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Posts Tagged ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’

It would be impossible to write the history of American genre film-making without devoting a hefty section to American International Pictures and its founders Samuel Z Arkoff and James H Nicholson (also known as Jack’s dad). These are the guys who made the original version of The Fast and the Furious, and a bunch of other movies which have brilliant titles even if they’re (perhaps deservedly) obscure: The Astounding She-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers The World, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die… those films alone sound like a long weekend of bliss to me, and there are hundreds more.

Not that AIP didn’t aspire to a touch of class sometimes, perhaps most famously with their cycle of Poe adaptations overseen by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those films came out in the late 1950s and early 60s, and nearly ten years later Price was back with the company for another well-remembered and reasonably classy outing, in Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The film is set in 1920s England (not that this is immediately apparent). Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is investigating a series of bizarre and grisly murders: one man has been stung to death by bees, another savaged by bats, a third has had his head crushed by a rigged fancy-dress mask, and so on. It turns out that all the victims were doctors, and a further connection is that they all worked on the same case, an operation overseen by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). The patient died, and Trout begins to suspect that her husband, who was believed dead, may in fact be nothing of the sort.

He is right, of course, for the outraged widower, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price, of course), brilliant organist, theologian, and inventive genius, is back on the scene and intent on extracting revenge on the men he holds responsible for the death of his beautiful young wife (I suppose this qualifies as another ‘Vincent Price Broods Over His Dead Wife’s Portrait’ movie – Mrs Phibes is played by the delectable Caroline Munro, only adding to the movie’s cult credentials). Can Trout anticipate Phibes’ plans and stop him from completing the nine murders he has planned?

Stripped back to its absolute bare bones, The Abominable Dr Phibes sounds relatively straightforward – an unhinged killer sets out to take revenge on a group of men he holds responsible for a loved one’s death. What elevates the film from being a relatively routine suspense or horror movie into its own special realm is the bizarre, whimsical, baroque detail the film indulges in throughout. The film could have just opened with Dr Phibes emerging from his inner sanctum and setting off to orchestrate another murder. However, what actually happens is that Price emerges through the floor while playing a pipe organ (rather in the manner of Reginald Dixon), performing a piece by Mendelssohn. Having completed this important part of his plan, he goes on to engage in a little ball-room dancing with his enigmatic sidekick (Virginia North), the music being played by a band composed of life-sized clockwork automatons. Then he goes off to murder someone.

I don’t say this as a criticism of the movie, far from it – for it is the absurd excess of the film, and its darkly comic overtones, that give it so much of its charm and entertainment value. Is there a particularly plausible reason for Phibes to theme his revenge scheme around the biblical plagues of Egypt? Well, no, of course not: but it would be a much duller film without this. You could argue it is part of a great tradition of extravagant, somewhat gothic horror – and the film is surely partly inspired by The Phantom of the Opera – where odd details are actually very important. Things like the way that Phibes can only speak by plugging a gramophone into the side of his neck, and only eat and drink in a similar manner, may not be terribly important to the plot, but they add enormously to the atmosphere and style of the film.

Now, seasoned Price-watchers will of course be aware that the structure of this film is not unique in the actor’s canon: embittered maniac, aided by a mysterious young woman, embarks upon a series of elaborate themed murders against those he perceives as having done him wrong. That is, of course, the outline synopsis not just of The Abominable Dr Phibes but also Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, which came out a couple of years later. The Abominable Dr Phibes is an entertaining and well-made movie, but it can’t help but come across as a dry run for Hickox’s movie, which is arguably superior: the theme is more coherent, and it’s not afraid to really put the pedal to the metal when it comes to including elements of black comedy.

And, of course, it gives Price an unparalleled opportunity to show off his range. In The Abominable Dr Phibes, he’s playing a character who is effectively permanently masked and largely mute, thus drastically limiting the options for Price’s performance. That the actor still gives a striking and memorable performance says much about his class, but the thing that distinguishes Vincent Price from peers like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee is his capacity for outrageous, operatic, over-the-top performances, and it’s this that’s missing from The Abominable Dr Phibes.

This is a fun film, which feels very much like a product of the British film industry in the 1970s – various distinguished figures show up for brief cameo roles (Terry-Thomas, John Laurie, Hugh Griffith) – for all that you can, perhaps, if you squint, see how it may have had some kind of influence on a later generation of horror movies (one element of the climax seems to me to anticipate Saw). Its ostentatious wackiness may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it really make ideal use of its biggest asset (Price himself), and so for me the real significance of this movie comes from the fact it represents a first attempt at the formula which Theatre of Blood later perfected so wonderfully. Still highly entertaining in its own right, though, of course.

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