As part of the blogathon, we all decided to sit down and watch one of the most treasured cinematic chestnuts, the story of one's man limitless love for his wife and all the bastards he has to kill to prove it...
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
Synopsis: Eminent surgeons are being systematically murdered in bizarre fashion during England's Roaring Twenties, and Inspector Pike, er, Trout, is on the case. The policeman gradually discovers that the victims--the first stung to death by bees (unseen), the second ravaged by vampire bats, and the third's head crushed by a frog mask at a costume ball--were at one point all part of a surgical team led by Dr. Vesalius.
The one case they undertook together (along with four other physicians and a nurse) was that of Victoria Phibes, wife of theology and music expert Dr. Anton Phibes. Victoria died on the operating table and Anton himself was immolated in a tragic car accident and died on the way to the hospital.
Or did he?
With time running short, Inspector Trout and Dr. Vesalius must outwit their nemesis as the grim-faced madman continues to use the Biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt as the modus operandi of his crimes. And with such lovely and novel forms of execution at his disposal as locusts, hail, and blood draining, and a gorgeous assistant at his side, Phibes is determined to beat the tenacious efforts of the Law and have the last laugh.
Jose: If only all horror films had an opening as great as THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. Right from those reverent strummings on the pipe organ, the entire credit sequence just feels right. It's a testament to just how much a director can wring from a wordless prologue, using only music and imagery to convey the atmosphere and emotional truth of the overall production. Too bad it's mostly a forgotten practice these days, but director Robert Fuest (AND SOON THE DARKNESS) shows how completely in control he is in this moment. All I need to do is think back to Phibes's grand flourishes in his dark cloak, the neon red of the organ rising from the ground like a rock from Hell into his art deco heaven, bare trees peopled with stuffed owls and a stage of robotic jazz players waiting for their winding cue, and I am at peace. It's the type of opening that has nothing but promise for lovers of horror and strange beauty.
|Murder by bats|
Peter: You're on the money as usual, my young compadre. There is no film quite like PHIBES. Rather than a delicate composition of great music, incredible sets, and canny casting choices, PHIBES feels wonderfully thrown together. I love how we're dropped right into the lap of the narrative, almost as though the director has whispered in our ears, "You're late... and you missed the first twenty minutes... there's not much time to recap." We're not even shown the first murder, only told in passing that a victim of bee stings may have something to do with the current case. There are so many questions I have! Who the heck is Vulnavia? She's hot, yes, we know that, but why is she hanging out with a dead guy? Is she dead, too? A groupie? What about that party where head-shrinker Hargreaves gets his head shrunken (nice irony that, no?) in a frog mask vice? Who are these people and how did Phibes get invited? For that matter, how does Anton always know where his victims will be? I want to know the answers to these questions -- I've wanted to know for over forty years -- but make no mistake: it doesn't matter! Legend has it that PHIBES was on his TV the day Keith Moon swallowed way too many pills. How appropriate is it that a loon would go out watching a nutty flick like this?
|Murder by frog|
John: The fact that there's no dialog until after the first murder has been committed is pretty amazing, and yet watching it you hardly notice because the setup is so engaging. It moves briskly from one set piece to the next; right up to the nail-biting climax.
|Murder by exsanguination (blood)|
Jack: I presume that's Vincent Price hamming it up at the organ in the opening sequence, though we never see his face. It's so funny that his hand movements and flourishes seem to have no connection to the organ music being played; at one point, he throws both hands up in the air while the music keeps going! All of the elements that make this film great remind me of The Avengers, where Fuest had directed a number of episodes in the late '60s.
|Murder by hail|
Jose: In addition to a mastery of the technical elements, the film also boasts a great, fun script by James Whiton and William Goldstein. It's particularly impressive when you account for the fact that this was both writers' very first big screen effort, but it has the flow and feel of veteran scribes in their prime. The script combines two of my favorite narrative touches--creepy suspense and wry comedy--in a manner that other films I love (CREEPSHOW, FRIGHT NIGHT) would demonstrate in later years. The laughs in this film are of the typically dry, British flavor, naturally, and they tickle me no matter how many times I've seen them. From the low-key (Trout asking where one of his men are and the policeman responding matter-of-factly from atop a bureau, "Up here, sir") to the patently slapstick (the unscrewing of Dr. Whitcombe's body from the unicorn's horn), it's all delivered with just the right air to ensure that all of the funny bits never jar you from the rest of the film but rather feel apiece with the whole production. The look Price gives the racy painting in Terry-Thomas's library kills me every time.
|Murder by rats|
John: Jose nailed it. I think one of the reasons I loved the film growing up was that Phibes was a sympathetic character. How could one blame him for wanting revenge after losing his lovely young wife (more on the enchanting-even-as-a-corpse Caroline Munro later)? And despite being packed wall-to-wall with murders, the humorous bits with the bumbling inspectors of Scotland Yard (save our relentless Trout, who never falters) make those sequences out to be more camp than anything else. Which contributes to the final climax being so effective—by the time we get to Vesalius's struggle to save his son, it's clear this is no longer a joke.
|Murder by unicorn (?)|
Jack: I think we would all agree that we would be willing to murder any doctor who harmed Caroline Munro!
|Victoria Phibes in happier days|
Peter: I saw PHIBES in the Spring of '71 at the Capitol Drive-In in San Jose (on a double-bill, if I'm not mistaken, with the fabulously sleazy The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant) and, even at the ripe old age of 9, knew it was something special. I was a Cushing and Lee fan, through and through, but Vincent Price always kept my attention even when he popped up in "talky and boring" (that's the nine year old speaking) flicks like Scream and Scream Again, Cry of the Banshee and Conqueror Worm (the latter of which put me to sleep). It was PHIBES, though, that transformed me into a Price follower and, from that point on, I would venture out to the cinema and take in anything he made.
|Dr. Phibes and Vulnavia|
John: Watching it again, I began to wonder if Price gave a better performance in his career. To this day, I'm convinced that Phibes can't move his mouth. Rather than just relying on a recorded voiceover, he 'speaks' all of his lines while keeping his lips still, providing a creepy, yet completely believable, performance.
|Sorting the Brussels sprouts|
Jose: The "vengeful doctor" tale was far from fresh by the time Fuest lensed this film, having been a staple of everything from the pulp magazines and comic books to motion pictures decades prior--the setting of the story in the Twenties could then perhaps be considered a canny move by Whiton and Goldstein--but Dr. Phibes is such a delicious amalgam of madman conventions and confections that one can't help but resist his sinister aura. With a prosthetic death-mask that's not quite as mobile as Lionel Atwill's in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and a killer fashion sense, Phibes shows that not only does he have all the requisite know-how of villainy (he puts a chauffeur into submission with a sleeper hold), but has enough class and taste to fill a sparkling ballroom.
|Murder by locusts|
Jack: Speaking of killer fashion sense, can anyone make sense of Vulnavia? When I watched this film recently, for the first time in many years, I kept thinking that she'd be revealed to be either Phibes's wife or his girlfriend. Turns out I was mixing it up in my head with THEATRE OF BLOOD and Vulnavia goes through the entire film as a cipher. Why would this beautiful young woman be so devoted to Phibes? Who is she? She really doesn't deserve the acid in her face that she receives at the end. I don't think she ever says a word, and the romantic wine and waltz scene she shares with the bad doctor makes one think he has more on his mind than his dead wife.
|Speaking through the side of his neck|
John: I think the art direction and set design are worth mentioning as well. All these years later, the strange art deco designs, from Phibes house with the bizarre clockwork Wizards orchestra, the wax head lamps of his intended victims (visible in the background in an early opening shot), his car having his profile on the drawn shades, to Vulnavia's elaborate costumes, all contribute to the film's timeless feel. And kudos for the grand production values that allowed for real (and particularly creepy) live bats (save one shot of a bat on a string that's all the more obvious on Blu Ray) and so many other inventive ways of delivering the curses upon his victims. My personal favorite has to be the locusts. I love how Price inspects and casually tosses aside some Brussels sprouts while mixing his concoction, how he lays out a full scale (nude) drawing of the nurse's body so he can figure out—exactly—where to drill a hole in the ceiling right over her head and, best of all, after dripping the green syrup and live locusts on her, the discovery of her skeletal body (but with hair!) covered in locusts. Have I mentioned how much I love this film?
John: Regular readers of bare•bones are very familiar with my fondness for Caroline Munro. While her role in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is no more than a glorified cameo—in which she has more screen time via photographs than as a (remarkably well-preserved) corpse—any opportunity to see her onscreen is a welcome one. And on the bright side, playing a corpse prevented the studio from bringing in another actress to dub her lines, something that occurred all too often throughout her career. Of her PHIBES experience, she told me that it was rather difficult to remain perfectly still in her few scenes, both in that she was allergic to the feathers on her costume, and also because Price had brought in paté to share with the cast and crew, which caused her to burp!
Peter: Several sequels were planned after the first Dr. Phibes made quite a splash but only Dr. Phibes Rises Again came to fruition. To get a fabulously detailed dissection of the various Phibes projects throughout the years (including the most recent, the proposed Johnny Depp/Tim Burton re-imagining), pick up the special Dr. Phibes issue of Little Shoppe of Horrors.
|Speaking through a phonograph|
|Watching the acid|
|Our first view of the real Phibes|
|At the organ|
|Right before an acid bath|