Exclusive Q&As with Three Legendary Horror Masters
How did you get the idea to cast Vincent Price in "House of Usher," and of the eight films you made with him, which do you feel is his finest performance?
When I began work on "House of Usher," I didn’t intend to create a series of Poe films so I did not envision working with Vincent Price on so many. He was a perfect fit for the character Roderick Usher, and I thought Vincent’s finest performances were in "House of Usher" and "The Masque of the Red Death."
What do you think made Price such an ideal match for your Poe films, and why did you step outside of Poe for one film with him, "The Haunted Palace?"
Vincent Price was a highly sensitive and intelligent man capable of articulating the subtlety and depth of character that I imagined when I read Edgar Allan Poe’s work. Jim Nicholson, the head of AIP, decided not to do too many Poe films, and H.P. Lovecraft was a logical next step. "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" [the short story upon which "The Haunted Palace" was based] had some similarities to Poe, but it strayed far enough so as to not feel repetitive.
Your career took a turn from more contemporary monster movies to stylish gothics including the Price films. How did you decide the direction for these films, and was it a surprise when your more experimental ones like "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Tomb of Ligeia" were just as successful?
Because Poe’s work was a period subject as well as a classic, I felt I needed to take a more formal approach with screenplay writer Richard Matheson, the actors, and particularly with the use of camera and set design. Poe was dealing with the unconscious which could be portrayed somewhere between the real and abstract. I think this is the reason that my "more experimental" films were just as successful.
Joe Dante is the director of "Piranha" (1978), "The Howling" (1981), "Gremlins" (1984) and "The Hole" (2010).
What do you think makes a classic horror icon like Vincent Price so enduring, and were there any particular films that made an impression on you growing up?
I guess my first Price film was "House of Wax," but he didn't really become a horror star until "The Fly" led to "House on Haunted Hill," "The Tingler" and the Corman Poe films. These were all landmarks in my formative moviegoing. Classically trained actors like Price and fellow movie villains Rathbone, Karloff and Lorre found a haven in Victorian era epics at a time when acting styles were changing and the Method ruled. Price endures because whether overplaying or underplaying, he was always enormously entertaining. It's hard to imagine today's kids warming up to florid period pictures like "House of Usher," but we loved these films and they enabled Price to retain above the title billing for the rest of his career--plus we all got to do book reports on Edgar Allan Poe without actually reading him!
How did getting your start with Roger Corman affect your career as a director? Did you ask him to do horror films, or were they suggested to you?
If it weren't for Roger, I might not have a career as a director; at the very least I would have gotten a much later start. It was sink or swim at the Corman factory, and a surprising number of his discoveries became very good swimmers. With Roger you didn't usually ask--he'd ask you, if you were lucky. And then you had to deliver. I don't remember anyone turning down their first opportunity because of the subject matter.
Which era of horror films is your favorite, and do you see a direction in which the genre might be moving in the future?
I'm from the atomic-fear generation of the 1950s when rampaging radioactive monstrosities ruled the screen, but at heart I guess I'm a classicist in that my favorites were mostly made before I was born. I'm part of the generation of "Monster Kids" who shivered at the dark fairy tale quality of the ’30s and ’40s horror films on television. These pictures aren't seen that much anymore unless nostalgic parents plop their kids down in front of them, but for many of my peers, Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man were movie nirvana. Now of course the culture coarsened to the point where most horror films are structured like porno pics, with the death and dismemberment as the Money Shot, but as long as there are true genre fans like Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright around, there'll always be room for a good horror film. Who would have guessed that this critically undervalued and disreputable genre has proven to be the most durable one of all!
John Landis is the director of "Schlock" (1973), "An American Werewolf in London" (1981), "Innocent Blood" (1992) and the music video for Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" (1983).
Why do you think Vincent Price remains one of the most enduring horror actors, and what made him such a natural choice for "Thriller"?
The great horror genre stars -- Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Peter Lorre and Christopher Lee, among others -- all coped with being typecast differently. Both Karloff and Price embraced their image as "monsters" and had no problem appearing in countless horror movies and even sending themselves up in films and on television. Vincent Price was on the original recording of the title song on Michael Jackson's Thriller album. His almost Victorian theatricality and deep stage-trained voice was instantly recognizable as the voice of "Vincent Price, Horror Icon." When I made the short film "Michael Jackson's Thriller" in 1983, I made sure the cinema marquee that Michael and his date came out of was plastered with Vincent Price classics like "House of Wax" and "The Masque of the Red Death."
Since your first film, "Schlock," you’ve shown a fondness for monsters and scary beasts in many of your films. What attracted you to horror in the first place and made you want to meld it with other forms like comedies and music videos?
The cinema is the ideal medium for fantastic subjects. Ray Harryhausen's brilliant work in "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" directly inspired my interest in becoming a filmmaker. Like Christopher Lee, I prefer the French use of the word "fantastique" instead of "horror" to identify the genre. It is easy to horrify; just show something horrific. However, to create genuine suspense or terror or a sense of wonder is far more difficult. To make an audience actually care about the characters in the movie makes the story work in a more satisfying way than by just showing violence and/or something grotesque.
Which era of horror films is your favorite?
The 1930s was a great decade for the genre, with major studio pictures like "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "Island of Lost Souls," "The Old Dark House," "Freaks," "The Mummy," "Werewolf of London," "Bride of Frankenstein," "The Invisible Man" and many others.