Before he became synonymous with the ghoulish and macabre, channeling Edgar Allan Poe and sundry possessed madmen, Vincent Price (American, 1911–1993) graduated from Yale University with an art history degree. While in London to continue his studies, Price was drawn to the stage, and by 1935 he was a member of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre. With his distinctive voice—part effete, part diabolical—and imposing 6'4" frame, Price was truly a rarity compared to the typical Hollywood lead. His earliest film roles consisted of character parts in costume dramas, and it wasn’t until 1940, when he appeared in The House of the Seven Gables, that Price’s predilection for Gothic narratives was revealed.
After a string of high-profile roles in Brigham Young (1940), Laura (1944), and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), Price became a true lead, and his versatility—cad, romantic, adventurer, villain—was reflected by the diversity of the films he appeared in (all while remaining quite attached to 20th Century Fox). In 1946, in a review of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck, The New York Times presciently encapsulated Price’s appeal by referring to his performance as an example of “suave diabolism.”
Price cleverly continued to mix up the roles he choose, from a Southwestern land boss in The Baron of Arizona (1950) to Omar Khayyam in Son of Sinbad (1955) to the ringmaster in The Big Circus (1959), but a string of low-budget horror films would come to define his legacy—beginning with 1958’s The Fly and reaching a crescendo in his Poe-inspired collaborations with Roger Corman, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Price’s mischievous raised eyebrows and devilish vocal modulations made him perfect for these roles, and he relished his eccentric performances. Toward the end of his career, Price’s reputation was cemented with a younger generation when he provided the iconic voice-over soliloquy for Michael Jackson’s hit “Thriller,” and later worked with Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands (1990), his final live-action film appearance.
This wide-ranging look at the career of Vincent Price is drawn mainly from MoMA’s collection.
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.