Vincent Price, Spine-Tingler Extraordinaire

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MY most vivid memory of a Vincent Price performance is not from one of the many horror films to which he lent his devilishly sly presence, but rather of a stage appearance on Broadway in the late 1970s, in which he played the aging Oscar Wilde in a one-man show. It was a tour-de-force performance, and it was an excellent reminder that Price, besides being a seminal horror-film figure, was also a superbly accomplished actor.

Price, who died Monday, first made his mark in such historical works as ``Victoria Regina,'' in which he costarred on Broadway with Helen Hayes, and films like ``The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex'' and ``The Three Musketeers.''

But starting with ``House of Wax,'' a 3-D sensation in 1953, Price became a screen immortal, going on to star in dozens of horror films, many of them low-budget and directed by the likes of William Castle and Roger Corman, including ``The Abominable Dr. Phibes,'' ``The Conquerer Worm,'' ``Pit and the Pendulum,'' ``Masque of the Red Death,'' ``The Tingler'' (in which certain seats in the theaters were wired to produce electrical shocks), ``House on Haunted Hill,'' ``The Fly'' and his personal favorite, the 1973 ``Theater of Blood,'' in which he played an insane actor who methodically murdered theater critics.

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It was Price's elegance, born of his upper-class background, the best private schools, and many years spent in Europe, that elevated him above his horror-film contemporaries. He brought a suave intelligence and an urbane sense of humor to his characterizations, managing to be at the same time both scary and self-mocking. He was a noted art collector (for years he was the art consultant to Sears Roebuck) and a gourmet who was the author of several cookbooks.

In his later years he was a beloved figure, an icon of horror, who put his reputation to good use with such ventures as hosting the PBS series ``Mystery'' and narrating Michael Jackson's video for ``Thriller.'' Tim Burton, the director of ``Batman,'' revered him, and cast him in his last movie role, as the creator of ``Edward Scissorhands.'' Price also gave a memorable performance in 1987's ``The Whales of August,'' opposite two great film actresses, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis.

Vincent Price was careful not to denigrate the horror-film work that brought him screen immortality. He was grateful for the fame and fortune it provided. And we, in turn, can be grateful for the style and sophistication that he brought to a maligned genre.

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