8. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), dir. John D. Hancock
This was the first film - a rather unusual low-budget American movie, which translates many of the classic tropes of the Dracula-esque vampire story to rural Connecticut. You have the isolated setting, the reluctant
Our point-of-view character, Jessica, is a young woman from New York who has recently emerged from some kind of psychiatric institution, and has been taken by her husband (at what is obviously huge personal expense) to live in the countryside, in an attempt to consolidate her fragile recovery. But no matter how far you travel, you cannot escape yourself - and Jessica is already seeing mysterious figures in the distance, right from the very first scene. Are the strange and terrible events of the film real, or do they all spring from her disordered mind, and especially her paranoia about her husband's affections? We never quite know - and indeed neither does she.
ms_siobhan was underwhelmed, but I have rather a soft spot for moody Seventies films with a lot of emphasis on small minutiae, slow movements and a rather claustrophobic setting, and this hit that spot. It does a good line in close-up shots of people's faces, quietly tracking the small details of their emotions, but also setting that off effectively against a few sudden scares. And I liked the generally folksy sound-track, switching to tense, pulsating heart-beats at moments of tension.
I'm not sure that the title does the film any favours, as it sets the audience up to expect something rather more action-packed and perhaps tongue-in-cheek than what you actually get. Indeed, as we realised in the car on the way home, Jessica doesn't even get scared to death - unless we were meant to understand that she had passed into some kind of surreal afterlife by the end of the film, which I don't think we were.
But if you like a good atmospheric story, this is definitely worth seeing if you get the chance. There's a trailer here which captures it pretty effectively, although obviously rather over-emphasising the shocks and scares for the sake of enticing audiences in.
Sinister Image (1988): Vincent Price in conversation with David Del Valle
The remainder of the first evening was devoted to the delights of Vincent Price, first of all via a rare studio interview recorded in 1988 as part of American film critic David Del Valle's Sinister Image series.
This is an absolutely enthralling insight into Price's career, and indeed the world of his whole generation of actors, which basically takes the form of an hour-long conversational walk-through of all his acting credits. I felt David Del Valle struck just the right note in terms of allowing plenty of space for Vincent to talk, but also contributing his own (obviously very extensive) knowledge of the industry where it was helpful, and making sure that the conversation progressed steadily onwards, and that threads were picked up and resolved where necessary. miss_s_b is right to say that trying to cover such a long career in a single hour did sometimes mean that really interesting productions were dealt with all too briefly. But then again, focusing in on a few selected productions would have made for a different kind of interview, and would have lost the sense of Price's career as a developing whole which Del Valle's interview conveyed very well.
Price certainly enjoyed the interview, anyway, coming across as amazingly relaxed, personable and good-humoured. He tells lots of lovely anecdotes about his relationships with other actors and directors, and about how much he has enjoyed sending himself up over the years - for example by pretending to be his own wax-work at the Buena Park wax museum, and scaring people by moving! He is quite happy to admit that some of the films he's done leave a little to be desired, dubbing James Whale's Green Hell in particular "one of the ten worst films ever made". But he obviously felt that he had achieved plenty to be proud of as well - not just on screen, but on stage (including in musicals!), on television and on the radio. In fact, in total I noted down four examples of films or performances which he described at the time of talking about them as 'the best thing he ever did', as follows:
- An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe
- Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General
- Theatre of Blood
- Oscar Wilde in the stage play, Diversions and Delights
An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1972), dir. Kenneth Johnson
Finally, we rounded off the evening with a screening of one of Vincent Price's 'bests': an American-International TV production consisting of four of Poe's short stories, all written originally in the first person, and performed by Price as theatrical-style monologues with nothing but a costume, a stage-set and some minimal special effects for company. This really was mesmerising, showing both Price and Poe off at their absolute best. Of the four stories performed, I think the first and last - 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Pit and the Pendulum' - were always stronger stories than the middle two - 'The Sphinx' and 'The Cask of Amontillado'. So it's perhaps no surprise that they are also Price's best two performances. But the whole set was excellent, and very much worth watching.
Obviously all four stories offered Price plenty of opportunities to express the madness and terror which he does so well - but it was effective, rather than gratuitous, because he built up to it gradually, knowing when to reign it in, and tempering it with sinister calm or forced jollity as appropriate. What struck me most of all, though, was the Shakespearian quality which Price brought out of Poe's language - in all four stories, but especially 'The Tell-Tale Heart'. It shouldn't have been a surprise to hear it, really - Poe certainly knew his Shakespeare, while Price's stage training would have made him very sensitive to that aspect of Poe's writing, and eminently well-qualified to give voice to it. But it isn't something that Price's better-known Roger Corman films of Poe's works could ever showcase properly - mainly because none of their scripts are terribly faithful to Poe's prose. I think it is what Price does with Poe's language here that gives these simple, intimate performances the edge, and makes them the definitive marriage between their two talents.
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