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“Mwahahahaha”: The (Vincent) Price of Condescending Viewership

"Mwahahahaha": The (Vincent) Price of Condescending Viewership

Vincent
Price was a singular cult movie star, synonymous with a grandiloquent yet
bygone form of cinematic Gothicism that offered moviegoers inexpensive thrills.
Whether for good or ill, Price, a versatile actor, is shackled to the horror
genre, so much so that as of the writing of this article, Price is October’s “Star
of the Month” for the Turner Classic Movies cable channel and the Shout Factory
imprint label Scream Factory is releasing a DVD set of horror movies starring
Price called The Vincent Price Collection,
right before Halloween.

Yet
for many, Price is also synonymous with hammy, unbelievable, and histrionic screen
acting– never mind that his style was rooted in acting conventions from a
previous era. Whether good-natured or not, there are those who the idea of “Vincent
Price” as a goldmine of campiness and comedic opportunity. For instance:
comedians Dana Gould and James Adomian as well as actor Bill Hader have been
known to impersonate Price, and his persona has often been reduced to that of a
debonair, sinister,  yet silly
dandy. Heck, even I impersonate Price
every now and then to get laughs.

****** 

Let
me introduce something which may relate tangentially to Price’s reputation: the
concept of Condescending Viewership .In certain scenarios, people watch a
movie, TV show or play with incredulity, ultimately acting as if they’re above
it. Such an attitude depends on the equation of willful suspension of disbelief
with mindless gullibility. For instance: Tommy Wiseau and his film The Room are  recipients of C.V. and Mystery Science Theater 3000, the TV show in which abject movies
are riffed upon by a man and his robot pals,
is built on and epitomizes the practice of C.V.

Of
course, there is something indeterminable about C.V. It is a matter of subjectivity,
after all. Plus, it’s probably better to allow it when it arises than to attempt
to control the minds of fellow viewers, much like a diabolical Price character.
And the question of what works deserve condescension is arguable. One person’s
trash can be another’s sustenance. Nevertheless, many conscientious viewers
have probably encountered C.V.–or engaged in it themselves.

To
go a step further, it is safe to assume that many aficionados of classic, older
movies have occasionally encountered C.V.  It is human nature to look at something from
the past and pretend the present is more evolved and sophisticated in a
unilateral way after all. To give an example: I remember being a teenager and
watching North By Northwest with my
family and one of my older sister’s friends. During the final shot of the film–a
sexually implicit visual gag of a train entering a tunnel right after Cary
Grant gets in bed with Eva Marie Saint on that same train–my sister’s friend
exclaimed, “What? They didn’t think about sex back then!”

******

When
it comes to any standard Vincent Price performance– particularly those he gave
in many horror movies– it might as well be a big, opportune target for C.V. Admittedly,
I find it hard to watch 1959’s The
Tingler
, William Castle’s gimmick-loaded and nonsensical horror flick, and
not want to comment upon or lampoon aspects of Price’s performance (especially
the scene in which his character has an LSD induced freak-out).

Yet,
to haughtily spoof any Price performance in a horror movie would be shortsighted;
it would suggest that Price was not savvy enough to understand what he was
doing. Consider these biographical details: Price was a graduate of Yale, an
authoritative collector of art, a French cooking enthusiast, and a man of
letters. It isn’t beyond reason to assume that he was aware of his performance
as an actor, even when it seemed preposterous.

In
fact, Price told biographer Lucy Chase Williams that he had his tongue “in both
cheeks” and “was furious when I read a book called the hundred worst pictures
ever made, to see that several of mine weren’t in it!” And in a book about his
work and life, Price was quoted as saying, “I don’t mind making these funny
horror films at all… The minute that I take myself seriously, I’ve got to laugh
because it’s so ridiculous. It’s what gets me through an awful lot of films,
this sense of the ridiculous.” In the same book, he also stated, “I’m an old
ham… I love acting, even in nonsense films. For me, acting is an expression of
joy.”

In
an affectionate tribute made for Turner Classic Movies, John Waters stated as
much: “When Vincent Price was a ham, he was in on the joke. He celebrated the
ridiculousness of horror and he could completely hold his own.” And as Mark
Clark wrote in Smirk, Sneer and Scream:
Great Acting in Horror Cinema
, “While Price’s performances failed as
touching works of naturalistic brilliance, they usually succeeded as thrilling
romps of stylish theatricality… almost any Price performance is worth watching.…”

******* 

Herein
lie some dangers of C.V.: when self-contained and self-perpetuated, it can be
unfair, particularly to the personal sensibilities of creative talent. When
applied to older movies, it can create a monolithic and reductive historical
understanding.

C.V.
can limit the potential for a fuller enjoyment and appreciation of a film– or
a TV show or play for that matter–in that it may ignore the sheer commitment
of the actors or filmmakers that might be on display. Sure, some films may be
bad or contemptible, but there can be an inspirational pleasure in watching
anything in which people just went for it.

And
I can’t think of a Vincent Price performance in which he didn’t seem committed
to the work. An old-school professional, Price was always invested as a
performer, even in silly things like the two Dr. Goldfoot movies or his
recurring role as Egghead on the 1960s Batman
TV series. Just consider his voiceover “rap” in the Michael Jackson hit
“Thriller”—it is the most convincing part of a well-crafted yet impersonal and
calculated song.

Price’s
screen persona may be an acquired taste. Because he benefited from the steady
work that typecasting brought, he may not have always needed to stretch as an
actor or improve his reputation. He seemed to enjoy working and probably
cackled all the way to the bank. Nevertheless, he gave a number of notable
performances—particularly in Laura, The Baron of Arizona, House of Wax, most of the Roger-Corman-directed
Poe films, Witchfinder General and Edward Scissorhands—and he is a treasure
of a screen presence.

So,
when it comes to indulging in the widespread practice of Condescending
Viewership, one should be careful to pick their proverbial poison. And Price
will just about always have the last laugh, from beyond the grave: “Mwahahahaha.”

Holding
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

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Comments

John Goodwin

After years of trying to "pigeonhole" Price and his work I have come to the conclusion that it can't be done. In early works such as "Dragonwyck" he appears to be an early "method" actor and despite his stage background gives extremely subtle screen performances. He even criticized Charles Laughton in a film called "The Bribe" for being "over the top." By the time of "House of Wax" he is making his theatrical training pay off and after all it was that film and others like it that made him a bank-able star. I think he was that rarest of screen stars in that he gave the director what he asked for and was far more serious about his work than he pretended. The difference in Price performances is the difference between being directed by the likes of Joseph Mankiewicz and Sam Fuller or William Castle and Norman Taurog – he either let or depended on the director to decide what was appropriate.

nitpicker

This is quite timely, actually. Last night, Rifftrax (the successor to MST3K) held a live, nationwide showing in which they mocked "Night of the Living Dead." As a fan of the old show, I was a bit taken aback. After all, the show, for the most part, confined its mockery to poorly-made, shlocky films, but here they were mocking a classic horror film. I didn't attend and now I have a name for the thing that bothered me about what they were doing.

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