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PRICE TOUCHED HORROR - AND THEATER - WITH CLASS

SHARE PRICE TOUCHED HORROR - AND THEATER - WITH CLASS

When "House of Wax" came to theaters in 1953, I was just 5, and my parents wouldn't let me go. I can still remember my arguments:

- It's the scariest movie ever made!- All my friends have seen it!

- It's in 3-D!

They still said no.

In a way, I was grateful, of course. They provided me with an excuse, a way to get out of being frightened to death at the neighborhood theater.

And so it was another five years before I saw Vincent Price in a horror movie. By the time "The Fly" came along, in 1958, I was a more sophisticated 10-year-old, and my parents allowed me to see it . . . albeit reluctantly.

Price was not the monster in "The Fly"; he was more of an innocent bystander. And "House of Wax" was not his first horror film; he had appeared in "The Tower of London" in 1938 and had the title role in "The Invisible Man Returns" in 1940.

But it was "House of Wax," "The Fly" and the 1959 seminal spend-the-night-in-a-haunted-house picture, "House on Haunted Hill," that gave impetus to Price's newly burgeoning career as a America's supreme horrormeis-ter.

Somehow it seems appropriate that Price would pass on so close to Halloween (he died Monday of lung cancer at age 82), since this is the time of year when his best-remembered films tend to be moved to the front of video store shelves, become stalking stuffers, if you will.

Ironically, Price made some 100 movies and only about a third can be placed in the horror genre. The best include the aforementioned "Tower of London," "The Invisible Man Returns," "House of Wax," "The Fly," "House on Haunted Hill" and his Edgar Allan Poe movies for Roger Corman in the 1960s, especially "House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Tales of Terror," "Masque of the Red Death" and "The Raven," the latter being a spoof with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and a young Jack Nicholson.

"I think I've made 110 pictures and only 20 of them have been in the `thriller' category," Price once told an interviewer. In truth, if you include non-horror "thrillers," the number rises to about 40.

But Price never denigrated his being pigeonholed by the public as a "horror actor." He was, first and foremost, an actor. And a darn good one. He gave some wonderful performances in those horror films, ultimately giving the genre a boost. In fact, it's not going too far to say that Price managed to lend some class to a type of film that was not getting much critical respect up to that point.

Oh, he could ham it up with the best of them. But at his best, he could also give a most memorable acting turn, and that includes his work in a number of non-horror movies.

From his quiet 1940 portrayal of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith in "Brigham Young," to the 1944 mystery "Laura" (far and away the best film in which he appeared) to his final big-screen appearance in 1990's "Edward Scissorhands," as the eccentric inventor who created the title character, Price often stood out in the company of strong performers.

ENTERTAINMENT

Still, it is those "thrillers" for which he will always be most fondly remembered.

In Price's own favorite, "Theatre of Blood" (1973), he plays a hammy Shakespearian stage actor who has been vilified by newspaper reviews. So he sets out to kill his critics one by one as he replays famous death scenes. Price delivers a bravura performance, and a delicate one as he convinces us that onstage this guy is a true over-the-top ham, yet offstage is a more realistic madman seeking vengeance.

Many critics, however, cite the 1968 British effort, "The Con-querer Worm" (originally titled "The Witchfinder General"), as Price's best screen work. In this picture, he plays real-life 17th-century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, offering a restrained and rooted performance without so much as a hint of the droll, tongue-in-cheek technique he used in most of his horror turns. The result is a truly horrific portrayal.

Offstage, in his own real life, Price was a cultured, soft-spoken art collector and master of fine cuisine - and he wrote books on both subjects.

That this gentle, intelligent man, who spoke in measured, thoughtful tones, could frighten us so often in movies is yet another testament to his talent.

In this day of Freddy and Jason and Leatherface and flesh-eating zombies, Vincent Price will most certainly be missed.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Vincent Price:

"I didn't take the economics of horror very seriously until Jack Warner (of Warner Bros.) told me one day that `House of Wax' had grossed $9 million in this country alone. From that moment, you might say, I was a changed man."