Vincent Price’s fey, effete, menacingly campy persona made him a natural for old-school horror. It was a persona he intentionally cultivated. In his transition from 50’s monster movie classics like House of Wax and The Fly to the 60s Corman-Poe Cycle that made him infamous, he gradually ramped up the eccentricities in his voice & mannerisms that established him as a horror staple. By the 70s Price had devolved into delicious self-parody. His playful demeanor was perfect for the horror genre: his characters were not only evil; they took great delight in their wicked deeds, proudly snickering at the depths of their own cruelty.
It was this persona that made Price perfect for the Prince Prospero role in February’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death. The film’s masquerade setting not only afforded Price the chance to be sadistic to a large group of costumed guests, it also gave the sadism a party setting. That mischievous combination of pleasure & pain was positively ideal for the Vincent Price aesthetic. The masquerade setting was so perfect for Price, in fact, that it was recycled years later in another one of his iconic roles: 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
By the time Price starred in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, he was in full self-parody mode. Where Corman’s Masque is a trippy horror show with occasional, unsettling touches of humor, Dr. Phibes is a full-on horror comedy. Price’s Phibes is a horrifically scarred car crash survivor hell-bent on avenging his wife’s death against the surgeons that failed to save her life. The pattern of his revenge mimics the seven Biblical plagues. Despite that disturbing premise, it’s a deviously fun film and one of Price’s most memorable performances. Phibes himself wears a prosthetic mask to hide his facial scars, but that’s not the common thread it shares with Masque. In the film’s best scene (or at least my personal favorite) Phibes offs one of his deceased wife’s doctors at a masquerade ball. His murder method? He supplies the doctor with a mechanical frog mask that crushes his head. The frog mask is not only a beautiful work of art; it also cleverly fulfills the frog plague requirement of the film’s premise.
The masquerade scene in Dr. Phibes is brief, but beautiful. It not only echoes Corman’s Masque in the setting, but also in the gorgeous saturation of color and in the other guest’s nonchalance at the frog-mask victim’s pleas for help. Just as Prospero laughs cruelly at his party guests’ demise, Phibes casually looks on from behind a crystal chandelier as his frog mask contraption exterminates his prey. The two films are tonally different works from two opposing phases of Vincent Price’s career, but in the brief moment at the masque in Phibes, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes are spiritually linked.
For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, visit our Swampchat on the film, the round-up of its dueling 1989 knockoffs, and last week’s photos of The Red Death at Mardi Gras. Coverage of our next Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, begins early next week.