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

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by Lincoln Flynn
October 22, 2013 9:30 AM
4 Comments
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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.

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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!”

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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.…”

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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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4 Comments

  • John Goodwin | February 24, 2014 10:55 AMReply

    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 | October 25, 2013 11:17 AMReply

    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.

  • Jim | October 27, 2013 3:27 PM

    I love "Night of the Living Dead," but it is all kinds of goofy. It is precisely the self-important, "bleak" films that I would most love to MST3K. Bergman's "Seventh Seal," for instance, would be wonderful. I do, however, reject the label "condescending." Satire has never required one to speak from some place of moral authority.

  • Lincoln Flynn | October 25, 2013 6:58 PM

    Just want to add that I'm a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and its offshoots. Plus, I'm not exempt from C.V... I've engaged in it. Yet, I also try to be a conscientious and fair viewer in order to widen my appreciation of things.

    And regarding Rifftrax spoofing Night of the Living Dead: it's their prerogative, but that film is so powerfully bleak and historically resonant that I just imagine the results to be jarring.

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