Judge Mike Rubino promises never to enact revenge using Rube Goldbergian traps and biblically-inspired plagues of hamsters. He'd be more original than that.
Our reviews of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (published March 15th, 2001), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (published March 7th, 2001), Madhouse (published November 25th, 2008), and Witchfinder General (published September 21st, 2007) are also available.
"Love means never having to say you're ugly."
When you make as many movies as Vincent Price, some of that is bound to be a bunch of junk. Just like any genre actor, Price settled into a certain role and milked it for all its worth. While he made a lot of schlock, he also made a great library of fantastic films. MGM has wisely packaged together seven of his best movies into one cohesive box set: The MGM Scream Legends Collection.
While I didn't scream once while watching these movies, I walked away with a deep appreciation for the man. This set provides a good starting point for folks who have never seen his work, and acts as a nice refresher for fans of a genre that is currently flooded with silly torture films and startling noises.
Facts of the Case
Vincent Price has appeared in over a hundred movies during his career (and the studios proudly paraded that claim around more than once), but this new box set from MGM manages to pick seven of them. These seven movies encapsulate Price's career during the Sixties and Seventies.
Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Terror (1962): A collection of three short films based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, all three directed by Roger Corman (Death Race 2000) and written by sci-fi master Richard Matheson (I Am Legend). The first story is "Morella," where a young woman (Maggie Pierce) travels to see her estranged father (Price) after years of separation only to find that he's living with the corpse of her dead mother. The second story is "The Black Cat," which is an extended retelling of "The Cask of Amontillado" featuring a very drunk Peter Lorre (Arsenic and Old Lace). Finally there is "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," where Vincent is dying of brain cancer and uses the mysterious hypnosis of Carmichael (Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) to ease the pain…until things go terribly awry!
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales (1963): Due to the success of the Poe stories, Price was quick to do a sequel the following year, this time based on the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter). The first story is "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," which features Alex (Price) and Dr. Heidegger (Sebastian Cabot, Mr. French from Family Affair) as they discover the secret to eternal youth, bring back Heidegger's wife, and unearth a terrible secret from the past. The second tale is "Rappaccini's Daughter," which is about a radioactive girl who's kept hidden away in an Italian villa by her father (Price), until she falls in love with a strapping, young Giovanni (Brett Halsey). Finally there is "The House of Seven Gables," which involves Gerald Pyncheon returning to the house that's cursed his family for generations in order to find a hidden treasure…and then things go terribly awry!
Witchfinder General (1968): Mis-attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, renamed The Conquerer Worm when it was first released in America, and reissued with a synth soundtrack in the '80s, this film has had a rough history. It was directed by young auteur Michael Reeves (The Sorcerers), who died a year after the film's release. Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a historical character who went around Cromwellian England falsely accusing people of witchcraft. When he accuses a young wife of a soldier of being a witch, the soldier takes matters into his own hands…and then things get terribly bloody.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971): Vincent Price plays the mysterious, quiet, vengeful Dr. Phibes as he seeks revenge on the doctors responsible for his wife's death, specifically the head surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, The Third Man). Phibes enacts his revenge on various doctors with elaborate, biblically-inspired death traps while still finding time to rock out on the organ. The film kicked off a string of Price movies involving a man seeking revenge on a list of people, and executing them in extremely elaborate ways…camp ensues.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972): This sequel to the successful cult classic features the return of Phibes as he travels to Egypt to resurrect his wife. He's involved in a race with treasure-seeker Darius Biederbeck (Robert Quarry, Madhouse) to unlock a river of life beneath a mountain in Egypt. While trying to resurrect his wife, and stop Biederbeck, Phibes enacts more outrageous and over-the-top death traps…more camp ensues.
Theater of Blood (1973): Continuing the streak of elaborate revenge films, Price plays Edward Lionheart, a has-been Shakespearean actor out to kill the critics that slandered him. Here, Price plays characters from a number of Shakespeare's plays and murders critics in ways inspired by death scenes written by the Bard. Lionheart is joined by his daughter, played by Diana Rigg (The Avengers), who is the only person in the world who actually thinks he's a good actor…cue buckets of bloody iambic pentameter.
Madhouse (1974): Capping off a run of four "kill a list of people who wronged me" movies is Price's ode to the genre that defines him. Price plays Paul Toombes, a horror star known for his character "Dr. Death." Years after the murder of his fiancee, and abandoning the world of Dr. Death, Toombes is called back in to action to revive the character for British television. During filming, however, someone masquerading as Dr. Death starts killing people, and Toombes descends into a world of paranoia and madness because it might be him…assumptions about Price's real feelings about Hollywood ensue.
Vincent Price will forever be known as one of the great masters of the horror genre. His movies weren't exactly scary in the Exorcist or Shining sense; rather they were more about fantasy and the macabre. It's as if these crazy, frightening events are occurring and we merely sit back, watch, and enjoy. Nothing is popping out to scare us, no one is getting tortured, and the blood never really looks real; rather, these movies carry on the classic macabre tradition of the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Price picked up the torch for those classic Universal horror actors, essentially playing "himself" in his greatest roles. He kept things classy, with an air of theatrical respectability, whether he was playing the victim, the murderer, or just a third party to a bad situation.
I categorize these movies into two groups: the literary films and the revenge films. I don't know if MGM intentionally packaged them this way, but it creates a sense of continuity within the box set. The literary films (Tales of Terror, Twice Told Tales, and Witchfinder General) are more grounded and dramatically weighted, with Price giving earnest performances that are more akin to his time in the theater. The revenge films (the Phibes movies, Theater of Blood, and Madhouse), however, evolve as you watch them in order. They begin with campy over-the-top splendor, move on to a more theatrical goofiness, and end on a totally sardonic view of the genre with which they belong. The selection of movies in this box set is great, while individually they range from "fantastic" to "merely okay."
Vincent Price did a ton of Edgar Allan Poe films over the years, usually in conjunction with American International. Tales of Terror combines three of the shorter Poe stories into a rewarding and entertaining package. The first story, "Morella," starts pretty slow, but really picks up in the last ten minutes or so. It's short, and really acts as a batter's box to warm us up the latter two stories, which feel more complete and rewarding. The best of the bunch is "The Black Cat," which features Peter Lorre hamming it up beyond belief. Here, Corman really displays some neat camera tricks that make you feel like you're getting drunk just watching Lorre. You can't help but laugh as Lorre drops one-liners as he bricks up Vincent Price behind a wall in the basement. Just classic. The final tale, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," is a strange story about Price dying and becoming a zombie. It all seems to move rather quickly, but you can't help but feel empathy for Price as he wishes to aid science and die without being in agony. Rathbone gives a great performance as the weird hypnotist who holds Price's life hostage.
Twice Told Tales tries to live up to the greatness of Tales of Terror but unfortunately isn't as interesting. Hawthorne's stories are a bit more romantic and reserved—especially the first two. "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is a neat idea revolving around a man's dedication to his dead wife (a theme that's constant in almost every Price movie in the set), but the whole story feels like it moves too fast without the characters reacting very appropriately to the fact that they discovered eternal youth. It's still very entertaining, just not as strong as I would have liked. "Rappaccini's Daughter" is even more reserved and low-key than the first story. Filmed almost entirely in the courtyard of this Italian villa, I couldn't help but see this as a weird mutated version of "Romeo and Juliet." Finally there is "The House of the Seven Gables," a classic-feeling haunted house tale that rounds out the three on a strong note. "Seven Gables" has some cool set pieces, including a living room that tears apart and starts spewing blood from the ceiling. Overall, this is a good set of short tales, if somewhat weaker than Poe's. Each of these stories just felt like really decent episodes of The Twilight Zone, and I'm totally fine with that.
Witchfinder General features, by far, Price's best acting in the set. Here he plays a role that's very different from his usual fare, a character more diabolical and evil than anything in the revenge films—mainly because Hopkins goes about claiming to do "God's work" of burning witches and seducing young women. There is a lot of talk in the special features on the disc about how Price was forced out of his normal comfort zone by Michael Reeves, and it shows when you view this film alongside the others. Reeves's direction also makes this film stand out from the rest in terms of style—thanks to his sweeping British countryside landscapes and brutally realistic violence. It also has an extremely rewarding and earnest ending as all of the characters dip over to the dark side to combat this viciously evil man. This is the only film in the set that actually has its own special features, which include an insightful commentary track with producer Philip Waddilove and Ian Ogilvy (who played Richard Marshall), and a 25-minute featurette called "Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic." This 25-minute video is fairly interesting, although has some pretty bad production values, and can get a tad long-winded.
With the literary movies out of the way, it's time to talk about the revenge tales. The first of which is the cult classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Here, Price plays one of the strangest characters I've ever seen: a deformed doctor who lives in an underground lair with a mute female assistant and a mechanical jazz band. He keeps his dead wife in an air-sealed container as he seeks revenge against the doctors who accidentally murdered her. It's like a malpractice suit from hell, with Phibes killing off doctors using homemade biblical plagues. It's an absurd, campy film that has Price playing the organ like the Phantom of the Opera and only talking when he plugs a speaker cord into a jack on his neck. While this all may sound a bit insane, the movie is a huge load of fun. Sure it's crazy, but you can't help but laugh at the poor suckers who are getting taken down by this crazed maniac. There is also a good bit of British humor infused with the film thanks to the two bumbling Scotland Yard detectives chasing Phibes. I completely understand why this is a cult classic; I just wish the poster for the movie didn't give away one of the movie's biggest twists.
The vocally-challenged doctor returns in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which is like a hyperbole of the first film. Here, Phibes awakes from a long slumber to find that his lair has been destroyed and his map to his secret temple in Egypt has been stolen by an adventurer seeking eternal life. He travels to Egypt and literally takes everything with him, including his wife in a big glass box and his mechanical jazz band. The entire premise is completely ludicrous, but the film manages to be good, bloody fun. Phibes still kills off his enemies one by one, only this time it's in the middle of the desert in Egypt. His death traps get crazier this time around, and you have to wonder why he doesn't just shoot these guys instead of faking wind storms and crushing someone in a sausage machine. The film features some pretty big plot holes, but I doubt most people watching it will care. This movie is about Price going all out with gloriously long monologues (via speaker cable) and getting dangerously close to playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on the organ.
Continuing his streak as a man filled with an uncontrollable need for revenge, Price gives us Theater of Blood. I'd consider this to be probably the best of the revenge films. It's not entirely campy like Phibes and it isn't as sardonic as Madhouse. Instead it gives Price an opportunity to play a wide range of Shakespearean roles while goofily enacting elaborate murder scenes in the context of various plays. Each new death scene gets more dramatic than the last, as more Scotland Yard detectives try to protect the critics and apprehend Lockheart. It's also fun to watch Price's homeless theater company (which reminded me of Peter Pan's Lost Boys) help him in the act. There is also a fantastic fencing fight scene towards the end of the second act. This movie hits all the right notes while walking that fine line between over-the-top and silly.
Finally, there is Madhouse, arguably the weakest in the bunch. Price essentially plays himself as an aging horror star who is known for producing the same shlock over and over. The film has an air of self-awareness; it reminded me (sadly) of Last Action Hero. I know it's crazy, but watch it and you'll see what I mean. Plot holes and weird gimmicks abound, and it's harder to overlook them than in the Phibes movies. The death scenes are still very creative, and are really the high points of the movie. Oddly enough, they show scenes from a lot of Price's older movies (including Tales of Terror) as "Dr. Death" films here. If you are watching these movies in order, this is a disappointing one to end on—but I'm glad it's included in the set, because it fits nicely with the others.
It should be noted that all of these discs have been released previously as individual DVDs, most of them under the "Midnight Movies" label. In fact, all but Witchfinder are flipper discs, with one movie on each side—and the ones that were released together as Midnight Movies are together here. Clearly MGM just shoved these all together in a box, and doesn't provide anything new about the films aside from the final disc. That's okay by me, since I didn't have any of these movies previously, but if you did buy them individually, you'll want to avoid this set.
Because these are just re-releases of prior discs, the video hasn't really been enhanced at all. The picture quality varies wildly from disc to disc, although thankfully they're all in 2.35:1, 1.66:1, or 1.85:1 widescreen. It's worth noting that Dr. Phibes Rises Again and Theater of Blood have some issues with grainy video and poor colors. Theater of Blood is the worst in the set, with a lot of washed-out colors, banding, and grain. Of course, none of this is the fault of the DVD; they just haven't been restored from their original film stock. The sound fares better than the video, but unfortunately all the movies are in mono.
Every disc comes with a theatrical trailer, although I highly advise that you watch these trailers after the movie, because they basically sum up the entire plot (including all of the twists, and sometimes the ending!). Witchfinder General does include the two special features, as I mentioned earlier, but that's because they were included in that film's original DVD release.
The only new content in the set is the final disc, called the "Vincent Price Collection Disc of Horrors." The disc has three featurettes that total about an hour of video. The first is "Vincent Price: Renaissance Man," which seems to have been made at the same time as the Witchfinder featurette. It provides a nice look into Price's life off-screen, including his reputation in the world of art and his love of cooking. The production values are pretty cheap, but the content is adequate. The second is called "Working with Vincent Price," which again is the same as the Witchfinder stuff. This video touches briefly on Price's work ethic. It's pretty light, but its presence is appreciated. Finally, there is "The Art of Fear," which is the best featurette on the disc (partially because it was made by a different group of folks). Here, members of the horror community provide insights into each of the films in the package. This is the only featurette that feels like it was made specifically for this box set. Thus, it's the most relevant.
The packaging for this set is really nice. All of the movies are in slimline DVD cases with original movie posters on them. Unfortunately, there are some weird typos on some of the cases (one of the movies has a totally different runtime on it), which is a little surprising. But the box they all slide into is well-designed, and Price looks as menacing as ever.
This box set features seven movies that feature Vincent Price in all of his glory, exhibiting a wide range of acting styles while largely remaining himself. I love the way these movies were grouped, even if they are all just repackages of previous DVD releases. Plus you can't beat the price (Amazon.com has it for $23). This set is like making a good sandwich: at first you have some very different kinds of ingredients, but after you layer them on top of each other, they start to blend together into a delicious meal. Yeah, this is like that.
If you are looking for some great fantasy-macabre that features a style of moviemaking not seen very often anymore, then you definitely want to pick this up.
Guilty of being a great smattering of one of the last, great horror actors.
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Scales of Justice, Tales Of Terror
Perp Profile, Tales Of Terror
Distinguishing Marks, Tales Of Terror
Scales of Justice, Twice Told Tales
Perp Profile, Twice Told Tales
Distinguishing Marks, Twice Told Tales
Scales of Justice, Witchfinder General
Perp Profile, Witchfinder General
Distinguishing Marks, Witchfinder General
• Commentary with Philip Waddilove and Ian Ogilvy
Scales of Justice, The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Perp Profile, The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Distinguishing Marks, The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Scales of Justice, Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Perp Profile, Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Distinguishing Marks, Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Scales of Justice, Theater of Blood
Perp Profile, Theater of Blood
Distinguishing Marks, Theater of Blood
Scales of Justice, Madhouse
Perp Profile, Madhouse
Distinguishing Marks, Madhouse
• IMDb for Tales of Terror
Review content copyright © 2007 Michael Rubino; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.