This year of 2011 marks the 100th birthday of one of our greatest heroes, Vincent Price. MGM (the studio that owns the rights to more Price films than any other, yet hasn’t released any of the remaning ones on the digital format since 2007) has inadvertently commenced this landmark centennial celebration by releasing 1963’s DIARY OF A MADMAN to DVD as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection.
In turn-of-the century France, the diary of a late magistrate is read, and the incredible circumstances of his demise unfold. Simon Cordier (Vincent Price), a kindly, wealthy and distinguished magistrate is attacked in a prison by a death-row serial murderer who quickly dies during the confrontation. This incident causes Cordier to be possessed by a “Horla”, an evil spirit that forces its human host to do some rather nasty things. With this unexplainable nuisance making life miserable for him, Cordier takes up his old sculpting hobby as a form of relaxation. Then comes a chance encounter with young model Odette Duclasse (Nancy Kovak, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) who poses for him and quickly becomes the object of his affection. Cordier proposes, and gold-digging Odette easily accepts, even though she’s already married to a much younger starving painter (Chris Warfield). But the Horla still has a hold of poor Cordier, and despite his newfound love and happiness, it causes him to commit murder.
Based on a short story by famed 19th Century author Guy de Maupassant, DIARY OF A MADMAN was one of two films that Price did for Admiral Pictures (the other being Roger Corman’s TOWER OF LONDON) and it was made during the height of his tenure at AIP. Obviously attempting to capture the look and feel of Price’s then-current color period horrors, the film is routinely directed by the veteran Reginald Le Borg (who previously helmed some of the 1940s Universal Studios shockers, as well as the all-star 1950s creature feature romp, THE BLACK SLEEP), giving the impression that it was a rush job. But the lush studio sets (with art direction by none other than Daniel Haller), "invisible man" inspired special effects, detailed costumes and rich Technicolor photography make up for it.
If the film has one single asset that makes it rather enjoyable, that is of course is Vincent Price. Although DIARY isn’t considered one of actor’s better 1960s efforts, it’s a tour-de-force performance, with Price given a lot of screen time, a well-developed character and the chance to play good and evil at the same time. Price is given some tender moments, which include a scene where, possessed, he crushes his beloved pet canary, only to come out of his spell to find the poor thing dead. When he’s in possession mode, he’s his usual menacing self, with the evil presence of the Horla represented as a nuclear-green visor-like aura which hovers in front of his eyes.
Out-hamming Price for a change is familiar character actor Joseph Ruskin as the Horla’s sinister voice, ordering Cordier to do a series of horrible deeds. Nancy Kovak is striking in face and figure, but most of the supporting cast is rather stiff, with Price thankfully carrying the weight of the film. Most viewers will recognize Ian Wolfe (from countless supporting roles, including, among many others, MAD LOVE, THE RETURN OF DR. X, BEDLAM and ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY) as Cordier’s loyal butler, and when seeing Dick Wilson, it’s hard not to think of him as Mr. Whipple (the TV commercial grocer who asked of us, “Please don't squeeze the Charmin”).
MGM has released DIARY OF A MADMAN on DVD as part of its MOD (manufactured on demand) “Limited Edition Collection.” The worst fear was that they’d just use an old full frame or flat letterboxed transfer, but thankfully they’ve used a new remaster that’s a winner. The film is presented letterboxed at 1.66:1 with anamorphic enhancement, and despite the opening warning of “This film has been manufactured using the best source material available” (which appears to be a standard disclaimer for these specific releases) the transfer is quite gorgeous, with the original Technicolor textures really coming through nicely, and very little on display in terms of dirt and debris. The image is very sharp, and fleshtones look natural, far better than the previous video transfers. The mono audio is clear and distinct, even if there’s evidence of some pops and hiss. The original trailer is included (it’s widescreen, but not anamorphic) and includes special narration footage of Price on the film’s soundstage graveyard set.
Where can you purchase these MGM Limited Edition Collection releases? So far they can be found for purchase online at Deep Discount DVD, Oldies.com, Movies Unlimited and Screen Archives Entertainment. (George R. Reis)
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