Saturday, May 16, 2015

Classic Movie Day--The Abominable Dr. Phibes

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

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...


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?

Peter: PHIBES has a Phabulous soundtrack but, oddly enough, the album released by American-International Records (AIR) shorty after the film's release has several pieces not found in the film. Famed impersonator (and voice of Boris Badenov) Paul Frees was brought in to sing on several cuts, aping such legends as Humphrey Bogart, Al Jolson and W.C. Fields. I have no idea why but, as a monster-obsessed nine year-old, I managed to talk my mom into dropping four big ones on this album at Gemco. I'd never had a soundtrack before and my musical tastes ran closer to The Partridge Family (a fondness which, I must confess, lasts to this day) so it may have been the incredible poster artwork that graced the sleeve. In any event, I took that record home and played the hell out of it. I've still got it (as evidenced by the honest-to-gosh real photo taken in my study recently) and, for a 44 year-old slab of vinyl, it's in pretty good shape. The musical highlight of the film (and record) is composer Basil Kirchin's "Vulnavia," which you can access here.

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!

Jack: As stunning as she was, the photos that are shown late in the film of her smiling and hanging around are some of the least sexy pictures of Caroline Munro ever taken. I guess it would not have looked right to dress her in her Golden Voyage of Sinbad outfit . . .

Joseph Cotten

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


Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

A most enjoyable "conversation" about one of Vincent's best later films (though I admit admiring THEATRE OF BLOOD even more). It's incredibly stylish and you're right about the nifty use of music without dialogue in certain sequences. I also enjoyed the sequel, but didn't find it quite up to the original.

Walker Martin said...

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of the great horror films. Peter mentions seeing it at the age of 9 years old in 1971 and thinking it was great. I was 29 in 1971 and also thought it was great. That's one of the test of an exceptional horror film; that it appeals to all ages.

Bill O said...

Never felt that was VP in the opening credits, too frantic maybe, dunno. Like Once Upon A Time in The West,this is a compendium of the films before it, likewise starring a genre giant. Visually checked are Opera's Phantom, Dracula, Frankenstein, House of Wax, references to VP's love of the arts, cooking and wine. How "Over the Rainbow" figures into Phibes' new flamboyant style, well...Vulnavia is definitely his familiar, supernatural but mortal.

Dan Day, Jr. said...

This is my favorite Vincent Price performance of all time. Yes, he's creepily campy, but he also puts over a clear undertone of anger and sadness. Price was brilliant as Phibes, and no other actor could have played the role. said...

If this film is half as funny as your conversation about it, I'm in.

Silver Screenings said...

I've never even HEARD of this movie, but I can see why you'd list it as a fave. Love the conversation-style review!

Anonymous said...

Loved your detailed look at a film my late father-in-law loved and introduced to me. He would have loved your review of Dr. Phibes.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments! We enjoyed watching and talking about this film and we were happy to be able to participate in Classic Movie Day!

Taylor401306 said...

"Abominable Dr. Phibes" is the film that made me a Vincent Price Fan. As for Vulnavia, it was my theory that she was Phibes' clockwork masterpiece, indistinquishable from humans. He just hadn't given her a voice yet or perhaps a silent woman is a perfect woman ? LOL

Bill O said...

She was scripted as clockwork, but obviously something more ethereal in the film(s). That Phibes has mastered the Black Artes. Her scream and the inplication of burning flesh would indicate that, plus the fact he had no time or materials to rebuild her for the sequel.

Jack Seabrook said...

That reminds me of Bugs Bunny's comment upon learning that a beautiful female rabbit is a machine: "So she's mechanical!" And he continues his pursuit.

Taylor401306 said...

I assumed Vulnavia was self-repairing, which would explain her re-appearance in "Dr. Phibes Rises Again".I believe it has also been put forward that Vulnavia was the goddess Aphrodite but why would a goddess be merely an assistant ? She's either clockwork or the female equivalent of Puck from "Midsummer Night's Dream". But if Phibes could resurrect Vulnavia, why couldn't he resurrect his beloved Victoria ? No, the best explanation is that she was a self-repairing clockwork masterpiece.

Bill O said...

Vulnavia, unlike Ms Phibes, is not human in origin. Certainly not a construct, she passes the Turing Test and thinks and reacts on her own. Her mystique prob due to the director, cuts out any exposition and capitalizes on the perfect casting.