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Category:    Home > Reviews > Horror > Thriller > Mystery > Literature > Vincent Price - MGM Scream Legends Collection (DVD Set)

Vincent Price - MGM Scream Legends Collection


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C+     Films: B



There is lots to quibble about and that's to come, but first, let it be said, for fans of Vincent Price, this set is not only a must but it is a true joy.  Even though the set does not include some of most famous Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Price

(The House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven), there are some real gems from his later years.  Theater of Blood and Witchfinder General alone are worth the cost of the box.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.


The Vincent Price box contains 7 full length feature films and a "Disc of Horrors," which is comprised of three short biographical films about Price, on a total of 5 discs.  Four of the discs are double-sided, with two discs with single features each.  Which brings us to our first quibble; why are Witchfinder General and the Disc of Horrors, which add up to 153 minutes, on separate discs, when The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, which total 184 minutes, on the same dual-sided disc?  A minor quibble perhaps, but reducing the set from 5 discs to 4 certainly would have reduced the price.


The films themselves have been mostly brought up to respectable shape, though Dr. Phibes Rises Again! is not of the same spiffed up quality as the original Dr. Phibes feature.  There is a general feeling of unevenness in MGM's treatment of the films but, with this exception and one other, everything seems to be up to better than average.


With those thoughts out of the way, here are the movies, individually.


Tales of Terror is an anthology of three Edgar Allan Poe tales: "Morella," "The Black Cat" and "The Case of M. Valdemar."   Of all the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe collaborations, this is the one that time has probably been least kind to.  "Morella" is the strongest tale in this set recounting the story of a man whose wife dies in childbirth and who forever holds it against the child, Lenore.  This segment has a classic soundtrack, a touch of Great Expectations in the set design and a serviceable Richard Matheson script.  The Black Cat is a quaint tale whose power has seen better days, though it is fun to see old friends Peter Lorre and Price giving it a go.  An unnecessary love theme has been added to the original Poe story "The Case of M. Valdemar," which already has the intriguing premise of freezing someone at the point of death with hypnosis.  Basil Rathbone is the shady mesmerist who gets his comeuppance in a fairly predictable manner.  This is the only feature film in the box with a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1 as opposed to 1.66:1.


The box office success of Tales of Terror prompted a sequel of sorts in Twice Told Tales, which ironically holds up much better than its predecessor.  This time round the stories are taken from Poe's contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne; evidently, the producers felt they had tapped the Poe mine dry.  In any case, the Hawthorne tales are an excellent springboard for fantasy/horror cinema.  The first, Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, tells a tale of a doctor's long unrequited love for his fiancée who died 30 years ago, the day before they were to be wed.   The doctor (Sebastian Cabot) and his old friend, Alex Medbourne (Price), meet to celebrate the doctor's birthday and, when a storm disturbs the nearby crypt, they discover that she has not aged due to some mineral laced water that has compromised the coffin.  They experiment by drinking the potion and are given back their youth and Sylvia, the doctor's fiancée, is brought back from dead. The curse of long life works in mysterious ways, even for the recently revived, and things get very messy, very quickly.  In Rappacini's Daughter, Price plays a scientist who makes his daughter immune to evil (aka sex) by injecting her with a plant concoction that renders her touch deadly.  There is an interesting allusion to Romeo and Juliet, along with an ending about as cheerful.   The final tale is The House of Seven Gables (the scale model house only depicts two: perhaps there are 5 more on the rear?), Hawthorne's masterpiece dealing with guilt, society’s and his own (his ancestor was one of the judges) over the Salem Witch trials.  Price, as Gerald Pynchon, leads a strong cast in this somber tale of evil, ghosts, greed and a hatred that destroys everything, including the house itself.  The effects here are primitive but the spirit of the piece is fine.


From serious to sublime camp in the Dr. Phibes movies, which contain one of Price's most inspired on screen characterizations.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a revenge tale literally of Biblical proportions.  After the loss of his beloved wife, Elizabeth, and his own accident racing to her side in hospital, Dr. Anton Phibes devises a plan to kill all those associated with the operation that cost her life.  Modeling the murders on the ten plagues of the bible, Phibes knocks off each victim with style, camp, humor and, yes, a touch of horror: death by locusts, bees, hail, rats & bats are just a sampling of what's to come.


Phibes and his assistant, the lovely Vulnavia, do not speak per say; Price mimes the words that he broadcasts radio like through a variety of apparatuses, his facial expressions harkening back to the silent film era.  Price's old friend Joseph Cotton plays the head surgeon responsible for Elizabeth's death and lends an air of believability to the stylized proceedings. The horribly scarred, miming Phibes is a hoot and a half and his clockwork band is inspired madness.  This is one of the top ten of camp horror.  The sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again is nearly as good, this time the plot revolves around resurrecting his wife Elizabeth and his race for the revivifying elixir hidden in a tomb in Egypt.  Once again Phibes comes up with elaborate ways to knock off his rival's henchmen. Robert Quarry, Peter Jeffrey and Terry Thomas reprise appearances in the original, and are joined by horror legend Peter Cushing.  Abominable! has been beautifully restored and is crisp, clear and vibrant.  Unfortunately, that is not the case with Rises Again, which is average; some scratches and marks from the original print can be seen and the vibrancy is lacking.


Theater of Blood may be the sleeper in this seven movie set.  Edward Lionheart was a role made for Price if ever there was one.  Lionheart is a second rate Shakespearean actor who becomes unhinged when he does not receive a critical award he expects. Seeing Price playing Shakespeare badly is simply glorious.  Years after supposedly committing suicide (while trilling Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy), the critics who voted on the awards panel begin to die horribly, one by one, each in a death drawn from a Shakespeare production in Lionheart's final season.  The death scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello and the Merchant of Venice are fairly predictable (if gory) but Cymbelline, Henry VI Part I and Richard III are inspired if obscure.  The coup de grace or icing on the cake, if you will, is Titus Andronicus: what's baked in the pies is a culinary horror of, well, pseudo-Shakespearean proportions.  A veritable plethora of glitzy co-stars include Diana Rigg, Robert Morley, Jack Hawkins, Diana Dors and Milo O'Shea.  The films appearance is average and the sound is occasionally spotty, but all-in-all, it is passable.


The least effective film of the lot is Madhouse.  Once again, murders begin to pile up surrounding an actor, Paul Toombes, whose wife is brutally murdered, resulting in a nervous breakdown.  When he comes out of the asylum, he is reluctantly convinced into once again starring as "Dr. Death," this time on TV, and the series of heinous murders, mimicking deaths from his old movies, begin.   The plot is tired and the writer's seem to realize it and, so, there is a twist.  Be forewarned, however: any film that ends with a line about 'sour cream and red herrings' is liable to elevate the old blood pressure in ways neither anticipated nor desired.  Once again, Cushing and Quarry co-star. In an interesting, if cost cutting maneuver, clips from Price's old American International films are used in a retrospective of 'Dr. Death's' films, so there are brief  "appearances" by Boris Karloff (The Raven) and Basil Rathbone (Tales of Terror, above) and scenes from The Pit and the Pendulum.  In fact, the later brings the most dramatic tension to Madhouse that can be managed with a intercutting of The Pit's most dramatic scene with the Madhouse's own denouement.


This crosses the line between homage and outright theft, albeit picking one's own pocket.  For British TV buffs, there is an "interview" scene with Paul Toombes with a young Michael Parkinson from the now renowned legendary interview show, Parkinson.  Unfortunately, in the end, all these gimmicks can not rescue Madhouse from its continuity problems: see 'red herrings', above.  Though the weakest film in the box for a variety of reasons, all in all it is a bit of flawed fun, with an appearance and sound that are adequate.


The last feature film is Witchfinder General and it is close to best of box.  This film's legendary status can almost work against it; those who've waited years to see it sometimes ask what's the fuss?  It is at once a product of its time and timeless.  Its storied legend includes being billed in Britain as Edgar Allan Poe's Witchfinder General, when in reality it was loosely based on an historical novel of the same name by Ronald Bassett.  In America, it was released as The Conqueror Worm, in a slightly demented attempt to yet again squeeze Edgar Poe dry, with Price reading the Poe poem over the opening credits.  The film itself is captioned Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General and this is probably the proper title.  The third film by auteur director Michael Reeves, whatever you call it, it was one of the most violent films of its day.  Reeves was upset with the casting of Price as Matthew Hopkins and he let him know it; there was no love lost between the two.  Despite this, or perhaps, because of it, Price gives one of the best performances of his career.  Gone are the camp and clichés attached to the Price franchise; no arching eyebrows, no wicked smile, no metaphoric wink to the audience, and what remains is the actor and he comports himself well, indeed.


In later years, Price admitted his distaste for Reeves and, tellingly, also acknowledged that he felt it was one of his best roles.  The extreme violence of the film, tame in comparison to, say, today's torture/porn franchise Saw, covers the full gamut, literally and metaphorically: sadism, torture, rape, depravity and sexual exploitation.  Set in England in a time of political upheaval, Hopkins journeys from town to hamlet in search of witches and the fee local corrupt officials will pay him to flush them out.  The turmoil throughout 16th century England lets someone like Hopkins run amok in the name of social order and one doesn't have to think long to see a very real connection to today's political climate.  In fact, this movie is more relevant than when I first viewed it over 10 years ago and the irony is tragic, indeed.  The horror here is all too real and one would be justified to categorize this as more a violent historical film than true horror.   The film shifts dramatically about halfway through to a vengeance film, with leading man Ian Ogilvy (of Return Of The Saint, playing Richard Marshall) going all out to avenge his slain fiancée, so much so that he becomes that which he pursues.  Perhaps most chilling of all are the scenes of the crowds passively witnessing the hangings and burnings, at one point even cooking potatoes in the same fire that has just consumed a supposed witch.  The film has been cleaned up considerably since my own previous viewings and this adds dramatically to its power.   The original, eerie score has been restored in all its glory.


In a tale so bizarre as to be seemingly fictional, a truly horrific moog score was substituted for the original in the 80's when Orion, who had bought AIP, sold the rights to the music to a beer company for a commercial.


The final disc consists of three biographical extras, totaling just over 60 minutes: Vincent Price: Renaissance Man, The Art of Fear and Working with Vincent Price.   Along with Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic featurette on the Witchfinder General Disc, 3 of the 4 extras are obviously taken from the same set of interviews and divided up, with The Art of Fear done separately. They are all mildly informative and interesting, covering Price's life and career from a variety of viewpoints, including fellow actors, critics and friends.


It is, of course, fair to say that none of us are perfect and neither is The Vincent Price Scream Legends box.   But all things considered, this is a generous selection of great material of one of the screen's finest purveyor's of chills:  the gracious, thrilling, one-of-a-kind "scream legend," Vincent Price.



-   Don Wentworth


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