burnt at the stake, and tortured in horrendous ways—and Price does it all with a gleeful, horrible smile. This is one of a handful of truly upsetting films made about this period of English history, but this one takes the cake because it’s so well done. As great as Price is in everything, this movie always stands out for me simply because I end up liking him in general despite how hateful and awful he is here. I spend the whole movie wanting him to get what’s coming to him.
And there we have it! These were my favorite horror films by Vincent Price, but surely you have some different ones. Let me know which you’d have on your list below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!