For this writer, if I ever wanted to be alive during another era of filmmaking, my first choice would most definitely be the 1960s. During that time, some of the most fascinating genre work was being created from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Hammer House of Horror, George A. Romero, and of course legendary writer/director/producer Roger Corman.
Before the 60s, Corman established himself as an independent maverick of film with his work on films like Swamp Women, The Wasp Woman and A Bucket of Blood , but it’s safe to say that it wasn’t until the director and producer began collaborating with Vincent Price that his directorial work in the horror genre was elevated to an entirely new level.
In honor of Price’s upcoming 100th birthday (he was born May 27, 1911), Dread Central recently had the opportunity to speak with Corman about his experiences working with one of Hollywood’s most unforgettable performers and his thoughts on why Price still continues to resonate with fans to this day.
In late 1959, Corman was approached by American International Pictures to create a brand new low-budget horror film after finding success in creating other genre films using the same formula for several years prior. The first project Corman created for AIP was House of Usher, a feature-film adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe tale entitled “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Corman discussed how Price came on board for the role of Roderick Usher, the well-educated but mentally unstable head of the Usher household whose decent into madness is chronicled throughout the story.
“The first Poe film I did was House of Usher,” said Corman. “When Dick Matheson was originally working on the script, I really didn’t have anyone in mind to play Roderick Usher. But as we fleshed out the character we began to understand who Roderick truly was- he was a highly intelligent gentleman that was both cultured and sensitive but also had a hint of madness to him as well. Once we nailed the character down, the only person I wanted to play Roderick was Vincent. I sent him the script and he called me later that week so we could discuss the script.”
“From that first meeting with Vincent, I just knew no one else could possibly play that part. We got along so well and were in complete agreement about how we both saw Roderick. I will admit that I was a bit nervous to work with Vincent at first because he was the most important actor I’d ever worked with and we were really working on very small budgets at the time so I didn’t know how it would go with him. It turned out to be an amazing experience,” Corman added.
Shot on an estimated budget of $270,000, House of Usher was highly successful upon its release in June 1960. The film proved highly profitable for AIP much to the surprise of everyone involved with House of Usher, so the production house quickly greenlit another Poe production with Corman attached to direct which turned out to be The Pit and the Pendulum. This time, Corman immediately knew he wanted to collaborate with Price again and had the role of grieving widower Nicholas Medina crafted specifically for the actor.
“We didn’t really know we were going to do Pit and the Pendulum until after House of Usher had opened and was so well-received,” explained Corman. “I think everyone was almost taken aback by what we were able to achieve with that movie and it ended up being one of my biggest successes at AIP so they immediately wanted some kind of follow-up, or a sequel if you will. But I immediately knew I wanted to continue working with Vincent so we wrote the lead in Pit just for him and for all of the other Poe adaptations I directed for the studio because I couldn’t imagine making those movies with anyone else.”
The Pit and the Pendulum proved to be even more successful than its predecessor which led to AIP giving the thumbs up to six other Corman/Price collaborations on adaptations of other Poe works including The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death and finally The Tomb of Ligeia in 1964.
According to Corman, it was sometime in 1963 that Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, the heads of AIP, decided to relocate the upcoming production of The Masque of the Red Death to England through a deal struck with Anglo-Amalgamated, the distributor of AIP’s films in Britain. The decision to move production across the pond worked well in Corman’s favor since his previous Poe adaptations had to stretch their meager budgets and filming in England allowed him the access to numerous resources he hadn’t had on previous productions which provided the director the opportunity to create his most lavish masterpiece to date.
Corman said, “Before we shot Masque, we generally made all of our projects on a three week shooting schedule. The Masque of the Red Death was the only movie from the Poe series that we shot for five weeks but that mainly happened because we made the film in London. Shooting over there with their resources was amazing. Here in the States, we mostly had shot at rental studios that had limited flats for us to use as backdrops but in London, the backdrops we had access too were light years beyond anything we had used before so I think that’s why Masque is one of the best looking films I had ever made.
And I think a lot of that production value lent itself well to the performances of the entire cast, but especially Vincent. I think he relished the theatrics of that production in particular and I still think it’s one of the best performances he’s ever had.”
And while it’s Price’s more sinister performances that seem to resonate with fans even to this day, Corman said there were two other performances by the actor that he always had a particular fondness for. “On Tomb of Ligeia, Vincent played more of a romantic lead in that film which I think showed of his more dramatic side. Also, on Tomb of Terror Vincent was a lot more comedic in that movie than anything else I had done with him up to that point. In fact, I was pretty surprised by just how funny he really was when we were shooting because I always saw a different side of Vincent in the other films. But I think that demonstrates just how brilliant and versatile of an actor Vincent was because he always brought something new to every single role he ever played, for me or otherwise.”
Even though Corman himself is an icon in his own right, having directed over 50 films and producing well over 300 movies to date, he’s quick to point out that a lot of his success during the 60s was attributed to his collaborations with Price.
Corman said, “I never dreamed in a million years that 50 years later, people would still be talking about these movies. I loved making them at the time but I never knew what would happen down the road. It’s so humbling to me to be appreciated for these films but I know a lot of the reason why people do still talk about them is because of the work of Vincent Price.”
“I think one of the things that makes Vincent such an icon in the horror genre or otherwise is that he wasn’t a guy who worked under a lot of make-up like a lot of the classic heavyweight horror actors did, so it was his face that people at that time associated with the horror genre. He had such great dignity to anything he did and I think it was his stature as a serious actor that made people embrace the horror genre at that time as something more than just silly movies that scare you. In fact, Vincent’s performances made them timeless pieces of art,” Corman added.
Dread Central would like to thank the always wonderful Roger Corman for taking the time to speak with us in honor of Vincent’s upcoming 100th birthday. Corman was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award this past weekend during the Vincentennial Celebration which is currently under way in St. Louis through May 28th.
For more information on the Vincentennial Celebration, click here.
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