Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Abominable Dr Phibes, The

“Long thought dead, the victim of a horrible accident, Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) still lives, surrounded by art-deco bric-a-brac and attended by mute beauty Vulnavia (Virginia North). Outwardly normal in appearance, Phibes actually wears a rubber mask, covering his hideously deformed countenance; giving away the artifice is the fact that, when he dines, he takes his food through his neck rather than his mouth. Able to speak only when plugging a wire into his damaged vocal chords, Phibes elucidates his plan to murder the medical team whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife. Each of the killings is patterned after the ten deadly plagues. Phibes saves his worst for last: trapping chief surgeon Dr. Vesalius in his lair, Phibes forces the hapless medico into a race against time to save the life of his own son.” – AllMovie Guide


“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” If you’re old enough, you probably recognize that quote from Love Story as one of the most famous movie lines ever uttered. If you’re a semi-literate person of any age, you also recognize it as one of the dumbest things to ever come out of a movie character’s mouth since the invention of celluloid. Even John Lennon once quipped, “Are you kidding, love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” So, what better way to establish the dark comedic tone of The Abominable Dr. Phibes than by skewering that iconic utterance on it’s one sheet. After all, despite its Grand Guignol trappings, Phibes is still a love story, just a morbid one with its tongue set firmly in its hollowed out cheek.

And who better to carry such a mixed bag of grisly murders, gallows humor, and tortured lovers than Vincent Price. On the actor’s official website run by his family, the legendary thespian is described thusly…

“Vincent Price is widely regarded as one of the most iconic and beloved horror movie actors in the world. Any fan of classic horror movies knows the name Vincent Price as synonymous with elegance, humor, talent, worldliness, and charm. Throughout his over 60-year movie career, appearing in countless classic horror movies, as well as classic films outside the horror genre, Price established himself as one of the most popular actors--beloved among both his fans and his peers.”


Normally such hyperbole could be written off as the loving words of an adoring family, but in the case of Vincent Price, it’s pretty much spot on. Whether delivering a performance of Shakespearean quality or just hamming it up for the fun of it, there’s very few movies that weren’t made just a little bit better by Price’s presence (yes, even Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), and nowhere is that on better display than in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Of course, while the movie would suffer greatly from his absence, there’s more going for it than just Price. The reliable Joseph Cotton turns in his usual stalwart performance as Phibes’ intended final victim, Dr. Vesalius, and British film staple Peter Jeffrey is spot-on as the inept Inspector Trout. However, it’s Virginia North’s turn as Phibe’s mute assistant Vulnavia that most people remember. Unquestioningly loyal and never flinching, not even while Phibes slurps his drink through a hole in the back of his neck, the fashion model briefly turned actress adds a touch of elegant mystery to the proceedings. Although an early draft of the script hinted that she might be one of Phibes’ mechanical creations, and another script for a proposed sequel named her as a manifestation of the Greek Goddess, Athena (wha-huh?), Vulnavia’s presence is never explained. She is simply there when Phibes needs her, be it for help with a murder or just a spin around the dance floor.


And let’s talk about that floor, why don’t we? If anyone deserves second billing to Price in the credits, it’s set designer Brian Eatwell. His work on Dr. Phibes’ lavishly ornamented lair is a master class in Art Deco excess. The aforementioned mammoth marble dance floor with its ornate geometric designs, the dieselpunk clockwork band that provides the accompanying music, the enormous  neon-gilded pipe organ that projects a slide show of Phibes’ deceased wife while Price hammers away at Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests; there are few horror movies then or now that look as cool and interesting as the Phibes films.

Finally, are there many more memorable murders than the ones found in The Abominable Dr. Phibes? There’s death by having your skull crushed with a slowly contracting frog mask, death by extreme hypothermia from an artificial snow maker hooked up to your car, and death by having Brussel Sprout juice dripped on your sleeping face so locusts will eat the flesh off of it. Suffice to say, Phibes made killing people in overly-elaborate ways fashionable long before the Saw films were even a glint in Lions Gate’s eyes. And unlike the relentlessly morbid Jigsaw, Dr. Phibes did it all with a smile. Each death is delightfully gruesome and each one inspired by the ten plagues God rained down upon Egypt in the book of Exodus.


Not that there were slowly contracting frog masks in the Bible, mind you. The aforementioned murders may have taken their inspiration from the plague of toads, plague of hailstones, and plague of locusts respectively, but did so very loosely. In fact, up until the final plague, most of the curses visited upon Egypt resulted in inconvenience and/or terror rather than the loss of human life. It makes you wonder why God bothered to send so many plagues rather than just skip ahead until the end to achieve what he wanted. Sure, there was the whole hardening of Pharaoh's heart thing (which, as we discussed previously, was done entirely with Pharaoh's consent), but the final plague upon the first born of Egypt put an end to that quite readily. So, why not just go straight there instead of wasting time with frogs and flies and such?

Well, there’s a theory about that (of course). Because the ancient Egyptians believed that all natural phenomena, as well as any number of abstract concepts, were actually sentient divine forces, they had a rather sizable pantheon of gods, over 2,000 by some accounts. But if you just wanted to stick to the biggies, you could knock it down to a handful or two. So the idea is that each of the plagues corresponds to one of these major Egyptian deities and their complete inability to stand up to the power of the God of the Israelites. You could easily make a few substitutions here and there, but a basic list goes something like this:

  1. Hapi, god of the Nile, couldn’t stop his river from turning to blood.
  2. Heqet, frog-goddess of fertility, couldn’t control her hopping kin.
  3. Geb, god of the earth, couldn’t prevent gnats from rising out of the dirt.
  4. Khepri, god of insects, couldn’t call off all of the biting flies.
  5. Hathor, bovine-goddess of motherhood, couldn’t save a single cow.
  6. Thoth, god of medicine, couldn’t cure a single boil.
  7. Nut, goddess of the sky, couldn’t put an end to the pummeling hail storms.
  8. Isis, goddess of nature, couldn’t save a single crop from the locusts.
  9. Ra, god of the sun, couldn’t banish the darkness.
  10. Osiris, god of the afterlife and resurrection, couldn’t prevent a single death.

In each instance, the Egyptian pantheon was proven to be powerless before Jehovah. And on top of demonstrating the ineffectualness of their deities, the death of Pharaoh’s first born during the final plague also slapped the whole Egyptian belief in the divinity of Pharaohs right in the face. By the time it was all over, the Egyptians’ false ‘god incarnate’ was shown to be completely helpless against a wandering Jewish shepherd speaking in the name of God. Typology anyone?

Now to be honest, Dr. Phibes himself isn’t all that concerned with the deeper theological implications of the story that inspires his murderous set-pieces. Really, he’s not even all that interested in accuracy, as he replaces gnats with bats and flies with rats. Still, he gets an ‘A’ for effort because, symbolically, it all still works. Having announced (rightly or wrongly) that God is on his side, the disfigured doctor proves time and again that the authorities, the intelligentsia, and even he himself (Phibes reserves the curse of darkness for his own demise) are all powerless before divine wrath. By story’s end, the only intended victim to escape punishment is the one who is offered and accepts the challenge of redemption. Sure, redemption doesn’t usually come under the threat of having your child horribly disfigured by acid, but that’s just the kind of thing that makes Phibes so much fun, isn’t it?


To be fair, the makers of The Abominable Dr. Phibes knew very well that bats and rats weren’t originally part of the ten plagues. They also knew, however, that bats and rats are typically more horrifying visually than a bunch of gnats and flies, so the decision was made to make the switch. And that’s how we ended up with that wonderful scene of Dr. Dunwoody being eaten alive… by completely harmless fruit bats.


Jeff Miller said...

I remember seeing this when it came out. I was already a firm Vincent Price fan, but this movie nailed that for me. So good and everything about the sets is iconic.

Plus besides he was a Catholic Convert

EegahInc said...

Yep, this one is a once-a-year viewing at least. If I wanted to add another thousand words, I could go on about how Price has to act with without his voice for about a third of the film and other things that proved he was more than just a ham.

Xena Catolica said...

A wonderfully quirky film - love the gearpunk orchestra with no explanation. Influences? I defer to your expertise ;), but some parts seemed very 'Phantom of the Opera'.

Surely positive portrayals of rabbis are more rare than positive portrayals of priests. I was really struck on the 1st viewing that a rabbi actually gets to be an expert on his own tradition without any of the sensationalist bits (like how, say, the MSM now tends to focus on the Heredim).

I'm kinda torn whether the frog mask or the locusts is the more brilliant.

(And I laugh every time this blog asks me to prove I'm not a robot.)

Bob the Ape said...

I vote for the frog mask partly because of the subtle pun (the victim introduces himself with the words "I'm a psychiatrist, actually - headshrinker" but mostly for the way in which the action and the music work absolutely perfectly together in the sequence. I wish I had the technical knowledge to talk about the way that music is used in the movie, but all I can do is mutely enjoy it.

If you will pardon a moment of geekiness, I would disagree that Trout is inept. He is perhaps a trifle unlucky, and - like everyone else in the movie - out of Phibes's league, but he follows up the clues he has and makes a number of pertinent deductions, carrying on with his job even while being mercilessly browbeaten by his superiors (if you want ineptitude, take Waverly).

I'd also like to say this and that about the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. It is not up to the original - I think they camped it up a bit too much and there's not much continuity between the two, but there are some touches I like: the victim who is reading The Turn of the Screw just before being crushed to death in a mechanism driven by an enormous worm gear; the bagpiping Scotch Fusiliers who turn out to be Phibes's clockworks musicians; and especially the Rolls-Royce casket holding the body of Phibes's wife. And the final scene and the closing credits make up for everything. I've put out a couple of spoilers above, but I won't say what happens with this, just in case someone reads this who hasn't seen the movie yet.

EegahInc said...

Xena, I hope you are not insinuating that not all Jews wear sidecurls, because I know from the movies that every single one of them do.

Bob, you make some good points about Trout, so I will concede that he is not an idiot, just made to look that way by Phibes. I believe I heard someone on a podcast awhile back say that Phibes is like the Batman of horror movie villains. He's just ridiculously prepared for everything.

And yes, the final song in the sequel is probably the best use of that tune since its original appearance.