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We’re into the home stretch of our November Alfred Hitchcock marathon here at the Grey household. As I type this, we’re gearing up to watch Psycho. Which means that I should have a marathon wrap-up post coming to you very soon.

When I started this project, I’d hoped to have a variety of guest posts to carry us through the month, but various logistical difficulties meant that mostly didn’t happen. But I did get one guest post, anyway, from Pseudopod editor Shawn Garrett, who joins us to talk about one of the (many) aspects of Hitchcock’s career that I have completely neglected. So, without further ado, here’s Shawn Garrett on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Hitchcock Brand:

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When I was a child, growing up in the mid-70’s, as a fan of all things scary I was well aware of Alfred Hitchcock. How could that be, you ask – we’re talking about a period in which I was roughly 8 to 12 years old and Alfred Hitchcock made very adult movies. Well, you see, Mr. Hitchcock was a very savvy man and he naturally understood a little thing which marketers would later come to call “branding.”

First of all, Hitch’s movies were being constantly replayed on television at this time – and this was back in the day when you had to catch something when it was on, or you risked not having the chance to see it again for years and years (thus, every movie was an event – paid attention to closely and imprinted on your mind for dissection with your peers or on your own). I won’t bend the truth here – I’ll admit that most of the Hitchcock films I saw as a child did not hold my interest, or at least didn’t begin to until I hit my teens. Like a lot of Western movies, it would take an adult’s perspective for me to later grow to appreciate subtle nuances like character dynamics and plot development – at that age, I was looking to be scared. Understandably, certain ones did stick. The Birds, obviously, and I remember being severely discomfited by Marnie and the bits I saw of Frenzy (understandably so). Psycho was, like Night of the Living Dead, one of those rare cinematic grails that eluded me for quite some time. I saw more pop-culture references to Psycho (Anthony Perkins on Saturday Night Live and a particularly funny segment of Don Adams’ old game show Screen Test both leap to mind) than I had chances to see the actual film.

Then there were the paperback anthologies – Death Bag, Scream Along with Me, Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV, Breaking the Scream Barrier and the like – all stuffed with stories culled from genre and pulp classics or the equally omnipresent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (which must have been a favorite of my deceased Grandfather as I discovered a stash of them in my Grandmother’s back pantry in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn). Again, while I was a voracious reader of short fiction by this point in my life (thank you, bookmobile and Scholastic Scope), I didn’t have the maturity to grasp the point of crime and noir fiction but I would relish the creepy covers on the paperbacks and dip into them from time to time to discover a gem or two (in particular, I have vivid memories of a story about Jack The Ripper’s knife, and a longish science-fiction piece about an ever-growing blob of energy that prowls an isolated lake-shore community absorbing the inhabitants – this would have been “Dune Roller” from 1960 by Julian May, later filmed as The Cremators in 1972).

On top of all this, Hitch was savvy enough to brand himself for the children’s market, long before R.L. Stine and the like! Wondrous anthologies like Monster Museum (with truly creepy collage artwork by Earl E. Mayan) and Ghostly Gallery were right up my alley – introducing me to genre greats by assuming I was capable of reading stories originally written for adults (like the notorious “Slime” by Joseph Payne Brennan and “The Desrick on Yandro” by Manly Wade Wellman) which I’m still convinced is the best way to get kids reading short fiction. Equally important to my young world were the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, which grabbed my imagination when THE HARDY BOYS proved to be a bust (as Bart Simpson said re: the Hardy’s mysteries, it truly was “always smugglers”). I could wax eloquent about the intrepid trio (and their creator/author Robert Arthur, one of Hitch’s personal editors) but I do have a time limit here. Suffice it to say, in retrospect it surprises me there was no Alfred Hitchcock anthology comic book to compete with Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery.

When Orrin asked if there was a Hitchcock film I’d like to write about, I asked in turn if I could compose this piece on Alfred Hitchcock Presents – probably the most important piece of Hitch branding there ever was. I loved anthology shows as a kid and while I tended to go for more fantastic fare like The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond, it seemed like AHP was continually programmed in syndication throughout my youth. Watching the show with my mother or grandmother taught me how to appreciate subtly crafted stories of suspense and macabre humor. It stamped the figure of Alfred Hitchcock into my mind so strongly that I had no problem imagining him as a character when he showed up in the Three Investigator books – no “Hector Sebastian” (the ersatz figure they replaced Hitch with in later printings after the director’s contract deal had expired) for me!

Of course, Alfred Hitchcock did not direct every episode of Presents – in fact, he personally directed only 17 of the 200-plus shows – but that misses the point. Week after week, the entire show served to reinforce a brand character for Alfred Hitchcock – the catchy, limping “Funeral March of a Marionette” opening music by Charles Gounod, the memorable caricature/logo and, of course, the droll and macabre monologues which presented the whole topic of crime and murder (while also taking some stabs at the commercial sponsors) with deadpan humor and charm (“Good Eveeeening”). AHP could run the gamut from tough noir gangster pieces to suburban homicide comedies to “twist in their tale” yarns and you never knew what to expect. Some of my strongest memories of being seriously unnerved as a child come from episodes of the show:

Joseph Cotten paralyzed by a car accident and about to be autopsied in “Breakdown”

David Wayne menaced by a motorcycle cop as he’s trying to transport his wife’s murdered corpse in “One More Mile To Go”

The powerful doppelganger episode “The Case of Mr. Pelham” (as a rule AHP tended to not feature fantasy genre content, but every once in a while they would pitch a change-up to throw you off guard) this episode features one of the most chillingly matter-of-fact lines I’ve ever heard: “You’re mad, you know?”

“The Glass Eye” (one of a number of episodes about ventriloquism) has a twist most modern viewer will almost certainly guess, but the deployment of it is still very disturbing.

Lonely spinster June Lockhart marries a man through a lonely hearts club but begins to suspect he may be spending an inordinate amount of time in the basement towards devious ends in “The Second Wife”

And finally, perhaps the strongest memory I have of the show is catching a repeat (in broad daylight no less) of the fifth season episode “Special Delivery”, adapted from “Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” by Ray Bradbury. As the plot of this episode began to unfold into the climax (a father suspects there may be something sinister in his son’s mushroom cultivating hobby), my young self began to sloooooowly and uncontrollably back out of the room, eyes fixed on the screen, fascinated but terrified of what might appear when a shadowed face came into the light. I stood in the hall doorway, ready to literally turn tail and run if the episode paid off on its suggested imagery, paralyzed but unable to not watch. It still remains one of my most pleasing memories of pure terror.

I would suggest anyone who desires to experience some quality television to consider accessing the series through Netflix – you’ll get great stories (adapted from the likes of Roald Dahl, Dorothy L. Sayers, Cornell Woolrich & Ray Bradbury, just to name a few), great actors (John Forsythe, Darren McGavin, Joseph Cotten and on and on and on – memorable character actor Henry Jones from The Bad Seed is in quite a few episodes) and great directors (Robert Altman, Arthur Hiller, John Brahm, etc.). While not every episode is a winner, the show is so consistently good that I feel secure in saying that you will not be disappointed.

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My friends Richard Gavin and Ian Rogers both tagged me simultaneously as part of their Next Big Thing posts (which you can learn more about by following those links). The gist of the idea is that you answer ten standard questions about your next/newest book, and then tag five other authors who do the same a week later. Like both of them, I’ll be talking mostly about a book that just came out, rather than one that is on its way…

1. What is the working title of your next book?

My debut collection Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings was just released by Evileye Books. It’s a collection of ten of my supernatural stories, including my previously out-of-print novella The Mysterious Flame. The title comes from the shortest story I ever wrote, a 150-word flash piece that opens the collection that was done as an entry into a contest  that Jeff VanderMeer held as part of his work on the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. (It didn’t win.)

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Short story collections are my very favorite types of books, and short stories are pretty much all I write, so putting together my first collection has always been the plan. The ideas for the individual stories that make up Never Bet the Devil came from all over the place; old horror movies, comic books, other supernatural tales, etc. The specific influences of each story are discussed in the author’s notes that are included in the book, because I love that kind of stuff.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

I always have a lot of trouble answering this question. In a bookstore, you’d find it on the “horror” shelf. “Supernatural horror” is what Richard Gavin said in his answer to this question, and I think that’s a true answer for mine as well. At other times I’ve used phrases like “weird fiction, “strange fiction,” and “dark fiction.” When people outside the field ask me what I write, I have taken to saying “ghost stories,” and while many of the stories I write don’t actually contain what are usually thought of as ghosts, it does seem to get the idea across pretty well.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love movies, and I love fan-casting, but since this is a collection of different stories, all with different characters, it’s hard to answer this question. That said, I would try my mightiest to work Jeffrey Combs in there somehow.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

I’m not good at this sort of thing, but here’s the (cheating!) two-sentence synopsis from the official ad sheet:

Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings is the first collection of supernatural tales from acclaimed author Orrin Grey. These ten stories haunted by ghosts, ghouls, and other anomalies are a unique tincture of the classic sensibilities of writers like M.R. James, Lovecraft, and Poe, mixed with contemporary comic book and cinematic influences to create an elixir that is equal parts wonder and unease.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Never Bet the Devil was published by Evileye Books.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The stories in Never Bet the Devil were written variously over the course of the last ten years or so, though most of them were written in the last three or four years. The first draft of The Mysterious Flame, the novella that makes up a little over a third of the book and is the longest single thing I’ve ever written, took me about six months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The comics of Mike Mignola, of course. (See the answer to question #9, below.) Lovecraft, Leiber, M.R. James, E.F. Benson, William Hope Hodgson, Jean Ray, etc. Comparing oneself to modern writers is always awkward, but since Ian Rogers and Richard Gavin both tagged me in this thing, I think it’s safe enough to say that I sometimes flatter myself that if you like their work, you might also like mine.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve got a lot of inspirations, and I tend to like to talk about all of them at great length. But the biggest one is Mike Mignola. This book is dedicated to him, and he’s the person who had the single biggest impact on my approach to supernatural storytelling. He tells a story in a lot of his interviews about how, when he read Dracula for the first time, he suddenly knew what he wanted to do with his life. I had a similar moment, but for me it wasn’t Dracula, but Mignola’s own work on Hellboy that provided that jolt.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

In addition to my stories and author’s notes and assorted rambling, the book is fully illustrated by the great Bernie Gonzalez, who also provided illustrations for the hardcover edition of Fungi, which I just co-edited with Silvia Moreno-Garcia for Innsmouth Free Press. (And which is presently available for pre-order for a couple more days!)

There you go. Sadly, I haven’t managed to tag five authors, since a couple of the people I tried to tag turned out to have already been gotten to by others first. So here’s a couple of authors, and my apologies for bodging: Molly Tanzer & John Hornor Jacobs.

Well, it looks like, due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ve dropped the ball on the last installment of my Vincent Price Halloween countdown. If I’m able to run John Langan’s piece in the next couple of days, I’ll definitely put it up and let everyone know. In the meantime, I hope everybody enjoyed the Vincent Price Halloween festivities, and my sincere thanks to all the great creators who participated.  In case you missed any installments, here they all are, in link form:

Silvia Moreno-Garcia on The Tingler
Richard Gavin on The Tomb of Ligeia
Gemma Files on Dr. Phibes
Jesse Bullington on Witchfinder General
S.J. Chambers on The Last Man on Earth
Drazen Kozjan on The Pit and the Pendulum 

When I started all this, there was one thing I didn’t take into consideration: What a tough act I was setting myself up to follow. So, what’s my call for a Vincent Price movie suggestion for Halloween? It’s a tough choice, as you can see by the wide variety of films covered here already. I could list a ton, many of which have already been talked about at length by my other contributors, and it’s pretty safe to say that any movie with Price in it is a pretty safe bet. But if I had to pick just one movie from Price’s oeuvre to suggest for Halloween, it’d be Comedy of Terrors.

For me, Halloween is about more than just scariness. We do that all year round. There’s a certain fun to Halloween, too. A certain mixture of scariness and silliness. And while most of Price’s films might well be considered to fit that bill, Comedy of Terrors is one of a comparatively few overtly comedic outings.

It’s got quite a pedigree, both behind the camera and before it. Screenplay by Richard Matheson (showing he knows comedy as well as horror). Directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Night of the Demon, etc). A cast including Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone. It works nicely as a companion piece with similar comedic outings (with pretty much the same casts) The Raven and the comedic “Black Cat” segment of Tales of Terror. For my money, though, Comedy of Terrors is the sharpest of them. Not beholden to any Poe story, though shot through with many elements native to Price’s many Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, it is freed up to tell the delightfully dark story of a murderous undertaker (Price) who kills his clients in their own homes in order to keep himself in business.

All the actors are joys to watch, and Tourneur and Matheson bring enough wit, adroitness, and enough Gothic trappings to make for a truly spectacular Halloween foray.

So, barring a late-falling installment, this’ll be it for the Vincent Price Halloween. You can expect to hear more from me about my weekend’s festivities and the like very soon, and you can expect to see some changes made around this website come November. For now, though, I’m off to return to seasonal celebrations, and I hope everyone out there has a great day on this spookiest time of the year.

Drazen Kozjan is an illustrator living in Toronto. His next picture book Working Mummies by Joan Horton will be released in 2012, but I first got to know his work from his brilliant webcomic The Happy Undertaker, which you can also follow on Facebook. He went above and beyond the call of duty for our Vincent Price Halloween countdown, providing not only our longest writeup so far but also a special illustration, which I’ll include at the conclusion of the post, all for The Pit and the Pendulum:

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The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the second in in Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptions following the success of The Fall of the House of Usher, holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. Like the stories of Poe, which were the doorway to lifelong enthusiasm for macabre literature, watching this film on television as a youngster in the seventies was one of the first horror cinema experiences that impacted me. The films title and startling end set piece of a human being tied down in a bleary, blue drenched dungeon while a massive hatcheted pendulum swung inexorably down upon him impressed itself on my brain, ushering countless hours of horror movie viewing and a life long appreciation of Vincent Price, the mentally shattered, maniacal, wielder of this towering instrument of death and star of this movie.

The film also introduced me to one of my favourite “scream queens”, Barbara Steele, whose majority of movies I wouldn’t see till years later, and writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Twilight Zone episodes) as well as director Roger Corman. All to become future staples of a horror diet.

I re-watched The Pit and the Pendulum and by no means a writer of reviews, I did my best to briefly convey my thoughts on why the movie jarred me then and why it impresses me still. I guess there are spoilers if you haven’t seen it, if such things matter to you .

Poe’s terror stories never went beyond the short form, believing them the best vehicle for his theory of “unity of effect”. A reader, in a single reading, would be enveloped in a relentless mood of dread, despair, decay, and an escalating horror in the fevered mind and words of the narrator of of one of his tales.

Expanding one of Poe’s nightmare jewels into feature script is already a difficult (and probably losing) proposition but director Roger Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson do an admirable job that does justice to his bleak vision and tortured internal landscapes and creates a portrait of obsession and decay that I find hypnotic.

Opening with a suitably sixties psychedelic liquid gel title sequence and haunting, almost abstract music by Les Baxter, the movie already gives a hint that we are on shaky mental ground and headed for a colour soaked mind trip. A brief carriage ride by Francis Barnard (John Kerr) and a walk through a nondescript, eerily dreamy forest up to the door of the looming, gothic castle of Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) on the edge of ceaselessly turbulent sea are the only signs of the outside world that we will see during the course of the film .

By setting the story entirely within the confines of the castle, Corman makes a great decision. The castle, its memories and ghosts, shadows and corridors, opulent furnishings and netherworldly dungeons become a reflection of Price’s anguished mind and the tumultuous relationships, past and present, of the story.

Francis is here to find out more about the mysterious death of his sister, Elizabeth, who was Nicholas’ wife. Greeted at the door by Catherina Medina (Luana Anders) , Nicholas’ sister,
he is being led to her tomb when the castle erupts in monstrous groanings and creaks from somewhere behind the stone walls and heavy doors. Investigating, Francis is greeted by an obviously high-strung Price, whose startled face leaps from behind a door anticipating Francis’ entry. I love Price’s delivery of a line here as he explains away the mysterious sounds as “It’s an apparatus that must be kept in constant repair.” … what kind of apparatus makes noises like these, we wonder.

From his first appearance Price’s performance is a spectacular one. Moving effortlessly between romantic reminiscence of his dead wife to frayed nerve despair, he plays the character to the hilt but never so much that the tragedy of his character is not evident or taking one out of the story (at least not me).

Elizabeth Medina (Barbara Steele) first appears in blue tinted flashbacks over Price’s narration, relating the story of the initial joy of their union to the gradual disintegration of Elizabeth as she becomes tortured by the oppressive history of the castle and the memory of Price’s father, a infamous inquisitor who tortured innumerable people in the castle dungeon. She eventually becomes sickly, not eating and dies after a illness succumbing to the horrors of her mind.

Elizabeth’s brother, skeptical, is told Price’s story in a flashback by his sister attempting to justify his questionable behaviour. She tells of how Nicolas as a boy, was witness to the murder of his mother and his Uncle by his father Sebastian (also Price) in the dungeon after confronting them with their adultery. After pummelling the uncle with a hot poker, Price tortures his wife and puts her in a iron maiden. Thus Price is consumed with guilt, he watched the death of his mother, as well as being helpless to stop the death of his own wife.

Price’s friend, Doctor Leone (Antony Carbone) who has arrived and stays to comfort Nicolas, attempts to alleviate the brother’s suspicions but to no avail.

The brother continues to be skeptical as the memory of Elizabeth seems to take on supernatural, material existence , her voice is heard through the castle, her room upheaved and her painting torn, all bringing Price closer and closer to collapse, fearing Elizabeth is coming to avenge her death on him, as we then learn, because she has been possibly buried alive. Upon opening her crypt, this in fact appears to be the case. Price is terrific through all this, at first denying he has anything to do with Elizabeth’s apparent haunting, as Francis accuses him, to then wondering if he is in fact doing this destruction and is so far gone he doesn’t realize it.

Price’s exuberant performance is wonderfully enhanced by Roger Corman’s direction, Floyd Crosby’s cinematography, and Daniel Haller’s art direction. Corman composes beautiful Panavision shots, drenched in colour or submerged in shadows. There is a feeling of hugeness, vast rooms and endless hallways juxtaposed by a claustrophobia within that same space, like it’s all closing in no matter how big the castle,or luxurious the furnishings, and mirroring the character’s psychic upheaval and decline. All the while outside the storm rages and builds.

My favourite section of the movie is the resurrection of Elizabeth. A real tour de force. The camera follows the haunted Price as he is pulled by Elizabeth’s ethereal call of his name, he moves anguished, through cobwebbed , mazelike corridors , her voice eventually leading him to her tomb. Here, as her bloodied hand appears from her stone casket, Steele gets an amazing entrance. Rising, she is kept in shadow as she stalks the fracturing Price through the halls . Only when he collapses on the dungeon floor, his mind broken, do we see her appear from the shadows. A beautiful “corpse” hovering demonically over her shattered husband . As the the doctor enters revealing the adulterous affair between them Steele is a joy to watch as she revels in torturing Nicolas, who stares vacantly, and talks of how she waited “a eternity for this” invoking the spirit of Nicolas’s dead mother and perhaps other victims of the dungeon as well.

Nicholas’ mind now gone, in turn becomes inhabited by the spirit of his father Sebastian who sees not Elizabeth but Price’s mother, and begins to exact his revenge on the adulterous couple!

The music of Les Baxter during this whole sequence is remarkable as well. Baxter doesn’t’ go heavy on anticipating or heightening moments, playing the viewer easily, but instead the music seems to hover underneath reinforcing the dread, eventually breaking apart as well, in stabs, bursts and echoes, musical bats flying out of the darkness.

From here on Price is at his deliriously sinister best, the last vestiges of tender hearted romantic, Nicholas obliterated he is fully possessed by the apocalyptic spirit of Sebastian, and wearing his inquisitor garb, he lets loose the hell at his disposal, taking the movie to the delirious pendulum climax. At one point in sadistic glee speaking the lines, “… the razor’s edge of death, the pit and the pendulum, thus the condition of man, bound on an island from which he can never hope to escape, surrounded by the waiting pit of hell , subject to the inexorable pendulum of fate, which must destroy him finally.”

Hell yeah!

S.J. Chambers is another of my very best friends, a talented author, a Poe scholar, co-author of The Steampunk Bible, and articles editor at Strange Horizons. Surprisingly, when I asked her to contribute something to the Vincent Price Halloween countdown, she didn’t pick one of the many Corman/Price Poe films, but gravitated instantly to the great Richard Matheson adaptation The Last Man on Earth, which by chance I also talked about in my latest column for Innsmouth Free Press:

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Solitude.  Time for one to collect their thoughts. To sort out one’s memories. It always sounds idyllic—probably in a cabin in the woods, or a hammock on the beach, and impossible in a living and thriving world where people are everywhere.  If only they would disappear, just for a few minutes, one could clear one’s head.  But, then of course, the people do disappear, or begin to lay undead in the streets, and the Solitude, the anticipated respite, the quiet becomes your worst enemy.

The Last Man on Earth is my favorite Price film of all time, because for its first twenty minutes, Price, as Dr. Robert Morgan, take us on a tour through true solitude. I can’t think of any other film that simulates the complexity of loneliness like LMOE.  Because there is no one to talk too, it is silent with the exception of  Price’s ruminative voiceover uttering thoughts like:

“Another day,”
“…empty silent world”
“I’ll settle for coffee and orange juice this morning”
“Now it bores me”
“I can’t live a heartbeat away from hell. Forget it.”

Thought fragments that help imbue the story which is further developed by the juxtaposition of his routine and the objects that crowd his house.

Performed by any other actor, this fragmented form of visual storytelling could easily fall flat, but transformed through Price’s poise, the sanity, the composure the character tries to keep, waivers every second on his face.  As he walks aimlessly through his home, contemplating all the relics from his old life, his face waxes and wanes under the memories and associations, only to return to a disgusted, yet Zen-like expression that is, well…Priceless.

What is also lovely about this first 20 minutes is it keeps conjuring up emotional questions in the viewer that keeps them following Dr. Morgan, who has nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to love and be loved by, yet he carries on.  Why? He has been liberated from the world—no job, no family, yet, he creates tasks for himself to keep himself sane.  What does he need the sanity for?  To wait it all out? For the lonely plague to dissipate? Because he believes he isn’t the last man on Earth?  Well, yes.  While we all long for solitude, no one wants to be the last person on earth.

Jesse Bullington is one of my best friends, though we’ve only met in person a paltry once. Not only does he sport some fine facial hair, but he’s also the author of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and The Enterprise of Death, as well as a handful of truly excellent short stories. (We’ve even shared a table of contents a time or two.) Like all the contributor’s to this Vincent Price Halloween, he’s a big fan of good old Uncle Vincent, and especially of the film he’s discussing here, Witchfinder General:

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We love Vincent Price. This is not up for discussion. We relish his wanton disregard for restraint, his commitment to entertaining the audience no matter how bland the screenplay, how pedestrian the plot. We cheer as he sinks his teeth into the scenery, as he stalks and schemes and rages, as he kills, as kill he must. Even in mostly humorless films, such as The Last Man on Earth, Price’s flair for the theatrical bleeds through, and the result is an actor who always seems to be having so much fun that we can’t help but be caught up in his charisma, even when’s he wailing for a dead wife or cackling as he tortures an innocent victim. I very much doubt I would be the person I am today without Uncle Vince to tutor me in the delicate art of camp, of mixing horror and humor to fine result, and just thinking about his wracked facial expressions brings a smile to my face.

Yet it’s not The Abominable Dr. PhibesTheatre of Blood, nor any of the others that stands out as favorite child in a much-loved brood, important though those films were for Young Moi. No, Price was capable of a restraint not often displayed in his horror fare, from his Kentucky gentleman in the noir Laura to his bittersweet final role as the inventor in Edward Scissorhands, and it’s one of these toned-down performances that I count as my very favorite: his portrayal of the infamous 17th century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins in the English filmWitchfinder General, retitled The Conqueror Worm in the states to cash in on Price’s Poe cachet. As a child, I put in a battered betamax tape fully expecting to root for Uncle Vince as he went about his dastardly way, only to be profoundly disturbed, not just by the overall film, but by Price’s genuinely sinister performance.

Of course, I absolutely loved the experience, but in remarkably different fashion than anything else of his I’d ever seen. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that perhaps part of the cruel gleam in Price’s eye might have resulted from his hatred for the director, Michael Reeves, who had no love for Price, either, but that’s neither here nor there–the point is, Price creeped me right the hell out, and single-handedly inspired what has become a lifelong passion for witch-hunters and well-done historical horror. Much of the witch-hunter sub-genre is awful, such as Christopher Lee’s The Bloody Judge, some of it comes close to greatness only to fumble the stake at some point, such as Blood on Satan’s Claw (which had it’s originally-planned, pitch-black ending completely changed to placate censors), and some of it is every bit as good as Witchfinder General, such as Ken Russel’s The Devils, which features Oliver Reed at his best. One or two witchsniffer flicks may even be better in a lot of ways, such as the recent, quietly brilliant Black Death … but for me, always and forever, Witchfinder General stands firm as the quintessential witch-hunter pic. Few films, before or since, have left me as imprinted with horror as the ending of the US release of the film, which has Price delivering the final lines of the Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” to chilling effect. Much as I delight in cheering on Uncle Vince, in sharing in his malicious victories and deserved defeats alike, I’ll always love him best for the role where he made me hate him, and with good reason–he scared the bejesus out of me.

Gemma Files is a celebrated author and film critic whose most recent books are A Book of Tongues and A Rope of Thorns. I met her at World Horror this year, and found her to be not only a wonderful conversationalist, but also one of the few people I’ve ever encountered whose knowledge of film puts my own thoroughly to shame. So when it came time to solicit people for my Vincent Price Halloween countdown, she was one of the first people I thought of. Here, she talks about both The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its successor Dr. Phibes Rises Again:

***

My first official encounter with Vincent Price came via The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a Canadian-made children’s comedy-horror show which used to run very early in the morning on CityTV. Price appeared as the host, intoning little pre-shot rhyming set-ups for the various segments, most of which starred local actor Billy Van under tonnes of unconvincing makeup. I was never entirely sure how to “take” the show overall, let alone Price’s performance; on the one hand, these bits were obviously meant to be funny, or they wouldn’t rhyme (this was my child’s logic), but the way he chose to emphasize various things, the weird rhythm and intonation he brought to every line, the weariness in his eyes, the cruelly faded, fleshy handsomeness of his face…it was a conundrum. It made me uncomfortable, which in turn kept me watching, even though I found myself saddled over and over with Van’s vaudevillian B.S.—a guru pelted with flowers, a gorilla felled by golf-balls, a werewolf deejay and an obese lab assistant dancing to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in front of a psychedelic background—rather than the far creepier, more dreadful truths that Price appeared to hint were coming.

Whenever I ran across Price later on, therefore, in more classic roles—as the titular character’s baffled brother in the original The Fly, for example, or Prince Prospero in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death—there always seemed to be something a bit “off” about him, as though he was doing a bad imitation of “himself”. Which may, I suppose, be why the two Price movies that work best for me are probably his simultaneously oddest, most eccentric and least dependent on vocal performance: Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again, in which Price plays Anton Phibes, “a doctor, scientist, organist and Biblical scholar” whose horribly scarred, probably undead visage is eternally hidden behind a slightly ill-fitting rubber mask cast in his own image, and who (much like DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, another camp masterpiece whose main character is played for anything but laughs) is unable to speak at all unless he plugs an amplifier cord into the side of his neck.

Blaming the medical professionals who were unable to save his beloved wife from death for her demise, Dr. Phibes has spent years plotting an arcane and complex revenge that requires him to live in an Art Deco underground lair full of musical automata, sleeping next to his wife’s glass coffin and rising to exact ridiculously complex, “punishment fits the crime”-type revenge on every member of that fatal team. Like Saw‘s Jigsaw, he has a strict theme to keep to—in this case, all the murders are based on the Ten Plagues of Egypt, thus allowing him to substitute enbalming while alive for the waters turning to blood and a wind-up frog-mask whose clockwork mechanism slowly vice-grips one doctor’s head until his skull cracks for the plague of frogs. All this culminates with the death of the first-born, in which team leader Joseph Cotton must operate on his own son in order to retrieve the key which will prevent acid from dripping on the boy’s face.

Phibes is aided in his plans by Vulnavia, a mysterious, beautiful mute who appears to be as desperately in love with him as he is with his deceased spouse. As his lair burns at the end of the first film, he and Vulnavia share an open-mouthed (in his case, his mask having been ripped off sometime shortly before, very open-mouthed) kiss that has all the hallmarks of a Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe update, and has haunted my dreams ever since. Recently, on the Space Channel’s Fanboy Confidential‘s “Horror” episode, I watched Rue Morgue cover artist Gary Pullin get this very moment inscribed on his body in glorious grey and white, and envied him. It’s the ultimate “Death & the Maiden” scenario, simultaneously tearjerking and gag-inducing.

While Dr Phibes Rises Again can’t possibly top its predecessor, it’s still extremely strange—artificial, grandiose, big-W Weird. And both films definitely fill a niche no one else has ever (thus far) dared to occupy, effortlessly knitting camp to opera, humor to horror, style to substance; the stakes are high throughout and the payoff unique, to say the least. For a Hallowe’en night double-bill you probably haven’t seen before, therefore, you could certainly do a whole lot worse.