Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Fuest, 1971)

It's the psychic force that holds the man together, this maniacal precision. If we could just throw it off, interrupt the cycle, then he might be stopped by his own inflexible standards.

There is so much about The Abominable Dr. Phibes that would seem familiar if I were to simply describe the plot. A shadowy, maniacal figure seeks revenge on those responsible for his wife’s death and kills them off one by one while the police scramble to track him down before he can complete his hit list. However, this would not do justice to how unique and alive this film truly feels. How is this so? The pleasure derived from The Abominable Dr. Phibes is not to be found in what happens – indeed, as viewers, we are often a few steps ahead of the film’s plot – but rather in how it happens.

I must begin with the central performance by Vincent Price, playing the unforgettable title character. Going down a list of Price’s films, I am shocked to find that in a career spanning almost 60 years and over 120 films, I have only managed to see three – Edward Scissorhands, The Great Mouse Detective and Laura. Though each of these films has their individual charms, none seem representative of Price’s extensive body of work. To someone of my generation, Price was most likely to be known as the guy who did that spooky ‘rap’ at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. You would see him in commercials or appearing on talk shows and you would gather a kind of understanding about who he was and what he represented to people, but he seemed like someone whose personality had become a caricature. He seemed like someone doomed to spend his later years essentially playing the media-created version of himself. What a joy then it is to experience one of the films that helped build his reputation and discover Price to be an entirely engaging performer, effortlessly riding the line between horror and satire.

When we first see Dr. Phibes, he is only a caped figure with his back turned to us, playing a gigantic organ, surrounded by a coin-operated clockwork orchestra. Without too much of a leap, we are led to envision Phibes as a kind of 70's era-Phantom of the Opera; but, it is Leroux’s character filtered through the mind of Ken Russell. We will later learn that Phibes was severely disfigured in a horrible crash that caused him to be presumed dead. The accident has also apparently damaged his ability to speak normally, so he must communicate through a machine of his own devising that jacks in directly to his vocal chords and provides him with amplification without having to move his mouth. This element of Phibes’ character pays off in huge comic dividends as we witness him scowling at his enemies, but unable to say anything until he can find a nearby outlet. It also means that Price essentially gives two separate performances: 1) a vocal performance taking advantage of his trademark menacing tone and rhythms and 2) an entirely physical performance that comically undercuts the intensity of the former.

Like many fictional madmen bent on doing away with a long string of people, Phibes has concocted a revenge plan that is as admirable in its complexity as it is absurd in its lack of practicality. Drawing inspiration from a series of Biblical curses, Phibes dispatches with the doctors who failed to save his wife’s life using bats, locusts, hail(?!) and the deadliest frog mask mankind is ever likely to see. Adding to the fun are the not-quite-competent British detectives who always seem to be a few minutes too late in anticipating Phibes’ next move, but at least are able to reflect upon their shortcomings with some of the film’s best lines – A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen. However, be assured that this is no accidental Ed Wood-style comedy. Because the absurd dialogue is delivered with such deadpan commitment to British understatedness, it may be initially difficult to discern whether the actors are in on the joke. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that, campy though it may be, this is a script of delightful wit and intelligence. I could provide further examples, but these are for you to discover. I would only be robbing potential viewers of the joy of experiencing them for themselves.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the best kind of midnight movie, filled with quotes you will want to repeat to friends, comic moments that will make you giggle even in retrospect and just enough gore to amplify the horror aspect without becoming a draining experience. Any faults it has are overwhelmed by the way in which it exceeds expectations, providing us with some dumb fun, without making us feel like we’ve watched a dumb film.



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