Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

"Nine killed her; nine shall die! Eight have died, soon to be nine. Nine eternities in doom!" If that sort of beautifully over-the-top line doesn't bring warmth to your heart, you might as well turn back now. You will not enjoy The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a brilliant piece of moody, camp horror from 1971. You will not bask in the glory of Phibes's twisted wonderland of murder and revenge. However, if you can feel the cockles of your heart stirring with anticipation, you are in for a beautiful treat.
The story of the film itself seems almost cliche. Anton Phibes (the legendary Vincent Price), renowned doctor and concert organist, seeks revenge on the nine doctors he blames for the death of his wife on the operating table. His murders follow the trope of the ten biblical plagues of Egypt, each one executed with methodical malice. A police inspector (Peter Jeffrey) does his best to uncover the truth behind these killings, trying desperately to find the secret that will help him stop this chain of events.
Such a brief summary of the story does not do this film any justice at all. It is a visual spectacle, bright and colorful, rather than the expected dark and gritty. Director Robert Fuest populates his movie with as much color as possible: green acid, golden unicorn heads, multicolored ball gowns and masks. And all of it contrasts with the pallid face of our beloved Dr. Phibes, creating a strange disconnect between the world and the vengeful doctor. And it doesn't just stop at color. The movie is a cornucopia of visual elements that extend beyond simple hues. While the bright palette is one thing, the sheer wonderment of the diegetic elements is another. The magnificent deadly frog mask, Dr. Phibes's clockwork wizards, the elaborate acid drip death trap -  these are amazing visual elements, a feast for the eyes. Fuest has created a magical realm, a little horror Wonderland, if you will, tantalizing the viewer with color and vibrancy, yet masking a sinister edge.
Beyond the mere eye candy, it is the method of Phibes's madness that really brings life to the film. While the simple concept of vengeful murder seems may seem overdone, it is the way Phibes conducts these killings that redeems an otherwise simple concept. Rather than your basic stabbings and decapitations, Phibes's murders carefully emulate the ten plagues of Egypt. Bats, rats, and bugs all play their part, but some of the more creative interpretations are the real gems of the film. The plague of frogs, not normally a deadly animal, is executed with a beautiful and deadly frog mask, which crushes its victim. The plague of beasts utilizes a golden unicorn statue to great grisly (and comedic) effect. Finally, the plague of the death of the first-born builds a sadistic trap decades before Jigsaw graced the silver screen.  With a theme that could so easily slide into hokeyness and the bad sort of camp, The Abominable Dr. Phibes does neither. Each murder is fresh and new, brilliantly creative despite its familiarity.
However, despite the fancy trappings, it is Phibes himself that drives this film. Thanks to Price's performance, Phibes is no longer just memorable; he becomes legendary. From the very beginning when we see the operatically dressed Phibes hammering away at his organ, hands raising about in campy dramatic fashion, we know that we are in for a treat. Phibes is instantly established as the over-the-top villain, and our cultural hive mind instantly draws parallels to the other infamous organ playing horror icon, the Phantom of the Opera. Price, as a result of the particulars of the character, has marked limitations on his performance and excels despite them. While it may not seem as if he is performing under a mask, he is - a very literal mask of his own face. (Price often had to have it reapplied due to it cracking during the course of filming).  Because his expression is set in plastic, all the acting necessarily stems from body language. In fact, Price doesn't even speak for the first half hour of the film! Yet Price rises from within the role, creating a compelling villain, steeped in the sheer power of mystery. Without a face or a backstory, Phibes's unmoving face contrasts sharply with opulent movements and monologues.
You owe it to yourself to see The Abominable Doctor Phibes. You owe it to yourself to see this little masterpiece. You owe it to yourself not just as a horror fan, but as a human being. It's a combination of camp and art, beauty and horror, intelligence and guttural feelings. Watch it now.

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