Back from the Undead: Happy 100th to homegrown horror icon Vincent Price

In the darkness, an invisible hand flips a switch. The soft whir and ghost light of an old 8mm film projector, then an Edward Gorey-like drawing of a small boy with a pointed chin and wild hair materializes on a screen.

"Vincent Malloy is seven years old," intones a dry, effete and oddly familiar voice. "He's always polite and does what he's told. For a boy his age, he's considerate and nice. But he wants to be just like Vincent Price."

Clearly, something awful is in store for poor Vincent Malloy. The foreboding narrator is enjoying himself far too much. And so are the members of the audience assembled for Super 8 Movie Madness at the Way Out Club on South Jefferson Avenue. They've already seen truncated (and, therefore, nonsensical) versions of A Bucket of Blood and Jason and the Argonauts, which were enjoyable in their own cheesy way, but now they're ready for something really good: Vincent, Tim Burton's first commercially released film, a six-minute tribute to Vincent Price narrated by the horror icon himself.

Vincent Price (above) and his daughter Victoria (right), who wrote his biography and whom many Price fans consider a living link to their idol.
Vincent Price (above) and his daughter Victoria (right), who wrote his biography and whom many Price fans consider a living link to their idol.
Vincent Price.
Vincent Price.

Price was born exactly a century ago — on May 27, 1911 — right here in St. Louis, and this month his city intends to do him proud. This screening of Vincent is merely a prelude to the celebration, which goes by the name Vincentennial. Originally slated to be nothing more than a special night of Super 8 Movie Madness, the event has grown over the course of the past year, to the point where it's now a monthlong celebration with a host of sponsors, including Cinema St. Louis and Price's high school alma mater, Saint Louis Country Day School, from which the actor graduated in 1929.

There will be movies spanning Price's 60-year career, from early Hollywood noir classics like Laura through his reign as the king of horror in House of Wax and The Fly and his great Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven, to his final big-screen appearance, in Burton's Edward Scissorhands. There will be lectures by film scholars, by Corman and by Price's daughter, Victoria. There will be a display of Price artifacts, including one of the actor's baby booties, plus movie posters, comic books and resin model kits, at the Sheldon Art Galleries. There will be a display of Price-inspired artwork at Star Clipper in the Delmar Loop. There will be a performance of a live-action version of Price's camp triumph The Abominable Dr. Phibes, by Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre. And, of course, there will be a special Price-themed edition of Super 8 Movie Madness.

"Vincent Price is the most iconic movie star from St. Louis," asserts Tom Stockman, an avid collector of horror-movie memorabilia and the mastermind behind Super 8 Movie Madness and Vincentennial. "Do you think there's going to be a John Goodman centennial celebration 40 years from now? Kevin Kline? Shelley Winters? They don't have the cult following."

Of course, you don't have to be a cultist to have seen and appreciated Price's body of work. The horror movies that made him famous constitute less than half his screen oeuvre. Odds are you've seen him without even realizing it, late at night while flipping TV channels. There he is in a random old movie — Leave Her to Heaven, The Three Musketeers, The Ten Commandments, The Great Mouse Detective, The Trouble With Girls (starring Elvis Presley!). Or on a rerun of The Brady Bunch or Scooby-Doo or PBS's Mystery! At the very least, you've heard his voice and his maniacal laugh in the music video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller." His characters are usually witty, urbane and utterly villainous. It's hard to take most of these roles seriously — and Price didn't.

"The last thing my father was, was a snob," Victoria Price says by phone from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "He understood that popular culture was an incredibly powerful force. He had fun."

Price, then, would probably have appreciated the scene at the Way Out Club on Super 8 Movie Madness night. At the end of the film, as young Vincent Malloy succumbs to Vincent Price-induced madness, a man leaps onstage. The dark circles under his hooded eyes hint at sleepless nights devoted to some sort of nefariousness, and the narrow strips of facial hair connecting his beard to his moustache look like fangs. He pulls open his unbuttoned bowling shirt and thrusts out his chest to reveal the Vincentennial T-shirt beneath.

Meet Tom Stockman. As he reels off a rundown of Vincentennial events, an audience member suddenly joins him.

"I'm going to sing a song about Vincent Price," declares the man, a fellow Price devotee named Jim Batts. "It's to the tune of the theme song from The Mighty Hercules." An audience member familiar with the Saturday-morning cartoon show, which enjoyed a brief run in the mid-1960s, whistles.

"Vincent Price, star of stage and screen," Batts croons. "Vincent Price, with his fingers so lean...."

The crowd cheers. Stockman beams. It's only when he turns around that the logo on the back of his bowling shirt becomes visible: an embroidered portrait of Price as the abominable Dr. Phibes.

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