My Cousin Vinnie vs. the Vampires, by Michael H. Price
Right about now, my cousin Vincent Price would be grumbling about a new film called I Am Legend (opening Dec. 14) – reminding anyone within earshot that he had been the first to star in a movie based upon that apocalyptic story and muttering, “You’d think we hadn’t done it right, the first time.”
Price (1911-1993) had said as much about another movie during our last get-together, in 1986 during a college-campus lecture-tour visit to Fort Worth, Texas. David Cronenberg’s Oscar-bait remake of The Fly was about to open, and Price – who had starred in the original Fly of 1958 – was exercising his prerogative, as a grey eminence of Hollywood’s horror-film scene, to cop an indignant stance: “Hmph! You’d think we hadn’t done it right, the first time.” Like I said…
Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend, starring Will Smith in a role corresponding to that which Price had handled, is the third filming of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel about the collapse of civilization under an epidemic of vampirism. Price’s version, issued in 1964 with little fanfare, bears the title The Last Man on Earth. Price might have grumped about a 1971 remake called The Omega Man – if not for the starring presence of his friend Charlton Heston in that one.
In a benevolent side-effect, the heavy promotion of I Am Legend has prompted a classy widescreen-DVD release of The Last Man on Earth – issued last week via a video-label holding-company ghost traveling under the worthy old corporate name of MGM.
Vincent Price: The name conjures images as varied as the roles he tackled (romantic, comical, heroic, tragic) before typecasting kicked in to distinguish him as the baddest of bogeymen. Price was as prominent a champion of gracious living – gourmet chef, cultural scholar, published author, and discerning collector of art – as he was a reliable movie menace..
Having followed his pictures since my schoolboy days, and imagining him a possible uncle via the surname in common, I finally met Price in 1974. The occasion was a newspaper interview in connection with Price’s popular stage show, And the Villains Still Pursue Me.
“Price, eh?” he asked.
“Yessir,” I said.
“Ever trace your family tree? Back to West Virginia, maybe?”
“Uh, yessir, Mr. Price.”
“Any particular ancestors?” he asked. “A planter and military man named Sterling Price, maybe?”
The name registered, sure enough. Gen. Sterling Price had turned up in a genealogical search conducted by a great-great-aunt of mine, and I had learned quite a lot about him through a shelf of scholarly books on the Civil War, as published by the Riverside Press of Chicago.
“Why, yes, sir!” I answered.
“Well, then, shake, Cousin!” said Vincent Price, extending a grand theatrical hand-clasp.
We never quite figured out the specific kinship, third- or fourth-cousins or whatever, but we developed a friendship that persisted. Price’s frequent visits to Fort Worth brought him often to my newsroom office in Fort Worth. He lessened such touring as the 1980s trailed off into the ’90s.
That last Fort Worth visit in 1986 coincided with Price’s involvement in two motion pictures, both issued the following year, that would effectively cap his career: Price considered a compassionate role in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August to be his valedictory. He dismissed an appearance in Jeff Burr’s The Offspring as a demeaning exploitation of his artistry. (“They pitched that one to me as something more nearly akin to [Edgar Allan] Poe,” Price complained. “I found out after the fact that it’s one of those gory ‘splatter’ movies.”) Less showy work, including a mournful extended cameo in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, dates from 1988-1990.
But we were talking about The Last Man on Earth and its sparkling new DVD edition – as opposed to innumerable bootleg copies from ill-preserved teevee-syndication prints. (American International Pictures, which had handled sparse theatrical distribution in the first place, had allowed the copyright to lapse. What remains of AIP, long since absorbed into the ghostly afterlife of MGM Pictures Corp., can be found primarily in the many AIP productions/acquisitions that have surfaced on video under that MGM identity.) There was in 2005 a decent widescreen-DVD release of The Last Man on Earth, double-billed with 1962’s Panic in Year Zero, a director–star vehicle for Ray Milland. The new edition is the first to treat Last Man as a sharply restored, self-contained attraction.
Typecast as a villainous presence since 1953’s House of Wax, Vincent Price had settled by the 1960s into a productive cycle of E.A. Poe adaptations (House of Usher, Tales of Terror and so forth) at AIP, with the producer–director Roger Corman. These assignments dovetailed with the heroic leading role in The Last Man on Earth, which the low-rent Hollywood producer Robert L. Lippert picked up as an independent project after Hammer Films of England had taken a Pasadena on the story-property. Filming took place during 1961 in Italy, where Price had landed on a working sabbatical.
Lippert teamed a native-born director and screenwriter, Ubaldo B. Ragona, with an Old Hollywood workhorse director, Sidney Salkow, to help bridge the language barrier for Vincent Price. Salkow would direct Price again in 1963 on the portmanteau film Twice-Told Tales, which attempted to do for Nathaniel Hawthorne what Roger Corman had accomplished on behalf of Mr. Poe. The Lippert production of Last Man, in turn, languished for three years before it became a desultory pick-up acquisition of American International Pictures.
The story, thus far: Immune to a plague that has transformed humankind-at-large into a race of bloodthirsty predators, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) carries on through some unexplainable reserve of will. Price delivers a nuanced portrait of a resourceful survivor, struggling as much with the pain of isolation as with a chronic-to-acute threat.
“That one, now – quite a change of pace for me,” as Price recalled The Last Man on Earth. “I had pretty well made my mark as a Grand Manner actor – which is a polite way of saying ‘a ham’ – and a perpetual villain, on top of that. When occasionally I got to play the good guy, as in The Fly, the role was usually not as emotionally demanding as I’d like. So this Last Man on Earth thing allowed me a sympathetic role that also called for some intensity. Very welcome, although I was disappointed that it never played all that widely.”
The influence of The Last Man on Earth proved striking, nonetheless. The film has been cited – along with such titles as Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) and Ed Cahn’s Invisible Invaders (1959) – by George A. Romero as an inspiration to Romero’s breakout film of 1968, Night of the Living Dead.
And of course, Price and his associates treated I Am Legend right the first time, barring some disagreements that provoked source-author Richard Matheson to disown his collaborative script for The Last Man on Earth. (Matheson assigned himself a bogus name, Logan Swanson, for the finished project. He took no hand in 1971’s The Omega Man, apart from source-author credit; that same credential applies to 2007’s I Am Legend.)
Ironic, though, that such a remake as my Cousin Vinnie professed to despise should wind up calling belated attention to his original starring version.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors movie-lore books are available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com