Halloween night, he exits the Palace movie theater with his girl. The beat begins, the music starts in that familiar rhythm.
“It’s only a movie!” Michael would say after his girl exits the movie theater. “It’s not funny” she said. Michael smiles as if he knows something more. “You were scared, weren’t you, you were scared”. After they pass the cemetery . . . the sound of an organ, the beat continues. Then that voice . . .
Every time Halloween arrives, I can’t help but think of the late Vincent Price and his role as lyrical voice-over or ‘Rap’ in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.
If you are like me at that first showing some 30 plus years ago, It wasn’t the surprise to see the quintessential introverted Michael Jackson wooing Ola Ray, the 1980’s Playboy playmate centerfold. I mean, I knew Michael Jackson was cool, but really? Rather, It was the presence of Vincent Price that would immortalize Thriller as THE Halloween Anthem.
It seemed so long ago. I was in my third year of college. Life seemed a little more carefree then. It was before Chernobyl, before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Well, you know, it was before Rap was, well, Rap.
And, now after 30 years, Michael Jackson and Vincent Price that made a mark on Halloween history are gone. Price would die almost to the day of its release 10 years later on October 25th, 1993.
It was as vivid as yesterday. We were all at the local club called Mars. It was 1983. It was just before midnight and the dance floor grew quiet. All eyes were fixed on the TV monitors set up throughout the club. Then it came. Thriller. I’ll never forget how everyone was amazed by this video. No one danced, we just watched. We talked about it for days. We all knew where and what we were doing when the Thriller video first played.
The video seemed ahead of its time. With the transformation of Michael Jackson into the Werewolf reminiscent of the magical transformation we saw in the 1981 classic film An American Werewolf in London. Never mind that both movies were directed and written by John Landis, who also co-wrote the screen play for Thriller with Jackson. Never mind that Michael Jackson would soon set the bar for video choreography. Never mind the MTV would go ballistic after its showing. Vincent Price was in the house!
The 13 + minute video would change us forever and how we looked at Halloween. It was MTV’s first premier video and would be listed in the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records as the “most successful music video”, selling over 9 million copies. Jackson was at the apex of his career solidifying his spot as the “King of Pop”. In 1983, the Thriller album would remain at No. 1 for an astonishing 4 months. Thriller would forever be the staple of American Halloween as we know it today.
Vincent Price was one of my favorite actors growing up. Many people don’t know that he graduated from Yale University with a degree in Art History. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, youngest of the four children in 1911. His father was president of the National Candy Company. His grandfather formulated ‘Dr. Price’s Baking Powder’, the first cream of tartar baking powder.
After starting his career as a character actor, Price ventured into horror films in 1939 alongside Boris Karloff in the film Tower of London. In 1940, he would star in the lead role of the classic film The Invisible Man Returns.
He starred in a number of horror movies throughout the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. When horror movies where less popular in the 1970’s, Price went on to use his voice in a number of voice overs and characterizations. Price hosted and starred in the BBC Radio’s horror and mystery series The Price of Fear in the early 1970’s.
He would often recite dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and poems, which were collected together with readings by Basil Rathbone. In 1975, his voice work after an advertisement of Milton Bradley’s Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture was used on Alice Cooper’s first solo album “Welcome to my Nightmare.” In 1977, Price recorded a cover single of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s, “The Monster Mash“, putting his voice rendition and remake of the song. This set the backdrop to his most famous ‘Rap” in Thriller.
There are a few known facts about Vincent Price’s involvement as rapper in Thriller.
The song “Thriller” was originally written by songwriter Rod Temperton, who originally titled the song “Starlight” (with the hook “Starlight, starlight sun” instead of the final version “Thriller, thriller night”. Temperton also suggested that the song should have a ‘speaking part’ after deciding on the Thriller lyrics. He suggested someone with a ‘famous voice’. Peggy Lipton, wife of Jackson’s producer Quincy Jones suggested Vincent Price for the part. Price accepted the part and was paid $20,000. Temperton penned the famous and immortal ‘rap rhyme’ in a cab on his way to the recording studio.
Johnny Carson once asked Vincent Price on the Tonight Show why he didn’t accept royalties from the album proceeds for the work rather than accepting a flat fee? Vincent Price responded with his usual grin, “Oh well, I know.” You see, Price was that way. Unassuming, a giver. You can see that in the movies he made.
While recording the rap, Price used ‘headphones’ to hear the music while recording the voice-over. It was said that he was amazed at the sound never having recorded with headphones before. He needed only two takes. Here is a small, rarely heard voice recording of Vincent Price doing a sound check before the recording.
In the recording, the eerie laugh track near the end of the take was used in the original recording. Quincy Jones, who knew how hard it was to do voice-overs and very often the need for multiple takes, praised Price for his effort as “fabulous”. A longer version of the voice-over was also recorded and featured both in the 2001 remastered edition of Thriller and the 25th anniversary reissue of 2008.
Michael Jackson would say, “I never was a horror fan, [but] I like Vincent Price. The House of Wax, I thought that was brilliant.” Quincy Jones, who was the mastermind behind promoting the video and produced MJ’s album, was quite clairvoyant in his prediction to the success of the video short. He would tell MJ, “Michael, I think this will be like the Citizen Kane of videos, I really do. It’s going to be the most revolutionary thing in the history of music videos. It’s a new art form and this is leading the way.”
It’s hard to say what effect the video short would have had without the narrative genius of Vincent Price. I don’t think it would have had the same impact without it. Vincent Price would influence and affect almost everyone that he worked with.
Tim Burton was also fascinated by his life-long idol. In 1982, Burton, who would later produced such classics as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride and many others, featured a film short dedicated to Vincent Price called Vincent. Tim Burton also began working on a documentary of Vincent Price and his art called Conversations with Vincent in 1990, which was never realized due to Burton’s work schedule and Vincent’s untimely death.
With his health already failing, Mr. Price would star in his last feature film in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands in 1990, three years before his death. His emphysema was so severe, that he had to take time out of the filming schedule to gain his strength for the part. He would eventually succumb to Lung Cancer. Vincent Price died almost on Halloween, October 25th, 1993.
I will remember Vincent Price as an art lover and collector. He donated hundreds of collected art to East Los Angeles College in the early 1960s in order to endow the Vincent Price Art Museum. This would be his living legacy. Of course, he will most be remembered for his voice and his contribution to horror.
So, on this coming Halloween night, think of Vincent and his immortal Rap. The two simple takes he made in that recording studio back in 1983 will live on every Halloween as a horror anthem. When you watch Thriller, always remember the Palace Theater Marquee paying homage to Vincent Price and his contribution to Thriller.
Darkness falls across the land
the midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawling in search of blood
to terrorize your neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse’s shell
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of . . . the thriller
To go directly to Vincent’s Halloween Anthem (Rap), it starts at 6:30. Of course, the entire video is pretty good too.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Wikipedia)
Vincent Price (Wikipedia)
The “Thriller” Diaries (Vanity Fair Magazine)
No Mere Mortal – Vincent Price and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Legends & Legacies)
Michael Jackson (Making Thriller rare version)
Vincent (1982 film)
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