You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor more synonymous with horror than Vincent Price. After working in the theater and as a character actor, Price became a notable film noir baddie, with roles in Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, and The Bribe.
But in 1939, the course of horror cinema changed when he appeared in Tower of London with Boris Karloff. Although it was a historical film based on Richard III, the inclusion of Karloff as a gruesome torturer/executioner caught the attention of horror fans, and Price played the Duke of Clarence alongside him. Over the years, Price would always keep one foot in non-horror genres, acting in The Ten Commandments, The Whales of August, and as a voice in The Great Mouse Detective, but it’s now impossible to imagine horror films without him now.
And what better time to take a deep dive than the spooky days of October? These 20 Vincent Price films deliver Halloween chills to echo all month long.
House of Wax (1953)
One of Price’s most famous films is House of Wax, although modern moviegoers may be more likely to have seen the 2005 remake. Price is Henry Jarrod, a sculptor who runs a wax museum with his business partner, Burke, with whom he tussles over whether or not to make the museum a bit more lurid. Burke gets involved in an insurance scam and burns down the museum, destroying the exhibits and nearly killing Jarrod, leaving him disfigured. Jarrod is able to recover enough to rebuild his museum, in which he will finally give in and create those gorier, more explicit exhibits that are such people-pleasers. The new museum opens to great acclaim, with amazingly realistic waxworks, some of which resemble some recent murder victims.
Another classic Price film, this one with a 1986 David Cronenberg remake, The Fly is the gruesome tale of a science experiment gone ever so slightly but completely horrifically awry. The film is told in flashback, after Canadian scientist André Delambre is crushed to death, ostensibly by his wife Hélène, as per her confession. To calm her down, André’s brother François (Price) tells her he has caught the fly she has been desperately searching for, and she begins to relate the tale of the events leading up to the tragedy.
It turns out that André invented a matter transporter, and successfully transported himself from one place to another in his laboratory. Unfortunately, he forgot to check the device for flies first, and ended up mushing himself together with the fly, resulting in André with the head and arm of a fly, and a fly with André’s arm and head.
The Bat (1959)
In 1959, Price starred as Dr. Malcolm Wells in this crime thriller about a vicious murderer who has been dubbed ‘The Bat’. The Bat has been ripping out the throats of women all around town, and Wells, who is the town physician and coroner, has himself just killed the town’s bank president, who was offering him a shady deal involving stolen securities. A local girl is bitten by an actual bat, and Wells heads to the laboratory to test it for rabies. It turns out that The Bat has designs on the stolen securities as well as a taste for murder, and eventually comes after Wells, demanding to know where the money has been hidden. Agnes Moorehead co-stars as a mystery author.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Price is in his element as millionaire Frederick Loren, whose idea of fun is inviting five strangers to stay locked in a haunted house overnight, promising them $10,000 if they agree. He’s throwing the party with his fourth wife, Annabelle, whom he suspects is trying to poison him, and she in turn suspects he might have killed his previous wives, creating an already tense situation even before you throw in the supposedly haunted house. It becomes immediately apparent that the house might indeed be haunted, with ghostly apparitions and then an apparent suicide. The guests are doubting their own senses, and genuine fear starts to kick in.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
This was film number two in a series of eight directed by Roger Corman, starring Price, and based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Don’t expect a faithful adaptation here, the only real similarity with Poe’s 1842 short story is with the titular pit and pendulum. The 1961 film is set in Spain in the 1500s, and concerns Nicholas Medina (Price), whose wife Elizabeth (scream queen Barbara Steele) perished from a mysterious blood disorder, or so he tells her brother Francis, visiting from England to find out more details. The only person he can get an answer out of is Dr. Leon, who informs Francis that his sister lost her mind and ended up locking herself in an iron maiden in the castle basement, which just so happens to house a torture chamber.
The Raven (1963)
Number five in the above-mentioned Corman/Price/Poe series, this 1963 horror comedy is only barely a Poe adaptation. Price stars alongside horror mavens Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, three 1500s sorcerers. Price is Dr. Craven, unable to get over the death of his wife, Lenore. A raven appears to him, a talking raven that is actually a wizard, a Dr. Bedlo (Lorre), who was turned into a raven by the wicked Dr. Scarabus (Karloff). There are duels and dungeons, magic, murder, and mystery, as each of the three men try to get and maintain the upper hand. One bit of casting you won’t be expecting: Jack Nicholson as Bedlo’s son, Rexford.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
If the story sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of the Will Smith movie, I Am Legend: both are based on Richard Matheson’s classic sci-fi novel. Price plays Dr. Peter Morgan, who is struggling to survive in a world where a disease has turned everyone around into vampires, albeit slow and not too clever vampires. Morgan spends his time killing vampires and fortifying his home with garlic. There is a brief, sweet period when he enjoys the company of a dog, but even the dog cannot escape the plague. Then the unthinkable happens: Morgan meets a woman, Ruth (Franca Bettoia), who is infected but still holding on. Could she be the key to survival?
Theatre of Blood (1973)
In this over-the-top 1973 horror comedy, Price is Edward Lionheart, an actor so humiliated by his colleagues at an award ceremony that he attempts suicide, only to be rescued after jumping into the Thames. He doesn’t get a renewed lease on life, just a taste for vengeance, and, letting everyone assume that he is indeed dead, he begins to avenge himself against every critic who panned his performances, modeling each murder after a Shakespearean killing. Lionheart’s partner in crime is his devoted daughter Edwina (The Avengers’ Diana Rigg), and the two wreak gory, overwrought, Grand Guignol-ish havoc everywhere they go. Rigg, an acclaimed Shakespearean actress, is an especial delight.
House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Four horror greats were brought together for this 1983 horror comedy: Price, Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man, Lord of the Rings), John Carradine (numerous Dracula films), and Peter Cushing (Hammer Frankenstein films, Star Wars). The plot involves a writer (Desi Arnaz, Jr.), who heads to a creepy mansion in Wales in hopes of banging out a gothic masterpiece, and is surprised to find the owner, Lord Grisbane (John Carradine), and his daughter still in residence. During a storm, Grisbane’s sons (Price and Cushing) arrive, and it is revealed that the Lord’s brother is a murderer who has just escaped the room he’s been locked in for 40 years.
Cry of the Banshee (1970)
Price was in familiar territory as an evil witch hunter in this 1970 film (two years earlier, he’d played the title role in Witchfinder General). Set in England in the Elizabethan era, the movie stars Price as Lord Edward Whitman, a magistrate who is hell-bent on stamping out the witches in his town, but he crosses the wrong coven. A witch named Oona curses the family, and the evil spirit summoned possesses the family servant, Roderick, who begins to kill members of the Whitman family, starting with Whitman’s wife and son before the witches turn their attentions towards Whitman’s daughter, who has loved the demon-possessed Roderick for years. The movie credits feature Terry Gilliam’s animation.
The Oblong Box (1969)
Price and Christopher Lee shared the screen for the first time in this 1969 Poe adaptation (not part of the Roger Corman series, although like the Corman films, only very loosely based on Poe). Julian (Price) is an Englishman in the 1800s with a brother, Edward, whom he keeps locked away after his disfigurement in a voodoo ceremony while in Africa. Edward doesn’t like being locked up, and enlists the help of a witch doctor to put him in a trance that leads Julian to believe he is dead. But instead of his ‘body’ being dug up after burial by the witch doctor, graverobbers steal him and deposit him with Dr. Neuhartt (Lee), which leads Edward to conveniently blackmail the doctor, and Edward embarks upon a life of serial killing.
House of Usher (1960)
The first of the Corman/Price/Poe films, this one was more of a faithful adaptation of the Poe story than many of the others. Price plays Roderick Usher, whose sister Madeline is deathly ill with some sort of familial curse, which also affects the miserable, crumbling mansion in which the pair live together. Madeline’s fiancée Phillip has come to the house in hopes of saving her, but is consistently put off by Roderick, who insists there is nothing to be done, and that their family should not continue. Roderick is so determined that the marriage should never occur that when Madeline falls into a deathlike coma, he buries her alive.
Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1946 period piece isn’t straight horror, but Price does his best to sway it in that direction with his portrayal of the gloomy, mysterious Nicholas Van Ryn, a wealthy New York landowner whose young and beautiful cousin, Miranda (Gene Tierney), goes to stay with him and his wife to take care of their young daughter. There’s an immediate attraction between the two, although he’s a cruel landlord, and dismissive of his ill wife, who conveniently dies after eating some bad cake. Miranda and Nicholas marry, and she becomes pregnant, but Nicholas soon starts to get creepy, especially after the tragic death of their newborn. It turns out he’s not only a drug addict, but he murdered his first wife and is in danger of losing his mind.
Scream and Scream Again (1970)
This cult sci-fi film again boasts Price and Christopher Lee, although they only share one scene together at the end. Three plots are interwoven: a London man has collapsed, and every time he wakes up, he discovers another limb has been amputated; a man is paralyzed and killed in a fascist state; and police investigate the rape and murder of two young women. Price is Dr. Browning, who employed one of the women at his clinic, and Lee is a government officer who colludes with a man from a totalitarian state. The stories begin to come together as the police chase a vampiric killer through the countryside, and Dr. Browning’s colleague discovers him trying to put together dismembered body parts.
The Haunted Palace (1963)
This Corman collaboration may get its name from a Poe poem, but it’s much easier to trace its plot to an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Price takes on the role of a 1700s warlock named Joseph Curwen living in Massachusetts, with a double role as Charles Dexter Ward, his descendant 100 years later. Ward has inherited Curwen’s large, looming palace, which overlooks the town of Arkham. Curwen was burned at the stake for allegedly bewitching a young girl, and managed to curse the town right before he died, possibly resulting in a number of deformities among the townspeople. Ward becomes obsessed with a picture of Curwen hanging in the palace, eventually becoming possessed by his great-great-grandfather’s evil spirit.
Diary of a Madman (1963)
Guy de Maupassant’s short story, The Horla, provides the basis for this 1963 horror film. Price’s character, Simon Cordier, has died at the outset of the film, and a friend is reading his diary aloud. Cordier was a magistrate, and his diary tells of his encounter with an evil horla, an invisible being that intends to control him. This particular horla is one of many whose only goal is to drive men insane. Cordier tries to distract himself from his troubles with sculpture, but art is no match for evil, and he murders his model. Cordier soon realizes that the only way to destroy the horla is to destroy himself right along with it.
The Comedy of Terrors (1963)
Riffing off of the previous year’s Tales of Terror, also starring Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone of Sherlock Holmes fame, this 1963 horror comedy added Boris Karloff to its cast. Hinchley (Karloff) and Trumbull (Price) are one-time business partners, and Trumbull still owns the funeral parlor they once owned together. It’s a disreputable place, to say the least, and Trumbull’s assistant Gillie (Lorre) aids and abets him as they reuse the same coffin over and over, committing the odd murder when they’re low on cash. Trumbull’s landlord (Rathbone) threatens to evict him, so he plots to murder a wealthy man in hopes of staging a lavish funeral. Of course, none of this goes to plan.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The penultimate film in the Corman series takes from the title Poe story, as well as from another story called Hop-Frog, and a French short story titled Torture by Hope. Price goes full Satanist as Prince Prospero, an evil Italian nobleman who throws parties in his castle while basically making the lives of the townspeople hell. It’s all quite sordid, and the villagers are tortured for fun until the unveiling of the Red Death, who turns out to be Prince Prospero himself. By the film’s blood-spattered end, there are dancing corpses and only six people left living in the village. It’s gleefully camp with a Satanic spin, and Price is hamming it up at the helm.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
The final Corman film is based on Poe’s short story, Ligeia. Price is the widowed Verdan Fell, recently bereaved of his wife Ligeia, in mourning, but also a little worried about the fact that she died an atheist, as he thinks it means her soul is not at rest. Visiting her grave one day, Fell meets a beguiling young woman named Rowena, and despite the fact that she’s engaged to a friend of his, he quickly marries her. But Ligeia still seems to be around, and not just in the black cat she seems to possess that keeps trying to kill Rowena. This is one of the few movies where you get to see someone have a fight to the death with a cat.
The Tingler (1959)
It isn’t just the title that made this 1959 release a camp cult classic: Price plays Warren Chapin, a pathologist who discovers that everyone has a parasite attached to their spines that produces a tingling sensation when they experience fear. Normally, this is fine, but if a person gets too frightened, the tingler can curl up and crush the spine. The only way to prevent this is for the host to scream. After the death of a deaf, mute woman felled by her inability to scream while watching a scary movie, her tingler, removed during the autopsy, escapes out into the world. Luckily, Chapin thinks he knows what to do.