Vincent Price Collection II Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
The incomparable Vincent Price’s identity as a sardonic and knowingly campy horror titan was expertly culled over a long series of successful and unsuccessful movies, but if I could choose one movie to mark his arrival as a fully-formed stage personality it would probably be William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959). Though not quite his signature role (I’m not sure what that would be), Frederick Loren is among the earliest instances of Price blatantly infused one of his characters with comedy and let the audience know he was laughing along with them. It was one of two collaborations he made with Castle (the other was The Tingler, also 1959) and helped rocket both to previously unprecedented fame. Though Castle had worked steadily in the genre since the ‘40s, he didn’t really have a hit until he made Macabre in 1958. That film’s success was largely attributed to a popular promotional gimmick, where theater-goers were given a thousand dollar life insurance policy that would supposedly pay out if they were to die of fright. Fueled by profit, Castle thought up more gimmicks, including The Tingler’s under-the-seat buzzers, primed to goose members of the audience, and special cellophane glasses that would reveal 13 Ghosts’ (1960) spirits. For House on Haunted Hill, he had a flimsy skeleton fly through the audience on wires to parallel the on-screen action. It was one of his lamer gimmicks, but that’s okay, because it was one of his better movies – perhaps the only one of the era that works even when separated from its theatrical gadgetry. Rob White’s screenplay owes quite a bit to Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), but it’s a conceptually clever slant on the haunted house genre (not to mention on that anticipates modern reality TV contests). Though not particularly frightening by modern standards, the winking comedy stands the test of time, especially the scenes of Price and Carol Ohmart verbally sparring and not so subtly threatening to kill each other.
The House on Haunted Hill is one of many classic horror movies with a lapsed copyright. Because it belongs in the public domain, it has been released and re-released on home video exactly one billion times over the last several decades. Most of these budget releases were misframed and crummy looking, but there were two anamorphic releases – one from Legend House, framed at 1.66:1, and one from Warner Bros, framed at 1.78:1. Scream Factory’s release marks the first Blu-ray version, which I’m going to guess was sourced from the same scan as WB’s DVD, based on the shared aspect ratio (the OAR is listed as 1.85:1). It is the only movie in the set that doesn’t have to share disc space with another movie, though the file size isn’t any bigger than its counterparts. The image quality is limited by the film’s age and budget, which is obvious in its prevalent grain texture and occasional print damage artifacts, but, overall, this is a very impressive transfer. Cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie’s stark black & white photography has never looked sharper on home video. Details are crisp and the clarity is enough to differentiate among the complex background patterns. Black levels are deep without being overbearing or crushing finer textures and dynamic ranges are strong without losing the subtle gradations.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is also a significant step up from previous home video releases. There are no significant pops just a slight crackle during quieter sequences (the sound floor is set plenty low, though). Dialogue and effects have a bit of hiss at higher volume levels, but aren’t particularly distorted (the thunder cracks toward the end of the film are nice and round). The film’s music, which is attributed to Richard Kayne, Richard Loring, and Von Dexter, has issues with high treble levels, but these don’t overwhelm the richness of the louder instrumentations.
A new commentary with author/historian Steve Haberman (who can also be heard on various Universal horror classic Blu-ray commentaries)
Vincent Price: Renaissance Man (From the MGM Scream Legends’ bonus disc, 27:20, SD)
The Art of Fear (From the MGM Scream Legends bonus disc, 12:10, SD)
Working with Vincent Price (From the MGM Scream Legends’ bonus disc, 15:30, SD)
Introductory Price (From Scream Factory’s first Vincent Price collection, 13:20, HD)
The Return of the Fly (1959) was the first time Price participated in a direct sequel to one of his movies (unless you want to count the fact that he provided the voice for the Invisible Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein  after playing the character in The Invisible Man Returns ). It’s hard to imagine that his participation related to creative desire on his part, because François Delambre, as he appears in Kurt Neumann’s original The Fly (1958), is such an ancillary worrywart of a character who exists mostly to serve the flashback narrative device (he’s not the guy that turns into the fly, as misremembered by many viewers – that was actor David Hedison). Perhaps Price was happy to play a sweet-natured audience surrogate for a change. He’s a more central narrator-type in the sequel and his tortured portrayal is much richer and even delicate. It’s actually one of his better good guy performances. The rest of the movie exceeds expectations as well. Initially, director Edward Bernds (a frequent Three Stooges collaborator) and writers George Langelaan & Edward Bernds endeavored to recreate the original movie’s most popular situations. The repetitive narrative aspects (the now adult son of the original Fly attempts to recreate his father’s experiments and Price’s character is confined to bedrest for much of the runtime, just as Patricia Owens’ character was in the first movie) are expectedly disappointing, but the attempts at escalating the first film’s sci-fi/horror elements are delightfully silly. Highlights include a British agent and an unfortunate guinea pig switching limbs and the villain going out of his way to purposefully throw a fly into the transporter with the protagonist (seemingly to ensure that the sequel can use ‘fly’ in its title). Ultimately, it’s not camp that distinguishes the original two Fly films from a sea of B-movie counterparts, but their poignant sense of tragedy – a trait taken from Universal monster movies, like James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) that was picked up by David Cronenberg for his groundbreaking remake.
The first Fly movie was shot in glorious DeLuxe Color and CinemaScope and MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray looks fantastic. Return of the Fly, however, was a cash-in and had a much smaller budget. It was also shot using CinemaScope techniques, but cinematographer Brydon Baker was ‘limited’ to black & white photography. This 1080p, 2.40:1 picture begins a bit rough – the opening credits are super-grainy and covered in print damage artifacts – but things clear up considerably as soon as the proper film begins. The beautiful and classy compositions are super-crisp and consistent in terms of black and white purity. The sharpness leads to some minor edge haloes along the tightest black edges and the harsh contrast levels crush some of the finer gradations, but the clarity and surprisingly fine grain levels reveal plenty of texture throughout the frame. A few tracking lines down the center of the frame don’t ruin the otherwise outstanding experience. The original film also included an immersive, stereophonic 4-track Westerex soundtrack. Return of the Fly features a single-channel mix and is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. The soundtrack is pretty underwhelming and dialogue-driven, but sounds quite naturalistic and crisp. The sci-fi tinged transportation sequences are plenty loud without any noticeable distortion, aside from the intended hiss. Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter’s music is warm and has plenty of depth for a single-channel mix.
A new audio commentary with star Brett Halsey and film historian David Del Valle
Scream Factory’s first Vincent Price collection featured four of the actor’s best collaborations with director Roger Corman. In total, Price and Corman made seven lavishly-shot period films that were loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe for American International Pictures (there were eight Corman/Poe films in total, but Price did not appear in The Premature Burial, 1962). The Raven (1963) was the fourth of these collaborations and the first/only to employ the assistance of pre-Price horror genre favourite Boris Karloff (who also appears in Lew Landers’ 1935 version of Poe’s poem). Price was also able to bounce camp off of his previous collaborator Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson in an early supporting role. It isn’t the most vital entry in the Corman/Poe canon, but it is the first (arguably, only) official one to tilt the wink and nod of camp appeal into purposeful comedy. Separated from its cinematic siblings, it’s one of the most balanced blends of chills and thrills to come out of the pre-gore era. The opulent, cobweb-caked sets (which were reused for the ultra low-budget The Terror, 1963) and authentically creepy make-up designs are matched by loony antics that would make Chuck Jones and Tex Avery proud. The cartoonishness is amplified most amusingly during the effects-heavy wizard duels. The screenplay was written by author and Twilight Zone regular Richard Matheson, who had previously penned Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and Tales of Terror (1962) for Corman. The farcical and occasionally downright silly story (Price claims the funnier lines were largely improvised by him and Lorre) has almost nothing in common with Poe’s most recognizable story, outside of incidental inclusions.
Like the bulk of the Corman/Poe movies, The Raven was shot in anamorphic, 2.35:1 Panavision and presented in vibrant Pathécolor. Scream Factory’s new 1080p release matches the expectations set by the previous Vincent Price collection’s Corman/Poe selections. It might even be the strongest transfer on this set, because, aside from occasionally uneven grain levels and minor pulsing/shaking during the effects sequences, it’s so clean. Print damage artifacts are basically nonexistent. Corman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of David Crosby) follow the basic Poe template in terms of photography; though, during the build up to the chromatic insanity of The Masque of the Red Death, the director was definitely enjoying more colorful sets and decorations. The somewhat over-stylized colors (skin tones skew orange, browns are oddly consistent, and blues singe their way into some of the blacks) are reminiscent of Technicolor prints and are dynamically separated (aside from some slightly over-burned highlights). Details are occasionally limited by out of focus shots and anamorphic distortion, but are otherwise tight without any notable edge enhancement. The uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is also among the collection’s stronger aural showings. The incidental effects are a smidge tinny, but the dialogue is very natural and consistent. Les Baxter’s circus-inspired score is heavy on pipe organ, which sometimes leads to understandable distortion effects as the sustained notes vibrate. The tuba, oboe, and xylophone pieces feature plenty of depth and bass support as well.
Introduction and parting words by Vincent Price from Iowa Public Television
New audio commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman
Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Raven (6:40, SD)
Corman’s Comedy of Poe (8:10, SD)
Audio from a promotional record (5:40, SD slides)
Because it was written by Richard Matheson, produced by AIP studios, and features Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff, The Comedy of Terrors (1963) is sometimes mistaken for an entry in Corman’s Poe cycle. The story follows an undertaker and his assistant as they make their own business by killing wealthy clients and tricking their families into paying for their funeral services. The production was certainly inspired by the success of the Poe films and all involved are definitely spoofing their work from those more serious movies, but Comedy of Terrors was not based on a Poe story and it was directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur was actually a big influence on Corman, especially his work with producer/screenwriter Val Lewton for RKO Studios in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Those films, including Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), helped solidify Tourneur as a master of moody, serious-minded thrillers that left most of the horror to the audience’s imaginations. He also found success in gritty film noir and swashbucklers, but was not known for comedy, making him an odd choice for The Comedy of Terrors. Casting him against type paid off, however, because Tourneur’s affection for bleak imagery contrasts the exaggerated performances and Matheson’s hyper-farcical screenplay beautifully. That said, the director still indulges in some completely daffy images. Price spends most of the film chewing the hell out of scenery (though he’s no match for Rathbone’s Shakespeare-spouting landlord), while, in contrast to The Raven, Lorre acts as his beleaguered straight man. The Comedy of Terrors is perhaps the pinnacle of the horror spoof for its era and comes highly recommended.
The Comedy of Terrors was available a long time in HD via Netflix’s streaming service and this 2.35:1, 1080p Blu-ray more or less matches my memories of that version. Tourneur and cinematographer Floyd Crosby followed the AIP/Corman template with Panavision and Pathécolor, but do not recreate the same over-the-top color. As mentioned above, it’s a generally grim and dark film with deep black shadows and subtle gradations. Some of the finer details are lost in the darkness, but the important textures are sharp and patterns are plenty complex. Despite the overall clarity, which extends to the more vivid highlights, The Comedy of Terrors is one of the more damaged transfers in the collection, including quite a few little white specks and some uneven, pulsing grain levels (usually in big establishing shots). The Comedy of Terrors’ DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is another solid showing. Les Baxter’s score sounds tonally like something you might hear in correlation with an animated feature (it reminds me specifically of George Bruns’ Jungle Book score), but avoids overplaying the silliness. The music is supplemented by a number of more literal cartoon sound effects, like the slide-whistle noises that accompany the pratfalls. The dialogue and effects tracks are clean without being particularly impressive, but there are some standout moments (specifically those cartoon effects and Joyce Jameson’s echo-enhanced singing voice) that manage to create considerable aural depth.
Introduction and parting words by Vincent Price from Iowa Public Television
Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Comedy of Terrors (9:40, SD)
Before he made money loosely adapting Edgar Allan Poe stories for Roger Corman, Richard Matheson wrote the quintessential apocalyptic horror story, I am Legend. The novella, first published in 1954, had a massive influence on modern horror by inspiring George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and predicated an industry of viral/bacterial epidemic and zombie movies with an outbreak of vampirism so extreme, it overtakes every human being in the world but one. Matheson’s ideas were mimicked ad nauseam and ‘officially’ adapted three times, including an enjoyably goofy action version directed by Boris Sagal and starring Charlton Heston (The Omega Man, 1971) and a big-budget special effects blockbuster directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith (I Am Legend, 2007). But the original adaptation, released under the title The Last Man on Earth (1964), was written by Matheson himself and, despite the restrictions of mid-‘60s censorship, it is the most accurate portrayal of the story. Originally slated as a Hammer Films production (under the direction of Val Guest), Matheson’s script was moved to AIP when the British Board of Film Censorship rejected it. The author was forced to rewrite it to fit Vincent Price’s strengths and used a pseudonym. His negative opinions of the film have colored years of negative reviews from fans that perceived it as a compromised version of the story, but, separated from Matheson’s disappointments, The Last Man on Earth is a brutally melancholic B-movie that regularly overcomes its listless nature to touch upon real greatness. Its patchy qualities are easily blamed on both the extensive rewrites and because it was co-directed by Twice-Told Tales’ (1963) Sidney Salkow and, since it was shot in Rome, Italian documentary director Ubaldo Ragona – a fact which arguably marks it as the first Italian zombie movie.
Like The House on Haunted Hill, The Last Man on Earth fell into the public domain for some time and was included on a number of budget VHS and DVD releases. These tended to look pretty terrible, but Legend Films and current AIP catalogue owner MGM did eventually put out anamorphic versions (Legend even included the colorized version). German company Intergroove released a Blu-ray that is, by all accounts, a downgrade from the anamorphic DVDs. It seems that MGM made an HD-ready scan that made the rounds on cable TV, but which hasn’t been available for consumer purchase until now. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is slightly weaker than the collection’s other two black & white features, but still considerably cleaner than any other version of the film available. Cinematographer Franco Delli Colli’s (Django Kill, Zeder) gorgeous photography is certainly worn, especially the busiest wide-angle images, but uneven grain levels and pulsing whites don’t muddy the details or flatten the deeper compositions. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack faithfully recreates the original mono track’s naturalistic tones, including nicely textured incidental effects, the dialogue spoken on-screen (having been likely shot without sound, some of the lip-sync is way off), and Price’s more distinctively mixed narration. Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter’s music is practically omnipresent. It chugs along with particular zeal during the montage sequences, where it fills space between Price’s exposition. I assume that the composition labour was divided between these more symphonic cues and the jazzier renditions that accompany action sequences. The music would surely benefit from stereo enhancements, but it isn’t flat, either.
New Audio Commentary with film historian David Del Valle and author Derek Botelho
Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Last Man on Earth (6:20, SD)
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) was the final film in Roger Corman’s eight film Poe cycle and the last time he’d work as Price’s director (though the two were never on bad terms, as far as I know). The Poe cycle represented an escalation in lavish visuals, but there weren’t many places Corman could take his vision following the ostentatious extremes of his masterpiece, The Masque of the Red Death (1964). One of the few creative options left was to him and Hammer Studios cinematographer Arthur Grant was to stage quite a bit of The Tomb of Ligeia in brightly lit sets, contradictory to the unwritten ‘rules’ of horror filmmaking. There’s also a whole lot of location shooting. The effect is a bit jarring, especially considering the sheer quantity of sunlight imagery (characters don’t even eat dinner indoors) and the costumed drama elements veer into well-worn Hammer Studios territory (I prefer the Corman/Poe films more when they’re meeting their own standards), but the contrast is striking and refreshing, following hours of traditional gothic-ness. The screenplay was based on one of Poe’s less popular stories, Ligeia, and written by future Chinatown mastermind and superstar script doctor Robert Towne with uncredited rewrites by Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1987). Towne and Mayersberg don’t do a lot to distinguish their work from the other films in the series as Corman does with the visuals, but the rich dialogue certainly gives the actors a lot to work with. Price was cast against type (and Corman’s wishes), but you wouldn’t know, based on the strength of his particularly understated and melancholy performance. And, though I will always have a soft spot for Barbara Steele for her work in Italian horror from the same period, I have to admit that Elizabeth Shepherd, who plays the dual role of Rowena Trevanion and Ligeia, might be the best of the Corman/Poe leading ladies.
The Tomb of Ligeia was shot in the traditional Corman/Poe anamorphic scope and processed under an AIP exclusive format known as ColorScope. And, like many of the films in the Corman/Poe collection, it was available for a time on Netflix and Amazon’s streaming services in HD. That HD transfer was, yet again, the basis for Scream Factory’s 2.35:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer. The film’s brighter colors, daylight imagery, and location shots lead to some fabulously complex patterns and textures throughout the frame. The images of the countryside and stone ruins are brimming with tight little details that would’ve disappeared into blurry mud on a standard definition disc. The vivid contrasts produce some over-sharpening effects, namely edge haloes, but the overall effect is quite crisp. The warmer, less natural hues (specifically reds) really pop as well, though the skin tones are occasionally a bit blue. Compliments aside, there is room for improvement as Tomb of Ligeia suffer from a sheet of consistent print damage, including pulsing effects, small scratches, and little flecks of white and black. Fortunately, it’s not enough to ruin the overall quality. The original Westrex system mono sound has been maintained on this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. Though clearly limited by the compacted, single-channel mix, this might be the strongest soundtrack in the collection, including consistent dialogue and sound effects that include all of the appropriate echo effects. Kenneth V. Jones’ mournful symphonic score suffers minor twinges of high end distortion, but is otherwise quite graceful, including surprising depth during the busiest compositions.
Introduction and parting words by Vincent Price from Iowa Public Television
Commentary by producer/director Roger Corman
New commentary with actress Elizabeth Shepherd, moderated by Street Trash writer Roy Frumkes
New commentary with film historian Constantine Nasr
If there was ever a Vincent Price vehicle that didn’t need a sequel, it was The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). That’s sort of hyperbole, considering how many of Price’s starring roles end with him dying (usually as the victim of his own sins), but the first Phibes movie ends with the title character exacting revenge, crawling into a sarcophagus with his dead wife, and replacing his blood with embalming fluid. But Robert Fuest’s film was rightfully quite popular and AIP called him up to make more of the same. Though there was definitely still gas in Fuest’s creative tank and Price’s camp appeal could fuel a jumbo jet, but The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ inventive story gimmicks – specifically that Phibes was reaping bloody vengeance by recreating the ten biblical plagues – were all used up. That, coupled with a rushed schedule and a limited budget, holds Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) back from the kind of transcendent camp perfection of its predecessor. Still, Fuest’s psychedelic imagery and off-kilter sense of humor actually fits the script’s randomized, lethargic narrative. The plotting between murder set-pieces (which are vaguely Egyptian-themed and significantly bloodier this time) is thinly drawn, made up mostly of expositional discussions/narration, and Phibes’ poetic soliloquies to his ‘sleeping’ wife. Fuest fills time with super-surreal scenes of Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia (played this time by Valli Kemp) dancing or having a hillside picnic and editor Tristam V. Cones cuts the footage in a particularly hallucinatory manner that develops a nightmarish tone and covers some of the budgetary restraints (it’s also possible that the more logic-free edits are made to cover censored violence). Despite its nebulous nature, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is stuffed with enough dry wit and general weirdness to recommend it.
This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer one of the set’s weaker offerings, but only because the bar is set so high by other entries. It’s still a big upgrade over MGM’s older DVD version. The image is largely free of print damage blemishes, aside from some occasionally thick sheets of film grain (these are most problematic in establishing shots). Details are most impressive in the finely-textured close-ups, but the deeper-set backgrounds are also pretty sharp, thanks in large part to Fuest and cinematographer Alex Thomson’s use of wide-angle lenses to create its strange, fisheye effects and low-angle images. The DeLuxe Color hues are sometimes limited by the grain levels, but are generally quite vivid and nicely separated, though there are some less vibrant interior sequences (such as an extended discussion between the police and Terry-Thomas) that turn a smidge muddy. Edge enhancement haloes and diffused blacks are also a minor issue here. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is another one of the set’s weaker entries, but, again, this is only due to comparative quality of the other films. The dialogue that is spoken by on-screen characters is occasionally muddied (though never completely jumbled), while the Phibes’ machine-generated words and the off-camera narration is perfectly clear. Incidental effects are tinny, but clean and undistorted. John Gale’s eclectic musical score (the one arguable quality upgrade over the original film) is well balanced, suffering slight crackle during its loudest moments. Also note that this Blu-ray includes Phibes performing ‘Over the Rainbow,’ which was missing from VHS versions.
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