Feast of Great Price
When speaking of Vincent Price (1911-1993), you’re covering multitudes. To pigeonhole him as “that horror guy” would omit his other achievements as a stage and screen actor, writer, gourmet cook/food author, in-demand speaker, Yale and University of London-educated art historian/collector/consultant, and a raconteur of infinite wit and generosity. When he was lured to Hollywood in 1938 after some noteworthy stage successes, the studio heads who might have thought they were importing a strapping leading man discovered that they instead had a potent character actor on their hands instead. David Thomson’s admiringly discerning The New Biographical Dictionary of Film entry on Price covers this early Tinseltown period thusly: “The desperate moguls…immediately discerned all the hollows behind his actorly handsomeness, and picked out decayed teeth like dentists. Thus he was required to be effete, caddish, insolent, malicious or weak.” So his presence enhanced the likes of movie greats like Wilson, Laura, two sold-out Twilight Time favorites The Song of Bernadette (1943, as the title character’s determined prosecutor) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945, as Gene Tierney’s discarded fiancé) and this month’s TT arrival The Keys of the Kingdom (1945, as a self-important churchman).Screen work continued apace for the next eight years, but always at the level of “reliable supporting player” with a rare plum movie lead in Samuel Fuller’s low-budget but fascinating The Baron of Arizona (1950). Then came the confluence of Price, producer Bryan Foy, screenwriter Crane Wilbur and the exhibition phenomenon called 3D. Thomson continues: “Disenchantment and sweetness together made Vincent incredulous at his own nightmare and so he found himself as the hideously scarred owner of House of Wax (1953, André de Toth). He surveyed the horror genre as if it were a tray of eclairs. Nothing then distracted him from the feast, no matter that the delicacies never satisfied him. It is a paradox that he should be the king of that genre, for he knew that no one was really frightened by such an old humbug – the softie who was also art advisor for Sears Roebuck and the author of several cookbooks.” Thus, the box-office-slaying House of Wax team, adding thriller specialist John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Locket) as director, went to fiendish work again for the 3D chiller of sadistic revenge laced with droll humor called The Mad Magician (1954). Since the story of a creator of stage illusions who’s pushed over the edge by heartlessly calculating victimizers was so similar to that of House of Wax, the project’s creators went out of their way to enrich the action with marvelous backstage details about the intricacies of magic tricks and use 3D more atmospherically to set the mood for simultaneous fun and fright. TCMdb.com essayist John M. Miller notes: “There are only a few shots of magic tricks (streams of water, playing cards) that are aimed toward the camera; for the most part, the crisp black-and-white photography [by three-time Academy Award® nominee Bert Glennon] is kept in deep focus, and careful attention is paid to compositions that show off the stereoscopic depth. It helps as well to have characters interacting with large mechanical illusion set-pieces the splinters flying from the buzz-saw trick and the flames licking the edges of the Crematorium are visually interesting seen ‘flat,’ but are positively hypnotic in 3D.” The stage-seasoned Price would henceforth remain a hypnotic spell-caster and, eventually, reconciled captive in screen horror annals, and the one-two House of Wax/The Mad Magician punch can be seen as bloody dry runs for the unabashed conviction and tongue-in-cheek glee of his subsequent Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe legacy as well as the later sinister surgeon of the TT favorites Scream and Scream Again (1970) and murderous Shakespearean thespian of Price’s own favorite film Theatre of Blood (1973). Featuring Mary Murphy, Patrick O’Neal and Eva Gabor, The Mad Magician on 3D/2D-compatible TT hi-def Blu-ray offers its own tray of eclairs: an engaging Audio Commentary by Price aficionados David Del Valle and Steven Peros, producer/director Daniel Griffith’s featurette Master of Fright!: Conjuring The Mad Magician and two frisky, frolicking 3D/2D Three Stooges from 1953, Pardon My Backfire and Spooks! This feast of great Price prestidigitates home January 17. Preorders open January 4.