Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: The Films of Dr. Phibes
In order to discuss the franchise of a film, some deeper detail has to be made on certain character and story elements. In short, spoiler alert!
Never has it been this hard to talk about two movies that are similarly strange and yet different from each other. The Abominable Dr. Phibes predates the Saw series for its use of elaborate kills and a similar motive to the anti-hero. It stars Vincent Price in his oddest role yet as Anton Phibes, a horribly disfigured genius who was supposedly killed in a car accident but lives on to seek vengeance on nine doctors. The motive is that his wife was also in the wreckage and he blames the doctors’ incompetent for her death. Instead of going after them and axing them off with a simple weapon. Phibes bases his revenge on the 10 Plagues that befell Egypt in the Old Testament. Each doctor is given an elaborate and creative death that symbolizes one of the many wraiths of God as the police try to figure out what’s going on behind the strange deaths as Phibes is always one step ahead of the game.
It sounds simple on paper but the way the movie is executed feels other worldly. I will give props that its a quiet movie at times and doesn’t rely too much on dialogue. But the direction they take it in is weird from beginning to end. Vincent Price as always does a great performance as Phibes who takes great glee when one doctor gets killed off. The thing viewers will notice is that his role doesn’t have much lines. In fact, his character has to plug himself into a record player in order for his vocals to work. Not strange enough? How about his assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) who is silent yet also takes joy in seeing her master’s work accomplished and keeps changing wardrobe like a winter fashion model? Or the fact that Phibes has a wind-up mechanical band that plays 1920s lounge music that takes up a good portion of the movie?
What bugs me is how over the top and surreal it gets to when it feels too cartoony or too silly. There are moments of campyness that either feel like it was intentional or just feel like its being taken too seriously for a bizarre movie like this. Even the police seem to think they can outsmart Phibes but find to their dumbness that he is always one step ahead. In one swing when they are protecting the next victim, Phibes is able to kill her off with flesh-eating locust and kidnap a doctor’s son in preparation for the next trap. It almost feels like this guy is a lost Sherlock Holmes villain.
The notable highlight are the kills and how they are staged. They are not ordinary, predictable and simple as one would take. We are talking about things like rats loaded in an avatar’s plane, a man’s frog mask at a ball slowly chocking him to death, another doctor frozen to death with a machine that shoots out ice and that’s just scraping the surface. I give credit for the amount of creative effort put into these kills and just how absurd they become as the movie goes on. It almost becomes funny seeing how one man can plan all of this just to please himself and that’s very much the only reason to see this movie other than Vincent Price.
Its obvious its going for a dark comedic route considering the crazy premise and strange imagery. But do we have to go as far by having dumb policeman that have no idea who or what they are dealing with? These are the most incompetent cops I’ve seen since the Keystone Cops. Peter Jeffrey plays Inspector Trout who has a good idea what Phibes is up to but is constantly ignored by the police until the deed is done. To be fair, Peter’s performance is really good playing a man that knows how to get into a killer’s head but it feels too serious for a campy movie like this. Even the marketing didn’t know what to make of this move and had a poster that parodied Love Story. It wasn’t till one week after they changed the advertising campaign and the movie became a hit.
I’m having a hard time recommending this one because there’s things about I do enjoy and things that bug me a bit. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is not the typical narratives style one would suspect and I have a hard time trying to figure out who I should side with. I feel bad for Phibes and want to see him take revenge but at the same time, want to see the police squad get a clue and stop his murderous rampage. Its probably the first time I felt neutral on both good and bad sides seeing Phibes has a purpose but there’s no payoff to his madness thinking he is doing right. It has a colorful yet comedic tone that saves it from being discarded as a typical horror movie.
Surprisingly enough, a sequel emerged one year after called Dr. Phibes Rises Again which fixed some of the problems the first movie had but still felt like it was on the same level. This time, a narrative is set with Phibes trying to resurrect his dead wife Victoria. He plans to seek a way through a tomb in Egypt but has a few snags on the way. This time, we get another character named Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) who seeks the same power of eternity that Phibes does because of an elixir he keeps taking to remain youthful is getting low.
This time, we sympathize with Phibes more because he doesn’t want to exploit the key to eternal life. I’m glad to see we finally get to side with Phibes and want him to succeed. But unlike the pace of the first movie that felt tight and wraped, this one pods at a slower delivery. Its clear this one was rushed seeing how cheap the sands of Egypt look and even the inside of Phibe’s secret tomb looks almost like the underground lair from the first movie complete with organ and his mechanical band. Its obvious they didn’t take the time to think this one through and just tossed it out there to make a quick buck and see if a franchise was possible.
The Phibes traps, on the other hand, are interesting but they lack the flair and creativity that was present in the first one. This time, they are gruesome in tone and perhaps more violent. From a man that gets crushed into a tiny cube to another getting bitten by a horde of scorpions while his hands are clamped shut, its clear they went in a more bloody direction that robs the enjoyment. The first movie didn’t have to be downright graphic and bloody and I feel that is what keeps these kills from being memorable.
Peter Jefferey returns as Inspector Trout but gets teamed with another detective (John Cater) that is just about as clueless as Trout’s boss in the last film. The chemistry feels more like the Thompson Twins from The Adventures of Tintin and less like Sherlock and Watson. It just becomes too corny to the point its obvious they are set up to be comedic relief. Robert Quarray’s performance as Darrus is what nearly saves this movie. He’s very much the Moriarty of the show as he tries to be one step ahead of Phibes for his personal greed and even posses as a threat at one point.
However, Dr. Phibes Rises Again doesn’t trump the first film or come close to being as good as the first one. Its just an ok follow-up. I appreciate they try to give a narrative this time around but what made the original work (or at least when it did) was how it didn’t hold back on the strange nature of the film. Rises Again feels a bit more controlled and they way it ends feels like a sequel was meant to take place. In fact, plans for a third film were made but constant ideas never progressed further than the scripting stage. Its a shame because there was a lot of potential here and it could have done something to the horror genre in the 1970s considering it was the big turning point for horror films in general. Both movies are enjoyable but for different reasons. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is cheesy but has the right amount to keep it from being boring and Dr. Phibes Rises Again is more well-structured in the narrative even if it downplays a lot of what made the first film good. Perhaps interesting of all is how both movies end with a rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” At first I didn’t get it but then I thought about the lyrics a bit and it made perfect sense. Dr. Phibes had a wonder life till his unfortunate accident took away his happiness and paradise causing him to seek it no matter what it takes. As the lyrics go, “birds fly over the rainbow, why…oh why, can’t I?”
Posted on October 7, 2014, in Horror-Wood 2014 and tagged Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dark Comedy, Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rides Again, Experienetal, Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon, House of Wax, Over the Rainbow, Strange, Vincent Price, Weird. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.