For classic horror fans, Scream Factory’s initial (meaning we’re hoping there’s a few more) box set of Vincent Price favorites on Blu-ray is one of the most anticipated HD collections of the year. The four-disc, six-movie set is loaded with great extras and it’s hard to think of a better gift to usher in the Halloween season with. Even though it’s actually featured on Disc 2, we’ll start with FALL OF THE HOUSE OF THE USHER since it’s the one that started it all!
During the 1950s, American International Pictures (AIP) was known for churning out cheapie black and white films that were produced specifically to play as double bills on the drive-in circuit. Roger Corman, the ace director behind many of these exploiters, came up with a new approach. Using the budget usually allotted for two AIP films, and with double the shooting time (15 days), Corman convinced Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson to let him make a color, CinemaScope horror film – based on a short Edgar Allan Poe story – to play alone. Arkoff needed some pursuing, since he questioned where the monster of the film was? Corman assuredly replied, "the house is the monster," as a new era in horror was born.
Scriptwriter Richard Matheson had to add a lot of original material to Poe's original story, and he does so honorably. The plot concerns Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon, THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT) who arrives at the crumbling House of Usher to elope with his fiancée, Madeline (TV actress Myrna Fahey, who died at the age of 40). Madeline's much older brother Rodrick (Price) objects to their plans of marriage as he rants about the family's bloodline being cursed and doom being in store for him and his sister. Madeline grows weaker and eventually dies, but it's later discovered that she suffers from comatose, causing the ultimate horror – being buried alive.
Despite the low budget, Corman was able to construct a rich, lavish gothic horror film with a chilling suggestion of suffocating decay. Here he's aided by a talented team that would be responsible for the success of further Poe adaptations, including the breathtaking cinematography of Floyd Crosby, and the inventive art direction of Daniel Haller. The cast is narrowed down to four main characters, and the standout of course is Vincent Price, who Corman hand picked for the role. Price portrays Roderick as a long-suffering, obsessive type who scorns being touched and is sensitive to loud noises. Dying his hair white and ridding himself of the trademark mustache, Price is completely modified of his usual persona and he really holds the film together. This was the beginning of a long relationship between Price and AIP, and the popular actor would make dozens of films for them over the next decade and a half.
First released by MGM on DVD over a decade ago as part of their MIdnite Movies series, Scream Factory now revisits the first AIP Poe title in glorious HD. The first thing you’ll notice is a restored overture (scored of course by the the film’s composer, Les Baxter) at the beginning, lasting a little over three minutes before the AIP logo (the full “Fall of the House of Usher” title has also been restored to the credits as opposed to the shorter “House of Usher” title). The 1080p transfer presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio that completely compliments Crosby's lavish Scope composition. The distinguished colors are simply scrumptious, detail is excellent and there's only some minor speckling on the source print. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio replicates dialog and Baxter’s harmonious score boldly, and optional English subtitles are also included.
An audio commentary by director Corman has been carried over from the old MGM DVD, and this one is extremely enjoyable. He talks the viewer through the proceedings, giving interesting details on filming the opening sequence (amid the aftermath of a Hollywood forest fire), the surreal family portraits, the superb matte paintings, the extravagantly fiery climax and much more. Corman also discusses the cast and crew with great admiration and explains much of his inventive techniques, telling how he set up specific shots and such. A second audio commentary has Price biographer Lucy Chase Williams doing a retrospective commentary which highlights focal points of Price’s life, and includes impersonator Piotr Michael recreating authentic quotes in a Price imitation, and a damn good one it is, at least in the voice inflections (the commentary lasts a little over 31 minutes). An optional videotaped introduction shows Price hosting a series of his films (“The Vincent Price Gothic Horrors”) produced by Iowa Public Television in 1982. Price, decked out in a tuxedo and shown in an appropriately gothic setting, introduces the film and gives some background, talks a bit about Corman (giving him the dubious “King of the B’s” title) and promises 11 weeks of his movies (Price also returns to close the film, stating that Roderick Usher was his favorite of the Poe characters he played). These rare intros and outros are a fascinating discovery and its wonderful to have them incorporated on their appropriate titles where available (five out of the six movies in this set). Rounding out the extras are a Price audio interview conducted by David Del Valle in 1988, the original AIP theatrical trailer and a lengthy photo gallery.
Again directed by Corman, THE HAUNTED PALACE (also on Disc 2) is actually based on H.P. Lovecraft's “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, but due to AIP's marketing interference, it was passed of as another entry in Corman's ongoing Poe cycle. In 1765, evil warlock Joseph Curwen (Price) is lynched by the villagers and burnt alive for performing sorcery and for abducting some of the local women, including his curvy brunette mistress Mistress (Cathie Merchant, X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES) . Before he perishes, he puts a curse on the inhabitants of Arkham and their offspring. One hundred and ten years later, his kind descendent, Charles Dexter Ward (Price again), visits Arkham with his beautiful young wife (Debra Paget, TALES OF TERROR) to claim the inheritance of Curwen's castle. The couple is not exactly greeted warmly by the townspeople, and they run into a number of horribly disfigured people. They reluctantly stay at the castle, where a strange caretaker named Simon (Lon Chaney, Jr., DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN) greets them. Turns out that Simon is an age-old friend of Curwen, and helps the once dead warlock gain control of the mind and soul of his ancestor to continue his depravity.
THE HAUNTED PALACE's only relation to Poe is that it borrowed the title of the poem, which Price is heard reading from during the closing credits. It's similar in style to Corman's previous Poe efforts, but somewhat darker and more macabre, setting the tone for the masterful MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and TOMB OF LIGEIA. The usual Corman crew is on hand, with Daniel Haller's exquisite art direction (Haller would later direct two Lovecraft adaptations for AIP: DIE MONSTER DIE and THE DUNWICH HORROR), and Floyd Crosby's lush color widescreen photography being a highlight. Long time Corman cohort Ronald Stein delivers what is probably his most memorable film score, and it's available on a CD soundtrack.
Price was so accustomed to playing the tormented character by this time, but here he was able to add an evil persona (a la "Jekyll and Hyde") and he switches back and forth effortlessly. Debra Paget (in her last feature before she retired from the cinema) is one of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace the screen, and Lon Chaney, although more subdued than usual, is given one of his last decent parts (the actor's' wrinkles and cherry blossom nose are covered in greenish greasepaint). A number of great character actors are on hand, including Leo Gordon, Elisha Cook, John Dierkes, Bruno VeSota, Barboura Morris and Frank Maxwell as the sensible doctor who is the only resident friendly to the Wards. With its terrific production values, excellent cast, ghastly deformities and monsters in the closet, THE HAUNTED PALACE is prime AIP gothic horror, and one of Corman's best.
Scream Factory’s HD presentation of THE HAUNTED PALACE is a definite improvement over the old MGM DVD. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p transfer boasts a beautiful source print which is relatively clean, with little or no blemishes. The image is generally very sharp with excellent contrast despite some dark lighting in the interiors. Colors are always pleasing, with fleshtones being most impressive; witness the rosy cheeks and multi-colored makeup on actors which really stand out. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio has good range and clarity, and is overall very solid, with Stein’s intense score really standing out. Optional English subtitles are available.
An audio commentary with Lucy Chase Williams gives us a ton of background information and notes about the film, including quotes from Corman and Price. Around the 30-minute mark, Richard Heft takes over the commentary (which lasts about 10 minutes) concentrating on Lovecraft and his writing, as well as screenwriter Charles Beaumont. A second audio commentary track features writer Tom Weaver, who talks about the first adaptation of a Lovecraft story (done for television) and addresses things in the original script, production notes, and we also hear his short telephone interview with Debra Paget who discusses working with Price on TALES OF TERROR (the commentary runs about 30 minutes in total). Another Vincent Price 1982 intro has the legend sitting in front of a fire in an armchair, pondering the notion of demonic possession and expressing empathy for his dual role (Price returns, in close-up to sum up, promising COMEDY OF TERRORS the following week). The Roger Corman featurette, "A Change of Poe" was originally produced in 2003 for the MGM DVD, It has Corman, discussing how he wanted to film Lovecraft, his respect for Price, what it was like working with Chaney, etc. The featurette covers most of the basics of the film. The original theatrical trailer is included, as is a lengthy photo gallery with quite a few rarely seen color shots among the batch.
It’s disc 1 that actually features the sophomore Corman Poe film, 1961’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER was a phenomenal success for AIP, so further cinematic renderings of Poe stories were immediately in order. Writer Richard Matheson took a short Poe story, augmenting and refining it into an 80-minute dark tale involving death, deception, adultery and inherited madness. Using the same team present for the previous year's Poe opus, Corman mounts an even more ambitious film with one of the genre's most memorable movie sets, and it serves as another showcase for one of the true masters of the macabre.
Francis (John Kerr, SOUTH PACIFIC) arrives at the castle of Nicholas Medina (Price), demanding to know how his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele, THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR), Nicholas’ wife, died. Still in great pain and deep depression over her demise, Nicholas is hesitant to discuss the circumstances, but a seemingly friendly doctor (Antony Carbone, CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA) explains the situation while taking Francis on a tour of the castle's elaborate torture chamber. It seems that Nicholas' late father Sebastian was a wicked torturer who punished victims there during the Spanish Inquisition. As a boy, Nicholas witnessed the death of his adulterating mother and uncle at the hands of his dad, and this is shown as a distorted flashback.
Francis is convinced that foul play was involved in his sister's death, and he points the finger at Nicholas. He learns that she became obsessed with the torture chamber, making nightly visits there. She eventually died of fright, but he is not easily buying that, deciding to break open the crypt and exhume her body. When they discover the shockingly shrieking expression on the rotted corpse's face, they assume that Elizabeth had been buried alive. Nicholas is now more upset than ever, and even contemplates suicide, but he's stopped by his loving sister Catherine (Luana Anders, DEMENTIA 13). Strange noises and voices still pervade the castle, and Nicholas is convinced that his wife's ghost is out for revenge. What is in store for him is the worst: the ultimate journey into insanity.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is an atmospheric thriller that builds tension slowly to lead up to a most satisfying and disturbing ending. Corman's resourceful direction never reveals the budget restraints, Floyd Crosby has great control of the widescreen photography, and Daniel Haller's sets are remarkably and authentically morbid and elaborate, especially the dungeon where some shots are enhanced by brilliant matte paintings that simulate a deep pit. Les Baxter gives us one of his most nightmarish scores, perfectly accompanying the swift swaying of the deadly pendulum.
Price is terrific as usual as the film's anti-hero, Nicholas Medina. He gives one of his most sympathetic and elegant performances as a man bent by his wife's untimely death. In flashback, he also plays Nicholas' limping, crazed father whose characteristics his son soon possesses after he's deceived and betrayed. Kerr, Anders and Carbone are also very good, and Barbara Steele – with her captivating facial expressions – gives a chilling performance in her first American film role. Steele (who earlier starred in AIP's smash Italian import, BLACK SUNDAY) had her voiced dubbed, as her English accent proved too diverse compared to the other performers.
First released on DVD by MGM over a decade ago (in a non-anamorphic transfer), sublicensor TGG Direct recently put out THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM in an anamorphic transfer of what looked to be a new HD master, but all their no frills bargain bin DVD releases of the film (pairing it with one or two other Price titles) were defective in that a few minutes of the film had a few minutes of odd video noise. Scream Factory brings MGM’s HD master to Blu-ray with no such problems, presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio and 1080p. The transfer carries good clarity, rich colors and smooth contrasts, and though there is some speckling evident in the source print, the image is still pretty clean and the best the film has looked to date. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio track gets the job nicely, with dialogue always clear and the music score solid. Optional English subtitles are included.
The always well-spoken Corman gives us a fun commentary (originally recorded for the old MGM DVD), telling great anecdotes, and seriously explaining the Freudian themes he purposely injected into the film. At times he takes lengthy pauses, but it's great to hear him watch the film with the viewer, and he seems genuinely amazed at how well it holds up so many years later. There's a fascinating and unusual extra included on the disc. Labeled "Original Theatrical Prologue," this is actually an introduction tacked on to the beginning of the film to pad it out when it aired on network TV in the 1960s. Presented here with anamorphic enhancement, it features Luana Anders reprising her role as Price's sister, now wrongly committed to an insane asylum. Look carefully and you'll recognize Sid Haig as one of the crazed inmates (he grabs Anders as she enters a crowded cell)! Yet another Price introduction and closing from 1982, has him addressing the film in a somewhat more humorous manner (“We’ll see it as soon as the projectionist swings into action”). An original trailer and impressive still gallery round out the supplements for PIT.
Disc one brings us another one of the Poe cycle, and the first one shot in England: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964). In medieval Italy, the plague (better known as the “Red Death”) is ravaging a community largely made up of humble, faith-driven peasants. The wicked Prince Prospero (Price), a self-professed worshiper Satan, rules the land from his luxurious castle with its small army of merciless guards. Paying a visit to his neglected villagers, he announces his plans for a masquerade ball, which will provide shelter for his decadent friends rather than do any favors for the poor peasants quickly dying off from disease. A confrontation in the village leads to the abduction of a beautiful young Christian girl named Francesca (Jane Asher, DEEP END), who Prospero takes a deep interest in, and the imprisonment of her lover Gino (David Weston, WITCHCRAFT) and her father (Nigel Greene, COUNTESS DRACULA), both who have a worse fate awaiting them in Prospero’s dungeons.
During the time leading up to the midnight masquerade, the guests at the castle party hardy in the most depraved ways while Prospero warns that no guest is to wear red. His mistress Juliana (Hazel Court, DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN) becomes closer to her master Satan, initiating herself as his bride after burning his mark (an upside down cross) over her chest. One of the more disagreeable guests, a nobleman named Alfredo (Patrick Magee, ASYLUM) slaps a defenseless female “tiny dancer” when she accidentally knocks over his goblet. Her loving husband, the dwarf Hop Toad (Skip Martin, HORROR HOSPITAL) has a fate in store for Alfredo: he dresses him up as a gorilla during the ball, tying him up and setting him on fire in front of the shocked guests. When a stranger garbed completely in red arrives, Prospero follows him into a black satanic altar room, and eventually believes him to be the Devil (addressing him as “your excellency”), but in actuality its Death and Death has no title.
Not only was MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH the first Poe film to be shot in England, it’s also the first of many genre pictures Price would make there, as set up by AIP. It’s often considered the best of the series, and the lavish leftover sets (at Elstree Studios) gave production designer Daniel Haller plenty to work with, and though Corman had to contend with a slower-moving yet efficient English crew, the results are spectacular, a horror masterpiece that’s both surreal and poetic and definitely Corman’s most artistic piece of celluloid. Charles Beaumont’s original script was altered (as requested by Corman) by R. Wright Campbell, who injected the story with the nuances it needed, as well as the edition of the short Poe story “Hop Toad” which is incorporated quite nicely, developing into one of the film’s more disturbing scenes. The meaty script also gives Price some choice dialogue.
Not only is Corman’s direction skillful in its sense of symbolism and hallucination (Juliana’s nightmarish visions of being sacrificed by an assortment of eccentric looking high priests) the cinematography by Nicolas Roeg (who would later direct some very diverse British films) utilizes the most striking use of colors, and colors (especially red of course) are an essential component to the film throughout. The film’s high production values in sets and costumes is topped off by a large, mostly English cast (and a number of dancers who carry out the climatic Red Death dance) who are very believable, and Prospero is one of Price’s most complex and fascinating characters. Like all of Price’s Poe personas, Prospero is tormented yet he’s deeper and more philosophical, and although he’s pure evil, at times he displays an ounce of humanity (enough to save Francesca from certain death, proving love for her despite his allegiance to the dark side). Prices is the only actor who could turn Prospero into a sort of anti hero.
First released on DVD by MGM in 2002 and recently picked up by TGG Direct for budget DVD, Scream Factory presents THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH in HD on Blu-ray in a 1080p transfer which preserves the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The transfer contains exceptional clarity, good contrast and a perfect color balance, which compliments the film most during the interior masquerade ball scenes. The source material displays some minor grain (maintaining the desired “film” look) and some fleeting blemishes, but the textures are smooth overall. The MGM negative used for this transfer is missing a few seconds, so like the previous U.S. DVD releases, the scene where Francesa screams, “In the name of God” is cut short on that last word, and also, the scene where she is stripped and tossed into a bath is also missing a few frames. The 2.0 DTS Master Audio track renders David Lee’s intense score nicely, with dialogue being clear and distinct and no signs of hiss or distortion. Optional English subtitles are included.
Author Steve Haberman gives a full commentary on the film, relaying a lot of trivia and background information, as well as tidbits about the cast and crew which fills out the running time quite well. Price’s 1982-shot intros and outros have him reading from the actual Poe story at a candlelit table as he segways into his little lecture about the film and its fine attributes. The featurette “Roger Corman Behind the Masque” (18:52) was originally recorded for the 2002 MGM DVD. Corman mentions that he wanted MASQUE as the second film in the Poe series, but since Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL had similarities, he waited until years later for fear of being accused of plagiarism. Corman goes on to speak highly of Price as well as Magee, explains why he cast a young girl as Hop Toad’s wife and gives the economic reasons behind shooting the film in London. Corman also mentions the moment of silence on the set (due to President Kennedy’s assassination) as well as meeting up and coming musician Paul McCartney on the set (he was dating Asher at the time). The original theatrical trailer and a lengthy still gallery round out the extras.
Disc 3 presents Price in another one of his most iconic roles. In THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, Dr. Anton Phibes (Price), a wealthy, eccentric organ-playing genius who had once entertained audiences from the world's vaudeville stages, begins a bizarre vendetta against the members of a surgical team who attempted to save his young wife, Victoria (Caroline Munro, DRACULA A.D. 1972), who died on the operating table. Apparently, Phibes, is believed to be dead and buried after an automobile accident, is a scholar of the Bible, so he ingeniously plots to obliterate all nine doctors by recreating the ten curses which afflicted Pharaoh in the Old Testament (the final curse being darkness).
Taking place during the early 1930s, Phibes has set up his headquarters in a grim mansion, furnished with an early cinema lobby decor of chrome, mirrors and marble, complete with a extravagant theater organ (which also works as a sort of elevator) and a dance hall ballroom. He amuses himself with a mechanical orchestra named "The Clockwork Wizards," and has a lovely, raven-haired but mute and trance-like disciple, Vulnavia (Virginia North, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE). She chaperons his evil deeds with violin solos and in his more light-hearted moments, serves as his drinking and dancing partner. He keeps his beloved wife (Munro, who appears in both films through photos and in perennial slumber) in suspended animation, and his ultimate destiny – after avenging her – is to revive her.
One by one, doctors (including one played by the great Terry-Thomas) are being murdered in grotesque manners with the aid of bats, fatal frog masks, hail storms, locusts, etc., all representing the Biblical plagues. The case is carried out by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey, COUNTESS DRACULA). Awkward yet determined, Trout can't seem to get a grip on the situation until he interviews Dr. Visalius (Joseph Cotten, BARON BLOOD), a colleague of the murder victims. Visalius concludes that the operation on Victoria Phibes links all the doctors so far killed, so the police try their best to protect the rest of them. Even though Phibes is believed to be long dead, Visalius and Trout hold the theory that he's alive and well and responsible for all the doom.
Price once again proves that he's one of the genre's true masters with the Phibes character. One of the actor's finest assets is his distinct voice, and here, it's barely utilized. Due to his near-fatal car wreck, Phibes can only speak through an electronic box mechanism that the scheming genius created himself. Price's inflection is fragmented and distorted, and only heard periodically, so the actor has to portray the character via his menacing eyes and exaggerated body language. Phibes had been horribly disfigured (the revealing of his skull kisser during the climax remains one of horror cinema's most memorable images), so he has to desperately reconstruct his appearance with false hair, nose, ears etc., conjuring up a mortician's nightmare; an artificial, ghoulish mess that reeks of death and decay.
Phibes is not only a murderous, crazed monster, but he's also a brilliant, flamboyant super villain, with the wealth and know-how to devise morbid deaths, employing the most outrageous props in the process. Director Robert Fuest (whose previous assignment at AIP was a lavish color remake of WUTHERING HEIGHTS starring future James Bond Timothy Dalton), applies the dark humor that he toyed with on "The Avengers" TV series, and blends it with the unique backdrop of a surreal "Art Deco" 1930s England, never before visited in a color horror film of this ilk. Nearly every set piece – from Phibes' extravagant dwelling, to the hospital walls – is splashed with this decorative style, and it's a bona fide visual delight of gothic elegance. The music (by composer Basil Kirchin with bits by John Gale, who would return to score the sequel) is a delightful mix of different styles from that era: melodic waltzes, moody violins, and of course grand organ tunes, all setting the proper mood of the madness.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is presented in HD in a 1080p transfer true to the film’s original 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. A definite improvement over the MGM DVD of years ago, the transfer boasts bright colors, with solid black levels good contrasts and excellent detail. The original film elements are in good shape, and exhibit very little dirt or damage, with the appropriate amount of grain in check. An English 2.0 DTS-HD master audio track has clear and clean dialogue, and the grandiose score is appropriately strong. Optional English subtitles are included.
An audio commentary with director Fuest (recorded shortly before his passing in 2012) is moderated by Marcus Hearne. The commentary is enjoyable, even when Fuest has a hard time getting around the questions, and he shares how his “Avengers” cohort Brian Clemens conceived the ending for the film over lunch without taking credits. A second audio commentary is done solo by Phibes enthusiast Justin Humphreys who often gushes over the film (and justifiably so!), sharing tons of background information and many revelations about the production, including some keen observations on how Fuest cleverly worked around the budget limitations. “Introductory Price: Undertaking the Vincent Price Gothic Horrors” (13:17) is a gem of a featurette, and tells the tale of the 1982 Price intros and outros found on this DVD. Duane Huey, a former executive producer at Iowa Public Television, is interviewed, discussing how when the TV station had a package of Price AIP films, they were able to get Price to come in and do these precious on-screen wraps. Shot at the appropriately gothic Salisbury House (J. Eric Smith, the house’s executive director, is also interviewed), these wraps were written by Huey himself (based on old print interviews with Price), and here you’ll see even more rare Price footage, including some behind the scenes stuff and bloopers! As expected, Price was great on the set and had fun shooting his footage for the 11-week film series all in one long day. The original theatrical trailer (narrated by Price and Paul Frees) is included as is another great still gallery (especially if you’re a Vulnavia fan).
Disc 4 contains WITCHFINDER GENERAL. During the English Civil War and the time of Cromwell, self-appointed "Witchfinder," Matthew Hopkins (Price) roams the countryside as an opportunist using his position to obtain wealth, sex and power. With his hardened henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell, SUDDEN TERROR), the duo proceeds from town to town, forcibly eliciting confessions of witchcraft from both women and men. Those found guilty are executed in the name of God, but in reality, all of Hopkins' victims are innocent. During their excursions, Hopkins and Stearne encounter Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS), a young soldier under Cromwell and his lovely fiancée Sara (Hilary Dwyer, CRY OF THE BANSHEE). Hopkins falsely accuses her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Davies, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE), a village priest, of being a warlock, and he is tortured and thrown into a cell. Sara offers sexual favors to Hopkins in exchange for her uncle's life, but she is raped by Stearne and Lowes gets hung anyway. Having made the couple's life a living hell, Marshall swears vengeance on Hopkins, deserting his army post and tracking down the evil Witchfinder at any cost.
And so that's the synopsis of WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the last film made by the promising young English director Michael Reeves who died shortly thereafter. But we all know about the film's importance to the horror genre, even though at times it plays like the English equivalent of a Spaghetti Western. It embodies a remarkable performance by Price, and his conflict with the director (who originally wanted Donald Pleasence) has been played up in the media for years now. WITCHFINDER GENERAL also boasts a great supporting cast which includes Nicky Henson, Patrick Wymark, Tony Selby, Bernard Kay (who also re-dubbed Robert Russell's voice), Godfrey James and a small bit by Wilfrid Brambell of A HARD DAYS NIGHT and "Steptoe and Son" fame.
Although the film was based on the real-life exploits of Matthew Hopkins, as well as a novel by Ronald Bassett, WITCHFINDER GENERAL was originally released in the U.S. by financier/distributor AIP as THE CONQUEROR WORM in order to further identify Price with their universally successful Poe series. It's hard to find a film with a more convoluted home video history, as it has been released on VHS and lasersdisc several times before here, always with the original music replaced with a synth score by Kendall Schmidt, which, naturally, outraged longtime admirers. Some U.S. DVD consumers have seeked out the British release from Metrodome (which is still worth hanging onto, if only for its extras and alternate footage). MGM finally released it on DVD in 2007 through the Midnite Movies series the way director Reeves' would have wanted it. All references to Edgar Allan Poe and "The Conqueror Worm" were gone (including Price's reading from the poem during the start and the close of the U.S. cut) and the onscreen title reads "Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General." This "director's cut" is preferable (and definitive), restoring all of the profound violence once removed from British prints, and losing alternate shots of topless tavern wenches, which were filmed against Reeves' intent, yet present in all previous U.S. home video versions. Best of all, the rousing score by Paul Ferris (who also appears in the film under "Morris Jar") has was finally restored for U.S. home video.
That same restored, definitive director’s cut it present here. MGM’s HD master looks beautiful on Blu-ray, in full 1080p and showcasing the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Noticeably improved over the 2007 MGM DVD, the transfer is virtually flawless, with excellent contrasts and bright, impressive colors – notably the blue in Dwyer's dress, and the crimson of the soldiers' uniforms and blood that flows like paint. The "day for night" scenes which looked a tad dark on the DVD are now easy to make out. Detail is quite impressive as well. The 2.0 DTS Master Audio track renders Ferris’ essential score nicely, with dialogue being clear and distinct and no signs of hiss or distortion, Optional English subtitles are included.
A 1982 Price introduction is included (of course he refers to it as THE CONQUEROR WORM). Of his character in the film, Price states, “I believe him to be the most bloodthirsty character that I have ever brought to the screen.” In the closing, Price announces that next week’s film will be ‘SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (which we hope will be on a second volume of Price Blu-rays). The alternate THE CONQUEROR WORM opening and closing credits are also an extra, presented full frame and with the horrid Kendall Schmidt score. David Del Valle’s full 1987 “Sinister Image” interview (1:02:11) is included here, as is an interview with Price’s daughter Victoria Price (47:14) where she shares many stories about growing up the offspring of one of the most recognizable people in America, and her meeting the likes of Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee (there’s a great anecdote concerning a joke he played on her while shooting THEATRE OF BLOOD in England). The original American theatrical trailer (absent from the 2007 DVD) is present here, as is a Price trailer gallery (HOUSE OF WAX, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN, TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE TINGLER, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE FLY and THE RETURN OF THE FLY). A still gallery, which showcases some rarely seen color production shots, rounds out the extras.
Inside the packaging of this set is a full color booklet with liner notes by David Del Valle. With it’s beautiful transfers and abundance of extras, The Vincent Price Collection is a treasure trove of some of Price’s best work with AIP, and hopefully Scream/Shout! Factory will continue to produce additional Blu-ray sets honoring our cinematic hero. In terms of the AIP stuff, we’d love to see BDs of TALES OF TERROR, MASTER OF THE WORLD, THE RAVEN, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP, THE OBLONG BOX, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, CRY OF THE BANSHEE, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and MADHOUSE! Priceless! (George R. Reis)
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