The Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray Review (originally published 2013)
2019 republish note: This set is woefully out of print now and going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. On top of that, I don’t think this is very well written review and I don’t have the time to rewrite it right now. But I plan on uploading the other two Vincent Price collection reviews, so I want to include it on the Genre Grinder site for the sake of being comprehensive. I apologize for the lack of quality standard. Thank you.
“You have murdered your sister, Mr. Usher, and I intend to see that you hang for it.”
“Arrange it quickly, then. The old house crumbles.”
Following years of modest success with ultra cheap B-movies, like It Conquered the World and Bucket of Blood, Roger Corman found critical success with eight lavishly-shot Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, all but one of which – The Premature Burial – starred Vincent Price. Fall of the House of Usher (often simply referred to as House of Usher) was the first of these movies and one that helped define American horror during the 1960s. The screenplay, by Richard Matheson (who’d also penned Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven for Corman), is a reasonably stoic, melodramatic reinterpretation of Poe’s original story, but, like most of the movies in the Corman/Poe canon, Fall of the House of Usher is mostly a practice in style than storytelling. Corman and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Les Baxter begin the film as an understated celebration of the gothic sets and costumes, but break out of the Hammer Horror mode with a surrealistic, Technicolor nightmare sequence towards the end of the film. The Hammer films were already looking like relics by the onset of the new decade, but they continued to set themselves apart with graphic violence and amplified sexuality. Corman’s Poe films were never particularly violent or sexually overt, especially not Fall of the House of Usher, which obscures its Freudian perversions under a veil of stoic normalcy. The film also helped re-introduce Price to the world, bridging a gap between his early dramatic work and the decidedly comedic material he did with Kurt Neumann and William Castle in the late ‘50s.
Fall of the House of Usher gets the set off to a great start (note: I’m reviewing by original release order, not their appearance order in this set). Because the first four movies in the set have been crammed on to two BD50 discs (Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General get their own discs) I was afraid of compression artifacts, but it seems that their brief runtimes and light extras have ensured enough room for both films to live in harmony. Fall of the House of Usher was shot on CinemaScope, and is presented here in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film shows its age and incredibly low budget with a somewhat uneven appearance, but these issues appear to be in keeping with the source material’s limitations (the anamorphic lenses create blur and distortion). Some shots are a bit fuzzy, while others display sharpening effects, possibly in an effort to counteract the fuzzy issue. Overall, however, details are notably sharper than DVD versions and even than the already good-looking Netflix and AMC HD versions (to the detriment of Harry Ellerbe’s old man make-up). Grain levels are relatively consistent, regardless of the inconsistent details, and print damage artefacts are limited to occasional flecks of dirt. Like most of the films in this collection, especially the Corman movies, the key reason to upgrade Fall of the House of Usher to HD is the format’s abilities with vivid colour. The basic palette is relatively plain, featuring homogenized browns, skin tones, and blues that are contrasted sharply against punchy reds and lush greens. But it isn’t until Mark Damon’s nightmare sequence that the colour quality really bursts out of the screen.
Fall of the House of Usher also gets the set off to a good start on the aural front with a relatively naturalistic DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack. The louder sequences stick quite a bit of noise into the single channel treatment without overwhelming it and the lossless treatment ensures that these warring elements remain crisp. The rumble of the house’s faulty walls and foundation is plenty bassy, despite the lack LFE enhancement, while the subtler, creepier creaking floorboards, slamming doors, and gusts of wind have surprising depth without any stereo accompaniments. Les Baxter’s classy score is nicely layered (especially during the nightmare, where moaning voices are blended into the heavier orchestrations) and doesn’t feature any major ticks of high-end distortion.
Vintage Vincent Price intro/outro from Iowa Public Television
Commentary with Roger Corman
Vincent Price Retrospective Commentary with Lucy Chase Williams, author of ‘The Complete Films of Vincent Price,’ featuring Piotr Michael as the voice of Price
Audio interview with Vincent Price by historian David Del Valle (41:00, HD still screen)
"I've waited an eternity for this moment, there has to be time. Is it not ironical, my dear husband, you wife an adulteress, your mother an adulteress, your uncle an adulterer, your closest friend an adulterer? Do you not find that amusing, dear Nicholas?"
The Pit and the Pendulum was the second entry in Corman’s Poe canon and, despite being made quickly to cash-in on Fall of the House of Usher with basically the same crew (including Matheson, Price, and composer Les Baxter), it is a significant improvement. Fall of the House of Usher feels like a complete and competent film when viewed alone, but, following it up with the other films in the series, it becomes obvious that Corman and company were merely finding their footing. The Pit and the Pendulum takes lessons learned and refines them with more opulent gothic sets and more severe visual tricks. Corman creates a savory and succulent sense of dread with his gliding cameras, haunting transitional sequences, and insert shots of the raging ocean outside of the castle. Matheson’s script once again calls upon costumed melodrama, but has a more distinctive horror edge, in comparison to the dour pathos of House of Usher, paving the way for further boundary-pushing entries in the Poe series. Price’s performance is stronger as well, drawing on his skills as a barely restrained ham with tortured, flowery monologues and a good excuse to play both a victim and an incredibly evil villain. It doesn’t hurt that his hyperbole is so often set against an impossibly wooden John Kerr. The Pit and the Pendulum marked the beginning of a filmmaking dialogue between Corman and his Italian counterpart, Mario Bava. Impressed by Black Sunday (1960), Corman cast Barbara Steele opposite Price in this film. Then, a couple of years later, Mario Bava returned the favor by paying homage to The Pit and the Pendulum when he made The Whip and the Body (1963).
The Pit and the Pendulum is also presented in 1080p, 2.35:1, though it was shot in Panavision, not CinemaScope. Grain levels and general clarity are more consistent this time around, though there still are some odd shots that appear notably fuzzier and/or grittier (many of these are composite shots). Print damage artifacts appear occasionally as slight vertical scratches and black blotches. The rich, baroque sets afford the transfer deeper, more complex textures, including the fine lines of cobwebs and puffy period costumes. Corman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby call upon Fall of the House of Usher’s popular tinting techniques once again for The Pit and the Pendulum’s nightmare/flashback sequences. These vividly purple, pink, and blue scenes are blurred around the edges with a watery effect that is considerably softer here than on DVD releases. The dreams are contrasted against the more subdued base palette, which is defined by browns and blues, and habitually highlighted with red candles. The reds bleed a twinge, but the other hues remain strongly separated and nicely set against a sea of rich blacks.
The Pit and the Pendulum’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is considerably more aggressive than House of Usher, including more ‘natural’ noise, such as the grind and clang of Medina’s instruments, the creaks and haunting noises of the castle itself, and the raging storm clouds outside of its walls. Dialogue is crisp and warm with only minor crackle and a nice, low noise floor. There are a few dips in volume/cleanliness, but nothing devastating. Baxter’s score is slightly more abstract and, in turn, more interesting this time around. He still wheels out romantic themes and thrilling melodies, but also develops spooky undertones with dissonance and offbeat rhythms. The effects, dialogue, and music are nicely layered without overwhelming each other.
Vintage Vincent Price intro/outro from Iowa Public Television
A rare prologue (5:10, HD)
Commentary with Roger Corman
"You do not know the extent of my appetite, Simon. I'll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard. Until they have felt, as I did, the kiss of fire on their soft bare flesh. All of them. Have patience, my friends. Surely, after all these years, I'm entitled to a few small amusements."
The Haunted Palace is the only film in this set that I hadn’t already seen and, due to my lack of familiarity, I lamented its appearance in lieu of Theater of Blood, The Comedy of Terrors, or The Tomb of Ligeia. However, now that I’ve actually experienced it, I’m tempted to say it’s better than The Fall of the House of Usher. The placement even makes sense, since The Haunted Palace feels like more of a follow-up to The Pit and the Pendulum than The Premature Burial and Tales of Terror ever did. Corman and Crosby take more clear-cut inspiration from Universal directors, like James Whale and Tod Browning, and embrace an even more extremely gothic look. The screenplay was written by Charles Beaumont, who also replaced Matheson on Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death, and is only tangentially based on a Poe poem – the bulk of the story is taken from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The Lovecraftian slant (every major touchstone is here, including the Necronomicon and Elder Gods) leads to supernatural twists and inhuman creatures – elements that are only implied in the Corman Poe movies that are actually based on Poe’s material, but fits the other movies via repeating themes, like buildings with dark pasts and generation-spanning ‘curses.’ Price once again takes obvious pleasure in playing a dual role as the sweet-natured Charles Dexter Ward and his evil great-grandfather, the warlock, Joseph Curwen. He is coupled with a particularly strong cast as well, including Lon Chaney Jr. in the team’s first official pairing (they were both in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but Price only provided a voice for the Invisible Man). The Haunted Palace also marks the first time Corman and Bava’s tracks intersected in a relatively negative way. The Lon Chaney Jr. part was meant for Boris Karloff, who was contractually obligated to appear in Bava’s Black Sabbath at the same time. Clearly, there was no ill will, as AIP distributed Black Sabbath in the US…though Corman was responsible for re-cutting/re-ordering Bava’s film for its release.
The Haunted Palace is also presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 and is one of the two best transfers in the collection. It features more sets disguised as outdoor locations, something Corman and Crosby ‘hide’ with deep shadows and a whole lot of fog effects. This type of imagery would probably flatten out and fuzz over a SD transfer, but, in HD, the layers are neatly separated and the fine textures are plenty discernible. Print damage artifacts are curtailed and grain levels are more even (though they do thicken up during the foggiest composite shots, creating minor clumping issues). The colors subdued to the point that some scenes appear almost black & white with only the characters' faces standing out against the grey backdrops (which helps ensure that Price and Chaney Jr.’s ‘dead’ faces are appropriately contrasted). Red candles and orange flames once again pop against the blues and browns of the base palette, but everything else, including the flashes of lightning that briefly light up the sets, are cooled, which is about as close as The Haunted Palace gets to the colorful extremes of the other Corman Poe films. The hues remain tight, despite the more desaturated look.
The Haunted Palace’s DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is likely the strongest and richest in the set. Ronald Stein’s musical score opens with a brilliantly boisterous main theme and rarely lets up on the gas in terms of booming brass and rumbling drums. I enjoy all of these scores, but this is the one I’m probably going to add to my iPod at some point. The music is the central aural element and features incredible depth for a single channel track. The dialogue track is quite natural and stable in terms of volume levels and clarity. The music is loud enough to overwhelm it a bit, but none of the important conversations are softened. The effects work is incredibly dynamic for a mono mix, including grumbling monster sounds that vibrate the room, despite the continuing lack of LFE enhancement.
Vintage Vincent Price intro/outro from Iowa Public Television
Commentary with authors Lucy Chase Williams (again) and Richard Heft
Commentary with Tom Weaver, author of ‘Poverty Row Horrors!’ and ‘It Came From Horrorwood’
A Change of Poe (11:20, SD) – An interview with director Roger Corman, who discusses AIP pretending his Lovecraft adaptation was a Poe adaptation, Francis Ford Coppola’s work on the film, the visual differences between this film and the other Poe movies, and his cast and crew’s achievements.
“There is no other God! Satan killed him!”
“Each man creates his own God for himself, his own Heaven, his own Hell.”
The Tomb of Ligeia is a great movie, but the Corman Poe movies peaked with the penultimate entry and Corman’s most accomplished film as a director, The Masque of the Red Death. At the very least, it is unmatched on a visual level – Dario Argento’s Suspiria is the only live-action horror film that out performs it in terms of pure, super-saturated color. Corman has cited Mario Bava’s work on Black Sabbath (which, again, he helped bring to US theaters) as an inspiration to make The Masque of the Red Death so severely colorful, but he shot the film in the UK and, to take advantage of tax laws, he had to hire a UK crew. Even if he wanted to work with Bava (and I have no idea if he wanted to), he couldn’t have – he had to settle for a young British cinematographer named Nicolas Roeg, who was fresh off a little movie called Lawrence of Arabia. Corman and Roeg treat the baroque sets like a paint-by-numbers kit, coating the walls and adornments in thick acrylic hues that burst from the screen like 3D. The film’s violence isn’t outrageously brutal, but the kaleidoscopic imagery is blended with Prince Prospero’s aristocratic indifference (Price’s most purely evil character) and his court’s malignant sycophancy to create an oppressive atmosphere unmatched by the pulpier films in the series. The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t have a strong script on a story level, but the impressionistic approach works for the hellscape Corman endeavors to create with the material. Robert Towne, writer of Chinatown, reportedly worked on a script, but Corman eventually returned to Charles Beaumont, who worked alongside future Oscar nominee, R. Wright Campbell. The final effect is something much more existentially horrifying, which doesn’t necessarily match the other AIP Poe films, but it’s actually closer to Poe’s written work. It’s also a more allegorical story than a costume drama, which supports the outrageous, historically unconcerned visuals.
Of course, I wanted to see all of these films (and more) in 1080p HD, but The Masque of the Red Death was really the one I was most looking forward to. It is the final film in this set framed at 2.35:1 (it was shot in some kind of AIP ‘exclusive’ format called ‘Colorscope’). The transfer starts off a bit heavier in the grain department, featuring pulsing sheets of grit, similar to those on the darker House of Usher transfer. These are the exception, rather than the rule, however, and print damage artifacts are minimal, including the same blips of white and tiny scratches that tickle the other transfers (at about 1:20:30, there is some kind of tear/missing frame thing). Details are considerably crisper than the MGM DVD release, especially the sparklingly decorated costumes (minus the DVD’s shimmer effects) and the sharp outlines of the background elements, which Roeg captures quite regularly with wide-angle images. The DVD’s transfer was soft enough that I had never noticed the anamorphic lens distortion along the edges of the frame during the more graceful panning shots. Some colors fare better than others (for instance, the yellow room isn’t nearly as rich as the purple room), but there’s no mistaking the huge upgrade in vibrancy and the tightness of the colors, all without the macro-blocking effects or blooming that afflicted the SD version.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound is, again, surprisingly robust and complex for a single channel track. The majority of the sound effects work is more naturalistic than the more traditionally gothic movies in the set. During the loudest moments, such as the burning of the town at the beginning of the film and the bustling ball of the final act, the effects become a bit tinny and over-sharp. Sometimes, the dialogue is a hair ‘off’ in terms of lip-sync and the consistencies of its warmth, but these appear to be due to faulty ADR (including a child creepily overdubbed by an adult) and the performance tones tend to match their environments (i.e. dry in smaller rooms, echoing in large chambers). Composer David Lee (who didn’t score a feature film again following The Masque of the Red Death) gets the job done with his evocative score, especially during the more surrealistic sequences, where the music is the prime aural element.
Vintage Vincent Price intro/outro from Iowa Public Television
Commentary with Steve Haberman, author of ‘Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film’ and ‘Murder without Pity’.
Interview with Roger Corman (19:50, SD) – Where the director/producer discusses his personal favourite film in the Poe series. Apparently, The Masque of the Red Death was meant to be the second film in the cycle, but he feared that the storyline was too close to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which had just been released. Corman also mentions an amusing anecdote about lunch with Paul McCartney.
"Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do."
Witchfinder General (aka: The Conqueror Worm, in a misguided effort to link it to the Corman Poe movies) is one of the few serious films of any genre that Price made, following his success with Corman. Long unavailable uncut or on digital home video of any kind (it was relatively difficult to find on VHS as well), its reputation grew, thanks in large part to director Michael Reeves’ drug overdose death merely a year after filming was completed. But Price’s own affection for the film also helped garner a cult audience and helped critics re-evaluate it, decades after its release. The film was forgotten in the mainstream for a period, but inspired a rush of witch-hunter movies, including Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (which Reeves was approached to direct, 1970), Adrian Hoven’s Mark of the Devil Part II (1973), Jesus Franco’s The Bloody Judge (1970), Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee (also starring Price, 1970), and Paul Naschy Inquisition (1976). Despite the film’s reputation and the reputations of the gory torture films it spawned, Reeves leaves much of the sex and violence to our imaginations. The bleak and sadistic portrait he paints is far more disturbing than the brutal. Reeves was ahead of his time in the way he intended to draw comparisons between his film and then-modern politics. American sci-fi and Italian westerns had already been sneaking social commentary into their subtexts, but horror films were still largely escapist fodder before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was, coincidentally, released the same year as Witchfinder General.
For a more recent look at at Witchfinder General and the movies it inspired, please see my essay, Torture in the Witch Movie: A Brief History.
Given its slightly more obscure status and heavy location shooting, I had expected Witchfinder General to be the roughest-looking of the six movies – entirely forgetting that Odeon Entertainment had already remastered it for its UK Blu-ray release. I can only assume Scream Factory was able to ‘rent’ that same transfer, because this 1.85:1, 1080p image is probably the best in the set. There are some signs of digital manipulation in the transfer’s overall brightness and the warmth of some of the browns/skin tones, but there are no obvious signs DNR tinkering (though it is the only film in the set to feature real CRT noise). Grain is even and notable artifacts are minimized to small white flecks. Details are extremely sharp without conspicuous halo effects and contrast levels are subtle enough to reveal fine textures that were missing from the already decent-looking MGM DVD. The darkest outdoor sequences are still under lit enough to make it difficult to see exactly what is going on, but, compared to the DVD, these shots are at least discernible. The colors are vibrant without appearing unnatural, aside from that slight warmth I mentioned earlier. The red of ‘60s stage blood and the Roundheads’ uniforms has a powerful pop that doesn’t press out finer details or bleed out into the softer hues.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is also among the collection’s best, probably just behind The Haunted Palace. It is, once again, largely dialogue and music-based, but there are a number of additional effects that are given a clarity boost, a result of the lack of compression. The single channel treatment doesn’t limit the depth of the limited effects work, especially the constant buzz of eerie winds and the overwhelming crackle of the witch-burning pyre. Paul Ferris’ romantic and mournful score (which was replaced on most VHS releases with synth music) is a bit thin, I suppose, but really only because the rest of the track verges so closely to perfection. When the music is given free rein above the effects and dialogue, however, it booms with major density and without distortion.
Commentary with producer Philip Waddilove and actor Ian Ogilvy, moderated by screenwriter Steve Haberman (Life Stinks, Dracula: Dead and Loving It), who can also be heard on various Universal Horror Blu-ray commentary tracks.
Vintage Vincent Price intro/outro from Iowa Public Television.
Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves’ Horror Classic (25:00, SD) – A retrospective look at the film’s historic origins, production history, Reeves and Price’s contentious relationship, performances, AIP’s title change, and the film’s growing reputation with Vincent Price Exhibit Curator Richard Squires, authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and screenwriter Chris Wicking.
Vintage Vincent Price interview David Del Valle (1:02:10, SD) – Part of the Sinister Image interview series from the 1980s.
Interview with Victoria Price (47:20, HD) – A new interview with the actor’s daughter, who answers questions her relationship with her father and her memories of his work.
Alternate opening and closing credits for the Conqueror Worm version (including Price’s narration, 5:50, SD).
Trailers for House of Wax, Tales of Terror, The Raven, Tomb of Ligeia, The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, The Fly, and Return of the Fly.
"Nine killed her – nine shall die. Eight have died, soon to be nine. Nine eternities in doom. The organ plays ‘til midnight. The large house in Maldene Square. Come alone."
It’s difficult to zero in on Price’s ‘signature role’ – he played too many memorable characters to narrow it down. Price himself may have wanted to be most remembered for Theater of Blood, Witchfinder General, or one of his non-genre roles, but I think that fans tend to flash on The Abominable Dr. Phibes when the question is posed. Phibes is a richly realized character that wears flamboyant costumes and reaps bloody revenge with his tongue firmly planted within his cheek. The only problem with the designation is that the character is only able to speak with a specialized microphone attached to his throat, depriving us of a full-force Price performance. Director Robert Fuest embraces the groovy imagery of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s in a way that only UK horror directors ever could. The extended musical prologue sets the stage for a uniquely weird, expressionistic motion picture experience – one that is much more experimental and arty than its reputation usually suggests (there isn’t a line of dialogue for the first ten minutes). Writers James Whiton and William Goldstein (with some uncredited help from Fuest) prefigured popular modern horror stories with their tale of vengeance beyond the grave – specifically David Fincher’s Seven, whose killer uses a similar biblical theme while punishing his victims (the seven deadly sins, instead of the ten plagues) and James Wan’s Saw, in which a killer also sets traps for his victims and has similar reason for his revenge. There’s no confusing the tone of these films – Fuest uses camp, droll dialogue, and oddball visual flourishes to undercut and soften the horror, while Fincher and Wan revel in bleakness – but the sentiment is certainly similar.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is presented in 1.85:1, 1080p HD video. The print sports some obvious damage, including pulsing effects, frame wobble, and scratches, but these are pretty easily overlooked – it’s only the occasional white flecks that become particularly distracting. In a perfect world, this transfer would’ve been cleaned a bit more, but it’s not an enormous problem. Grain levels are even and natural, only featuring major uptakes during outdoor sequences. The detail increase is high enough to count the hairs on Phibes’ moptop wig, feel the texture of the threads in the Scotland Yard-issue tweed jackets, and see the fishing wire that holds the fake bats aloft. The darker sequences are the sharpest thanks to more dynamic edges and thoroughly deep black levels. Phibes is stylized and modern-looking. This leads to an extremely eclectic palette that contrasts warm browns of high society with the saturated pastels of Phibes’ swanky, baroque homestead. The most vivid hues bleed a bit, but the overall color quality is distinctive.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio soundtrack is a bit tinnier than some of the rounder, more gothic films in the collection, but it has always been that way, so I’m not really considering it a problem for the disc, specifically. Dialogue is clean with only minor noise reduction effects and the louder sound effects (car/plane engines, for example) have a decent amount of bass structure to them. The sound design turns quite busy at times, slamming Basil Kirchin’s blaring score and abstracted sound effects together to create a wall of noise that is occasionally too much for the single channel treatment to handle. On average, though, the mix has enough depth and the lossless nature allows for high volume levels without major distortion.
Commentary with director Robert Fuest, moderated by Marcus Hearn, author ‘Dr. Who: The Vault,’ ‘The Secret History of James Bond,’ and ‘The Hammer Story.’
Commentary with Justin Humphreys, Dr. Phibes historian and author of ‘Names You Never Remember, With Faces You Never Forget.’
Introductory Price: Undertaking the Vincent Price Gothic Horrors (13:20, HD) – A look at the history of Iowa Public Television’s broadcasting of Price’s AIP films, complete with footage from Price’s 1982 introductions (the same ones included elsewhere on this disc). This featurette includes interviews with the writer of the introductions, Duane Huey, and Salisbury House & Gardens (the manor in which the intros were filmed) executive director, J. Eric Smith.
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