Every genre of film has its fair share of heroes and villains. For Westerns, it’s impossible not to imagine the larger-than-life figures of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. For noir, the image of the brooding, trench-clad silhouette of Humphrey Bogart exemplifies the genre. And for horror, the mischievous grin and perched eyebrow of the mustachioed icon, Vincent Price, reigns supreme.
A legendary performer within the field of horror, Price forever embraced the theatricality of the genre, lending each of his many performances a deal of over-the-top believability not seen since the days of Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi. Whether he portrayed a hero or – more often than not – a villain, Price managed to weave in a level of sophistication and complexity to each of his characters, something that captured the attention of every moviegoer in the audience.
From his celebrated work on Roger Corman’s 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations to his later performances in campy ‘70s horror movies, check out some of Vincent Price’s finest films, ranked from best to worst.
The Masque of the Red Death
One of the final collaborations between Price and his recurring director, Roger Corman, The Masque of the Red Death also serves as the highlight of Price and Corman’s working relationship. Set in late medieval Italy, the plot involves the tyrannical Prince Prospero (Price) manipulating the members of his court for his own twisted enjoyment as a viral plague spreads outside his castle walls.
Among Price’s most inspired performances, Prospero offers Price the chance to commit to his most unsympathetic antagonist yet. A charismatic misanthrope who pledges himself to Satan – the “true ruler of the universe” – Prospero delights in torturing his subjects, loved ones, and closest friends, all to prove his belief that there is no hope or human kindness left in the world. It’s perhaps the richest character Price ever played, and one that stays with viewers long after the credits have rolled.
House of Wax
The first color 3D film, House of Wax’s emphasis on its three-dimensional elements might seem dated by today’s standards, but its emphasis on atmospheric horror is worthy of praise. When his corrupt partner (Roy Roberts) burns down his beloved wax museum, an early 20th-century sculptor (Price) begins murdering random people to create his new line of wax figures.
Possibly Price’s most sympathetic antagonist, audiences can see Professor Jarrod as a tragic anti-villain. His sanity and body ravaged by tragedy, he returns with a vindictive predilection for murder and revenge, establishing him as a maniacal and unhinged villain like Sweeney Todd. Creeping through the fog-strewn streets of Manhattan, he appears as a borderline supernatural figure straight out of someone’s nightmares – a prototypical Freddy Krueger haunting early 1900s New York.
One of the few times Price played a historical figure, 1968’s Witchfinder General finds Price in the capotain hat of the infamous 17th-century mass murderer, Matthew Hopkins. An alleged witch hunter whose career peaked amid the chaos of the English Civil War, Hopkins wandered the British countryside for three years, using his reported “official government position” to condemn as many as 300 men, women, and children to death for witchcraft.
While all of Price’s villainous roles warrant praise, his portrayal of Hopkins remains by far the actor’s most jarring to see. Though dramatized for theatrical effect, Price’s chilling performance benefits from Hopkins’ historical crimes, religious hypocrisy, and self-interested motives. Using the turmoil of the war to his advantage, Hopkins sews discontent and anarchy wherever he roams – a dexterous con man interested only in self-gain.
The Pit and the Pendulum
Price’s second collaboration with Roger Corman after their earlier House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum marks an interesting turn for Price. Unlike most other roles on this list, he begins the film as a sympathetic figure – a man driven to madness over the death of his wife. As the film draws on, it becomes apparent that he has a loose grip on reality, pushing him to the edge of sanity and triggering a malevolent transformation.
Consumed by grief over the role he might have played in his wife’s death, audiences can understand and empathize with Price’s Nicholas. Like House of Wax’s Professor Jarrod, his gradual metamorphosis into an anti-villain results from the influence of others (his conniving wife and her lover) than by his base human nature. It’s a fascinating performance and one of Price’s most popular to date.
Theatre of Blood
In many ways, Theatre of Blood acts as a loose parody of Price’s previous work on 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Following the same basic premise of Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood follows Price – this time portraying gifted Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart – as he carries out murderous revenge against the group of theater critics who ruined his career.
More a horror comedy than horror alone, Theatre of Blood’s campy nature allows Price to merge humor with horror to ingenious results. Hamming it up in a variety of disguises, Price does a more than adequate job of creating a villain with a wonderful cartoonish personality. One of Price’s most remarkable films from the 1970s, it’s also the last film to feature the actor in his physical prime.
House on Haunted Hill
Along with 1953’s House of Wax, 1959’s House on Haunted Hill helped establish Price as an undisputed star within the horror genre. An enthralling haunted house story, it also features one of Price’s earliest standout performances as the enigmatic millionaire Frederick Loren.
An element of ambiguity surrounds Loren’s character – audiences question his motives until the very end of the film. Is he a mischievous trickster who enjoys a good practical joke – or someone more methodical and malicious in his intent to scare his fellow houseguests? This air of mystery around Loren makes House on Haunted Hill such an enjoyable film, giving viewers one of Price’s most interesting characters.
House of Usher
Price’s first time working with Roger Corman came with 1960’s gothic horror film House of Usher. The first of seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Price starred in for Corman, Price’s performance as the melancholic Roderick Usher made for another unforgettable appearance from the horror icon.
Like House on Haunted Hill, Price’s portrayal in House of Usher thrives on ambiguity, with audiences not quite sure how to classify the troubled Roderick. Blurring the line between a well-intentioned hero and an unstable villain, his motivations are just in nature, even if they come at a monstrous cost to his friends and family. Relying on a more dialed-back performance – with Price speaking in a hushed whisper throughout – it’s no wonder Corman decided to have Price appear in almost all future Poe films after this one.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
As the ‘60s concluded, Price found himself starring in an increasing number of hyper-stylized horror films in lieu of the atmospheric, gothic films he’d appeared in throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. By the start of the 1970s, the actor appeared in a number of lavish horror comedies, the most notable being his 1971 revenge film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Though technically a horror comedy, Dr. Phibes focuses more on the horror elements of its storyline than on its deliberate campy humor (standing in stark contrast to the frequent hilarity of Theatre of Blood). In the lead role, Price plays yet another tragic villain in the same mold as Professor Jarrod, a character who unjustly attributes the death of his wife to the medical staff who performed the surgery. As ominous and theatrical a figure as the titular Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, Price’s organ-playing, theology-savvy Phibes no doubt ranks among Price’s best performances of the decade.
The Great Mouse Detective
As Price grew older, he began to more readily embrace his status as a horror icon, lending his indescribable voice to such things as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the main antagonist to Disney’s 1986 animated film, The Great Mouse Detective.
An underrated entry in both Disney's and Price’s filmography, The Great Mouse Detective features Price in the role of ingenious criminal mastermind Professor Ratigan. The sworn nemesis of Barrie Ingham’s eponymous mouse detective, Ratigan is a towering rat whose vast intellect goes hand-in-hand with his formidable physical presence. The Moriarty to Basil’s Sherlock, Price made for a natural fit to the sinister Ratigan, lending the antagonist the legitimate authority necessary to pose a physical and mental threat to Ingham’s Basil.
The Last Man on Earth
Not to be confused with the Will Forte-led Fox sitcom of the same name, The Last Man on Earth loosely adapts Richard Matheson’s best-selling post-apocalyptic novel, I Am Legend. Making only a handful of changes from the original novel, the resulting film showcases an acting tour de force from Price, whose performance is both believable and terrifying to observe.
Suffering from depression, isolation, and intense boredom, Price’s Robert Morgan – a suburban scientist in a time when the world’s population has transformed into vampiric monsters – searches for a cure. Hampered by his constant failures, Price establishes Morgan as a perpetually tortured soul, a man longing for companionship of any kind yet unable to have his inner pain and torment alleviated.
One of the most crucial entries in Price’s filmography, The Fly played an important role in establishing Price as a horror star, alongside other ‘50s films like House of Wax and House on Haunted Hill.
Though relegated to the supporting character of François, Price uses his limited screen time to leave a lasting impression on audience members. The brother to the brilliant scientist Dr. André Delambre (David Hedison), François watches in horror as his sibling transforms into a monstrous fly-human hybrid after a disastrous experiment. Full of fraternal warmth and affection, François assists his brother any way he can, even at the cost of his own mental health and the well-being of André's immediate family.
The final film in Price’s long and illustrious career, Edward Scissorhands also provided Price with the most fitting final character imaginable. Playing the eccentric individual known only as the Inventor, Price constructs Johnny Depp’s Edward, his work cut short by his abrupt death partway through Edward’s creation.
While Price played his fair share of evil scientists in the past, he shows no trace of malevolence or foul intentions behind the Inventor. A surrogate father figure for Edward, his sole desire to create motivates him, getting an untold amount of pleasure from seeing Edward’s naivety and childlike innocence. It’s a masterful performance that leaves a tear in the eye and a fond smile on the lips, especially knowing it’s Price’s last appearance on film.
Compared to most other films on this list, The Tingler is far from great, existing as a campier B-monster movie with cheap special effects and a membrane-thin plot. Despite the cheese of the movie, Price takes his lead role as skilled pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin seriously, helping the movie achieve cult status in the decades since its release.
In any other actor’s hands, The Tingler might have been a forgettable sci-fi horror movie. Yet through his dedicated performance as Chapin, Price elevates The Tingler to another level, playing the role with the same relish and commitment as a straight man in an over-the-top slapstick comedy.
As opposed to their previous collaborations on the several other Poe adaptations that came before it, Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s work on The Raven weaved in a more comedic plotline, focusing just as much on its humor as it did its horror elements.
Appearing alongside fellow horror icons Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre (as well as future star Jack Nicholson), Price manages to hold his own against his momentous on-screen counterparts. Though veering more into camp territory at times, Price’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of medieval sorcerer Dr. Erasmus Craven helps The Raven excel as a light-hearted and enjoyable film, and essential viewing for fans of Price’s expansive career.
The Tomb of Ligeia
The final entry in Corman’s Poe series, The Tomb of Ligeia, once again pitted Price in a starring role, this time in the form of Verden Fell. Like Price’s earlier appearance in The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tomb of Ligeia casts Price as a devastated widower haunted by the death of his wife.
Trying and failing to move past his grief, Verden spends the bulk of the film pursued by Ligeia’s presence (who has since taken the form of an ill-tempered black cat). In many ways, Price’s role here seems an amalgamation of the many Poe characters he’d portrayed in the years prior, with Verden possessing Nicholas’s remorse (The Pit and the Pendulum), Usher’s physical maladies (House of Usher), and Prospero’s unwavering faith in a higher being (The Masque of the Red Death).
Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.
Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).