Shout Factory opens the crypt once more, for the last remaining UA and AIP fright movies starring our favorite gentleman of horror. The label lays on the extras, with Steve Haberman commentaries and episodes of Science Fiction Theater. Now where are the Vincent Price cooking shows?
The Vincent Price Collection III
Master of the World, The Tower of London, Diary of a Madman, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, Cry of the Banshee
Scream (Shout!) Factory
1961-72 / B&W + Color / 1:85 & 1:66 widescreen / 420 min. / Street Date February 16, 2016 / 69.97
Starring Vincent Price
Directed by William Witney, Roger Corman, Reginald Le Borg, Kenneth Johnson, Gordon Hessler.
Scream Factory now brings us Part Three of its Vincent Price collection, pretty much emptying the closet over at MGM. Not counting his twilight feature The Whales of August every Vincent Price film under the MGM banner will soon be out on Blu-ray. None of these are top-rank Price pix, but as his fans know, there’s no such thing as a bad Price performance. As with the first two installments, the transfers are optimized. One title previously issued in poor quality has now been given a proper treatment. And an important interview extra is now presented full length.
1961’s Master of the World is the earliest and biggest movie in the set. American-International’s attempt at an epic Jules Verne sci-fi fantasy was just too cheaply produced to fully succeed. Verne’s two books about the aerial pirate Robur invented a Captain Nemo with an airship instead of a submarine. The film’s positive elements are its music score, a script by Richard Matheson, and of course the leading performance. As A.I.P.’s contract star, Vincent Price gives the proceedings a major touch of class — his input literally holds the production together.
In 1848, government agent John Strock (Charles Bronson) and three members of a ballooning club find themselves the prisoners of an amazing man. Their captor is the visionary inventor & anti-war fanatic Robur (Vincent Price), a stateless rebel who intends to disarm the world’s nations by threatening them with utter destruction from the skies. His persuader is the Albatross, an enormous flying machine powered by a newly discovered electrical force. The Albatross looks like a blimp but is actually a giant helicopter kept aloft by rows of rotors. Robur almost kills his captives when he discovers that one of them is the Yankee arms manufacturer Prudent (Henry Hull). Prudent’s hotheaded associate Philip Evans (David Frankham) foolishly provokes Robur, much to the consternation of Dorothy, his fiancée and Prudent’s daughter (Mary Webster). Only Strock keeps a cool head. He admires Robur’s pacifist ideals but concludes that the Albatross must be destroyed. Strock and Dorothy regard their captor not as a madman, but a misguided idealist.
A.I.P.’s original strategy was to avoid direct competition with the majors, and win back-door box office victories with specialized teenage fare. Their Master of the World invited unflattering comparisons with lavish productions like Journey to the Center of the Earth. Vincent Price carries his scenes with ease but little else in the film is up to his standard of quality. Director William Witney allows the rest of the cast to overact, confining Charles Bronson in a part with little action and a great deal of civilized dialogue. He’s still quite good. Daniel Haller’s interior sets for the Albatross are meant to be fanciful but look like painted cardboard, using too many primary colors. And although his design for the airship is fine — it’s a real ‘clipper of the clouds’ — the photography of the model is weak. Grainy rear projections mar most of the special effects, and images of foreign lands and battles are cribbed from the stock library — with many B&W shots tinted blue.
The widescreen HD transfer makes the main photography look fine but can’t save those rear-projection miniature setups, or do much with the scratched and worn title opticals. The movie never had a fine polish. Having seen it at age nine, I unfortunately remember it as looking much better than it really is — my lasting memories came not from the movie, but from reading the Dell comic adaptation at least a hundred times. The audio is in 2-channel stereo, even though the original track retained by MGM was a full 4-channel mix. Two vocal songs are tacked on to the end of the program, over black; according to studio records, both served as exit music for original theatrical engagements.
Accompanying Master of the World is a feature-length interview with the late writer Richard Matheson, who seems eager to discuss every aspect of his writing career. It’s a must for Matheson’s fans, as he talks at length about the people on his movies and his fellow writers of the time, like Charles Beaumont. Toward the end, Matheson also gets into his personal ideas about spirituality.
Actor David Frankham is the audio commentator, aided by a friend who has done some research and handles the background facts. At age 89 Frankham is delighted to be able to tell the story of the three films he made with Vincent Price. He was hired for this one at the last moment because Mark Damon took a job in Europe, and Price recommended him from their experience together on Return of the Fly. Frankham predictably calls Price a nice guy, but it’s nice to hear about the actor from a fresh spokesman. He says that the production schedule was three weeks. I’ll bet that a lot of that was spent on the process stage, doing all those rear-projection scenes.
The Tower of London is the anomaly in the set. It’s one of Vincent’s last B&W movies — the Italian-made Last Man on Earth would follow — and it’s also one of the last B&W pictures by Roger Corman. Working for his brother Gene and producer Edward Small, Corman tries to make a big-scale period picture on fairly cramped sets with a tiny cast. It’s an interesting achievement but only tangentially a horror film. Corman displays the experience he’s gained in directing actors.
Moviemakers have often set Shakespeare in different settings; Corman and his writers Leo Gordon, Amos Powell and (under an alias) Robert E. Kent blend Richard III with Macbeth. They also partially replay the old Universal classic Tower of London, minus the massive sets, the costumed cast and the lavish battle scenes. Actually, Gene Corman does get in some of the old version, literally, by reusing the 1939 battle scenes as stock footage.
The show isn’t about a man who goes mad, because Price’s Richard is as mad as a hatter from the get-go. His murders are so out of control that he’s killing people he doesn’t even want to kill. Price must make a maximum effort to sustain the character. Skulking around the three or four castle corridor sets, Richard double-crosses his friends, orders up tortures and pulls off sneaky murders by the bushel. The cast is pared down to dinner theater size. The all-purpose Australian actor Michael Pate is always at Price’s side, while Joan Freeman finally gets some good scenes to play. Favorite Sandra Knight provides the film’s most memorable scene, as she’s one of the best screamers I can recall. Tortured to confess the illegitimacy of two children that stand between Richard and the throne, Knight really lets out with the shrieks.
The credits are a good mix of Corman and Small personnel — we especially like Leo Gordon’s adapted screenplay, which updates the dialogue speeches. Tower of London ranks low on lists of favorite Vincent Price movies, but I like it better than most of his ’70s work. It’s Shakespeare taken down to the level of a 1960s Poe horror show, which is not a bad idea at all. In later commentaries Steve Haberman refers to the film as a disaster, but I don’t know if that’s because it made no money or that he just considers it a failure.
Tower of London comes across as more than adequate in a 1:66 B&W transfer. A new Roger Corman interview is here, along with a longer featurette piece with Gene Corman. I didn’t know what Roger’s brother looked like, and now I realize that he was a fixture around The Cannon Group for a few months in 1987-1988 finishing movies that had been produced in Israel. Gene Corman tells his whole story, backing up the autobiographical details presented by his brother. He also says that the show was downgraded to B&W with a last-minute Edward Small decision, so I guess I’ll have to give up my theory that the choice was made to enable the use of the 1939 stock footage. Apparently Gene and Roger did plan to film a more elaborate battle scene, until Small pulled the plug.
Also present as a special extra are two of Ivan Tors’ Science Fiction Theater episodes with Vincent Price from 1955-1956. Like a lot of early syndicated TV, they’re low-budget shows with just a couple of sets and predictable, slightly lunk-headed storylines. They’re also padded with long host introductions. In One Thousand Eyes Price solves the murder of an optics expert with the help of the dead man’s wife (Jean Byron of The Patty Duke Show). In Operation Flypaper Price heads a scientific team struck by a thief, who can somehow make time appear to stand still. The science aspect of the shows is shaky at best. The first show is in B&W and the second in barely-surviving color.
Diary of a Madman is an Edward Small production without the input of the Cormans and directed by Small’s frequent collaborator Reginald Le Borg. Robert E. Kent’s adaptation blends together two stories by Guy de Maupassant, working in some good terror ideas and a commercial love interest. Price gets an okay acting workout. Although basically a possession story, his French Magistrate keeps a fairly level head, even as an invisible creature called ‘The Horla’ — the title of one of the source stories — invades his body and forces him to murder. It’s also a fairly minor Price title.
The story is simple enough. The Magistrate Simon Cordier (Vincent Price) interviews a mad killer, who claims that an unknown entity took over his body and used him to commit ghastly crimes. When the killer is executed, the evil Horla visits Simon, and delights at telling the attorney that he will be his next human host. Into the story comes Odette Mallotte (Nancy Kovak), who becomes Simon’s sculpture model. The Horla makes plans to have Simon murder Odette, and blame the killing on someone else. Simon wants to oppose the invisible fiend, but doesn’t know how.
Price does everything that’s needed to make Madman into an acceptable horror offering. It’s actually a one-man acting exhibition, as he must be both the victim and the killer, and convince the audience that the unseen Horla exists. He’s aided in this only by a Lugosi-like bar of green light, which shines across his eyes to indicate the influence of the Horla.
Le Borg’s direction is better than usual, but the show is seriously let down by its artless, atmosphere-challenged cinematography. The lighting is so flat that we’d think the show was evidence to prove that every corner of the set had been properly painted. The sets never look like more than fake walls on a soundstage, without ceilings. Ellis Carter is a fine cameraman; the instruction to light everything flat must have been to accommodate a TV-style production schedule. Had some care been taken with the visuals, Diary of Madman might have been a real winner, instead of yet another display of Price’s acting skills. Robert E. Kent’s own Twice-Told Tales suffers from the same feeling of TV claustrophobia and artifice.
The treat this time around is Steve Haberman’s really good audio commentary, which pumps new life into Madman. Starting with a crash course in the wild life of author Guy de Maupassant, Haberman has many interesting stories to tell, from the changes made to its two source stories to the histories of its actors. Haberman offers some reasoned opinions along the way as well. He ends with a reading from one of the stories, that lets us know that the film adaptation is for once fairly faithful to the source.
An extra on the Madman disc is a Standard-def transfer of An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe, an hour-long TV special from 1970. It’s been on disc before, but with a grievous error — the studio accessed a 16mm film print of the show, a pale and blurry copy, not realizing that it the original show was shot on 2″ videotape. The real master has finally been accessed. It’s still NTSC video from that year, which is none too pretty, but quality-wise it’s head and shoulders above previous releases. Price recites four Poe stories, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Sphinx, and The Pit and the Pendulum, with each story extending into a partial re-enactment. It’s obviously for the core Price fans. The great actor carries the mission out in the perfect positive spirit.
Steve Haberman contributes a commentary for this show as well, complementing a longish featurette in which the co-producer / director Kenneth Johnson tells his side of the story. When Johnson was working in TV he saw the possibility of interesting Price in a one-man venue. Happily, he discovered that the actor was open to all new opportunities, especially such a one-man showcase.
With the exception of his Dr. Phibes movies and campy parts in horror comedies, Vincent Price backed away from horror in the 1970s, not just because the Poe cycle had run its course but because the more graphic, R-rated films weren’t really his style. Cry of the Banshee is an unforgiving and brutal tale of witchcraft and witch-burners that works a variation on something Price had previously done to perfection, the role of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. Although released in a much-altered cut in America (and some sources say in England as well), an uncut version was preserved, and Cry of the Banshee is now known for its much rougher original version.
It’s a Gordon Hessler film, one of four contentious pictures shot for American-International after the demise of their new director discovery Michael Reeves. Hessler co-produced, and put together a good cast to support Vincent Price. Hilary Dwyer repeats from Witchfinder, joined by Stephan Chase, Marshall Jones, Essy Persson, Michael Elphick, Hugh Griffith and Patrick Mower. The legendary Elisabeth Bergner is excellent as Oona, the leader of a coven of witches.
The execution is something else. The script by Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking lumbers along from one unpleasant scene to the next. Price and some of the actors elevate the drama, but practically every set-up is an excuse to strip an actress, either to taunt her or to torture her. As such the movie plays as a trashy alternative to soft-core porn – instead of raping the women, they stab, shoot and burn them. The acting is not bad at all in this cheap parade of cruelty. The inoffensive characters are powerless, while Price’s thoroughly disgusting Lord abuses everyone around him.
Once it is established that Whitman and his debased sons can kill whomever they want, the show has zero power. There’s no sense of impending evil, just a series of sadistic and cruel events. Servants and townspeople watch Whitman do things as atrocious as burn a girl alive just on a whim; and their only reaction is a mumbled, ‘things are pretty bad around here right now.’ But once again we have to hand it to Price — Whitman’s frantic behavior at the conclusion is excellently played, adding yet another original bit of performing from the man. He never did it the same way twice.
Yet the twist this time is difficult to accept. After behaving as a hypocritical beast, clearly victimizing women as witches for his sexual amusement, Price’s Lord Whitman flips out to discover that the witches can conjure actual Satanic power. Sure enough, by the last reel the Curse of Oona doubles back on the man that tormented so many innocents, mostly women.
For this last film we get another Steve Haberman commentary, in which he gives us a full production history and presents an argument for Gordon Hessler as an unappreciated horror genius. A video interview with Hessler allows the director (who passed away in 2014) to tell the story of his career, which took off when he became a reader, producer and finally director under the aegis of Alfred Hitchcock, on his 1960s TV show. The man indeed enjoyed a colorful career in film.
Both versions of Cry of the Banshee are here, the uncut one with the Terry Gilliam main titles, and the A.I.P. cut-down that eliminates most of the gratuitous nudity and rearranges some scenes. The massacre of the coven now happens right at the outset. As a rule of thumb, it doesn’t bode well for a drama if its scenes can be rearranged so easily. The American re-cut has a different music score as well.
Scream (Shout!) Factory’s Blu-ray The Vincent Price Collection III is a handsome, well-organized disc set. All four titles have excellent HD transfers, with only Master of the World looking a little beat-up, mostly because the original film had a lot of dirty opticals and rough-looking effects. In his commentary, David Frankham said that there was a last-minute reshoot of the main title — the words of which originally moved across the screen from right to left just as had the main title for Gone with the Wind. The final replacement looks like a dupe of a work print.
Another good thing to point out — Scream Factory takes the time to encode each show with English subtitles, something that is no longer the norm. Several reader-correspondents once wrote me frequently about the lack of subs on most library releases, which is why I added the ‘deaf and hearing-impaired friendly’ item to my review tech assessment. Since subs usually aren’t available for streaming video and downloads either, I wonder if these serious film fans have just found something else to occupy their time.
The other pictures look terrific. Tower of London is a little drab but Diary of a Madman and Cry of the Banshee are in excellent shape, as good as any new production. When John Coquillon works indoors his lighting is pretty flat, but near the end of Banshee his style begins to come together.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Vincent Price Collection III
Movies: Master of the World, Tower of London, Diary of a Madman, Cry of the Banshee All Good – Minus
Video: all Excellent; although Master of the World is pretty beat-up. High Definition 1080p
Sound: all Excellent
DISC 1: MASTER OF THE WORLD Audio commentary with actor David Frankham; Richard Matheson: Storyteller Extended Cut (72 minutes); Trailer; ad artwork gallery, David Frankham photo gallery.
DISC 2: TOWER OF LONDON Interview with director Roger Corman, Producing Tower of London with producer Gene Corman; Two episodes of Science Fiction Theatre: One Thousand Eyes and Operation Flypaper (1956) both starring Vincent Price (in Standard Definition – 52 minutes); ad artwork gallery.
DISC 3: DIARY OF A MADMAN Audio Commentary with Steve Haberman, trailer, ad artwork gallery. AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE Audio Commentary with Steve Haberman, Interview with Kenneth Johnson, photo gallery.
DISC 4: CRY OF THE BANSHEE Audio Commentary by Steve Haberman (on the Director’s Cut); A Devilish Tale of Poe interview with director Gordon Hessler; trailer, TV Spot, Radio Spot; ad artwork gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Four discs in card and plastic disc holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: February 26, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson