Halloween movies month: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

>> Sunday, October 19, 2008

By the end of his life, Vincent Price was synonymous with "scary" for a lot of people. Which was understandable, he spent the biggest chunk of his career playing creepy characters in creepy movies, and doing the occasional bit of voiceover with what can only be described, redundantly in this context, as "a Vincent Price voice." If you've heard the Michael Jackson song "Thriller," you know the one. There's even one writer over at Slate--the writer in question is probably lucky I don't remember their name right now--that seems to have an obsession with Vincent Price (as in Vincent Price, the late actor, not any of the characters Vincent Price played) being scarier than, say, brain-eating zombies or whatever.

That last bit being an example of what was sort of unfortunate about the persona that accreted around Price. By all accounts, he was a genteel and gentlemanly fellow, serious about his craft and also serious about good food and painting in a pretty humble way: he helped sell fine art through Sears and wrote a series of cookbooks aimed at ordinary kitchens. (I think I read somewhere that among Price's several books about cuisine, is one that includes a section on Price's favorite ballpark hotdogs--which to my mind is an example of what makes Price the kind of everyman intellectual that used to be a specially American archetype and icon that now appears to be some kind of anathema.) And even as an actor, Price of course played all sorts of characters: not just villains, but heroes and bystanders and mournful, loving old men (if Price's last onscreen feature role, as Edward's father in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, doesn't wrench your heartstrings with it's sweet turn, there really is something wrong with your soul).

Of course, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the kind of movie that cemented Price's role in the imagination as a pallid, creepy stalker with the devilish voice. It's a movie that Price basically made at least three times, with the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again and the darker, meaner Theater Of Blood; in all of these, Price plays a man who comes back after being wrongly presumed dead, with a sex kitten at his side, and proceeds to off a sequence of victims according to a theme--in the first Phibes, the victims' deaths are more-or-less inspired by or tangentially-connected to the plagues of Egypt from the Book Of Exodus. One problem that themed-serial-killer movies sometimes run into is the writers' "oh fuck, how are we going to do _______?!" issue, which is why Phibes, for instance, has to be satisfied with somebody being killed with a frog mask and someone else being killed by a plane crash that's kind of caused by rats. Close enough.

I don't know if Phibes is the first movie in this subgenre or not--it's definitely on the early side, though you can find the subgenre's roots in pulps and horror comics of the '50s. The best recent example I can think of, if you're not quite sure what I'm talking about, is David Fincher's Se7en, in which a serial killer offs people with cardinal-sins-themed modes of death.

The funny thing about Phibes--and whenever I say "Phibes" I mean the first one, not the nigh-unwatchable cash-in sequel, which I'm unlikely to refer to by name again--is that it manages the neat trick of being one of the most enjoyable films in its niche by not necessarily being the best from a technical point of view. Theater Of Blood, for instance, is a grittier, better-made movie, but it's also uglier and meaner and leaves a kind of metallic aftertaste. And Se7en possibly falls into the category of "good movies I will probably refuse to watch ever again"; I haven't completely ruled out the possibility of watching the whole thing again, because it really is a great-looking and well-constructed piece of film with a solid cast of actors I like, but I also haven't forgotten how utterly dirty and hollow inside I felt walking out of the sneak preview thirteen years ago that remains the only time I've seen the entire movie (I've seen pieces of it here and there, since then)--Se7en is very good, but relentlessly unenjoyable and sickening.

Phibes is bizarre, surreal, possibly insane. Vincent Price is an obvious casting choice for the lead role, but then you have Joseph Cotten--yes, that Joseph Cotten, the one who was in Citizen Kane (which seems bizarre to me, although his later résumé didn't really keep up with the standards of his early one). The movie is set in an anachronistic 1920s with robots and sophisticated prosthetics. The things that aren't appropriately art deco are jarringly psychedelic (one wouldn't be terribly surprised to see that one of the doors in Phibes' lair leads to Pepperland). There were probably drugs involved at several stages of the making of this movie, but maybe that could already be inferred from its 1971 release date.

And all of that actually works for the movie, that's the thing. Okay, you see a string on a rubber fruit bat early on, and your skepticism is justified. But this is a movie that will eventually have you crying "uncle." This is not a movie you resist, this is a movie that wears you down until you're laughing with it, not at it, and rooting for the characters--all of them, even the demented and vengeful, lovelorn widower Phibes.

The movie's trump card is, unsurprisingly, Price, who plays the movie's protagonist with a mixture of glee and pathos that has you kind of pulling for him in spite of the fact he's a psychotic freak who kills or tries to kill nearly a dozen people who probably haven't actually done anything wrong--whether deliberately or because the pages got lost in a drug-induced haze, it's never clear whether the doctors who "allowed" Phibes' late wife to die (the motive for his killing spree, natch) were malicious, incompetent, or merely unlucky. It's quite possible, actually, that Phibes eradicates the best physicians in the English-speaking world solely because he's an utter fucking loon, and you even have to love the movie for leaving this string hanging loose.

See, there are at least two common mistakes in the movies that have followed in Phibes' footsteps. The first mistake, made by movies that include that sequel AIP made and even Theater Of Blood, is to try to make the villain sympathetic by really trying to cram a justification for his bloody wake down the audience's collective throats. It's nearly inevitable in these sorts of films for the audience to discover that the "victim" of the villainous antihero's revenge was a terrorists communist pedophile who was drunk and stoned and receiving sexual favors from an underage hooker, etc. at the time of the offense that led to this whole thing--the subgenre of revenge horror (which Phibes also falls into) and the dovetailing subgenre of themed serial killer nearly always try to blame the victim--otherwise, an audience who identifies with the killer is... well... let's face it, kind of depraved. (For the record, I haven't always been immune to that siren call.)

The second mistake of most imitators is not having Vincent Price (this obviously doesn't apply to the sequel or to Theater Of Blood). What Price brings to Phibes is beyond value: he plays the character with this uncanny mixture of sorrow, rage, rakishness, humor, irony, and pathos that makes Dr. Phibes as compelling as he is, yes, abominable. You have to feel a little sorry for the guy, no matter how nutty and horrid he is, and you can't help sharing a little of Phibes' satisfaction when an utterly bizarre, slightly Rube Goldberg-ish murder scheme comes together. ("Wheee! It worked--wait--he just totally killed that guy!") It's Price's charisma that helps hold Phibes together so it doesn't just become another merely sleazy B-movie exercise in murder porn.

The writers' ghoulish sense of humor, actually, shouldn't be overlooked, and notwithstanding that last line of the previous paragraph, it's possible to do a very funny movie in which characters keep dying pointlessly gruesome deaths. I actually liked the first Final Destination, a movie in which the skeletal plot and goofy, inchoate premise was solely a justification for increasingly bizarre death scenes. Comedy, to paraphrase Mr. Brooks, is when someone else falls down an open sewer and dies. There is a moment, late in Phibes, when several characters are obligated to discuss which way a screw is threaded, followed shortly by an image I don't want to spoil, that would make Phibes worth a rental or even a purchase even if the rest of the movie sucked, and the rest of the movie doesn't suck. And I will say no more--except: if you still haven't decided what you're watching Halloween night, Phibes wouldn't be a bad way to spend the evening.


vince Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 9:30:00 AM EDT  

Eric, for as different as our world views can be, you and I agree on this 100%. I'm a huge Vincent Price fan, and always thought he was an excellent and underrated actor. And while Edward Scissorhands is not my favorite Burton/Depp movie by any means, the scenes with Price are exactly why I think he was one of the best actors of his generation.

Did you know he was Simon Templar - The Saint on radio? You can find all the know episodes here. He also, along with Basil Rathbone, did a reading of Edgar Alan Poe tales. I own and love this.

Thanks for a great post.

Eric Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 11:12:00 AM EDT  

See, this is what's cool about the whole blogging thing: I did not know that Price played The Saint on the radio, and I'm totally headed over to that site. Thank you!

Eric Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 11:15:00 AM EDT  

(See, this is exactly why Down Them All! was invented.)


Carol Elaine Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 10:22:00 PM EDT  

Y'all have no idea of the depth of my love for Vincent Price. He did, and does, verily rock.

I've got a box set of eight of Price's AIP films, including Phibes and the other two that you mentioned, Eric. I don't dislike Theatre of Blood as much as you do, mainly because I think I identify the grudge against critics in some bizarre way plus it's fun to watch Price off his real wife.

Eric Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 11:17:00 PM EDT  

I actually don't dislike Theater Of Blood, but I do think it's a very mean film, especially when you make the obvious comparison to Phibes. Where the mayhem in Phibes ultimately comes off as good fun in an EC Comics kind of way, TOB gets a little ugly as it goes along and loses whatever whimsy it might have had by about the halfway point. That said, it's generally better written, acted, and looking.

I suspect we have the same boxed set, Carol Elaine--if it's the MGM Vincent Price collection, and I do recommend it to anyone who hasn't picked it up: a bunch of fun horror classics, an okay Price documentary, and all at a really good price, as I recall.

Carol Elaine Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 11:30:00 PM EDT  

Yep, that's the one. CuteFilmNerd gave it to me as a gift relatively early in our relationship, knowing of my love of all things Vincent Price (we'd recently seen Tomb of Liegia on the big screen, hosted by Joe Dante, with Roger Corman doing a Q&A). Another indication that CFN was a keeper.

Hmmm, I may have to watch Tales of Terror tonight. Vincent Price + Basil Rathbone = Best Thing Ever.

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