Saturday, March 5, 2011
#102: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971)
We're kicking off a new list this week, Rue Morgue magazine's Connoisseur's Guide to 100 Alternative Horror Films, and I think it's a good omen we're beginning with The Abominable Dr. Phibes. I'm trying to tone down the hyperbole, but oh my god I love this movie. If a supervillain gave me the choice between exploding my family or exploding a single DVD copy of this movie, of course I'd save my family but I'd have to think about it for a good 30 seconds first. It's like the creators of this movie sat around discussing exactly what I might like to see onscreen, six years before my birth. "Wait until that guy is born, grows up, and finally rents this movie in 2011. He's going to shit his brains out!" is what one of those creators probably said during this fabricated event.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a 1970s British horror-comedy, but it's so much more. Starring Vincent Price, in his 100th role, as Dr. Phibes, the film has one of the best opening scenes ever. We see the bad doctor, dressed in black, playing ominous music on a red organ that slowly rises from some underground lair. Phibes is surrounded by an animatronic orchestra, Dr. Phibes and His Clockwork Orchestra, which resembles a far more ominous and creepy version of the Chuck E. Cheese band. Suddenly, a beautiful young woman dressed to the nines makes a grand entrance. Phibes commands his robotic orchestra to play, and he dances with the woman. We soon find out she is his assistant, Vulnavia, and she never speaks. She just looks fantastic, dresses sharply, and helps Dr. Phibes perform terrible deeds. Soon, they're off in a car with Dr. Phibes' image painted over the tinted windows to lower some killer vampire bats into the bedroom of a sleeping doctor. If you're intrigued by this opening scene, I have great news for you. Every frame of this film is just as awesome.
Here's the basic plot. If you'd like to go into this film cold, just skip ahead. Phibes was a well-known organist and a doctor, but he flipped out when his wife died during an emergency surgery. He was in Switzerland at the time and was badly hurt in a car accident while rushing back to England to be by her side. He faked his death and proved his own doctors wrong by learning to speak again, which he does by inserting a tube into a hole in his neck that transfers his vocal cord vibrations to a phonograph speaker. Yes! He also eats and drinks through his crazy neck hole. He uses the cloak of faked-death anonymity to construct the most bizarrely interior-decorated mansion in the world, which he uses as his headquarters to elaborately plan his insane revenge on the nine-person medical team who failed to save his wife's life. This years-long plan is finally ready. Let's just ignore the nonsensical fact that the medical team includes seven surgeons, a psychiatrist, and one nurse. (When does that ever happen?) Instead, let's focus on the fact that the revenge plot takes the form of nine of the ten Old Testament plagues, which leads to a series of awesome deaths. Throw in the bumbling Scotland Yard detectives on the case, led by the hilarious Peter Jeffrey, to provide some dry British wit, one-liners, and slapstick, and the legendary Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man) as the chief surgeon during the ill-fated Mrs. Phibes operation, and you have the ingredients for a weird, wonderful movie.
The director, Robert Fuest, was a production designer first, so the physical design of the film is pretty amazing. Every frame is full of eye-popping visuals and striking imagery, but the effect isn't wearying overkill. He doesn't go in for over-stylized camera tricks, just beautiful, bizarre production design and framing of shots. This film never stops being gorgeous to look at. Also, the horror and comedy elements mingle gracefully without overwhelming each other. Dr. Phibes manages to be both creepy and hilarious, campy without being superior and winky, unsettling without making you feel dirty. They really don't make movies like this anymore, but they didn't really make them like this at the time, either. This is the kind of movie that exists in its own singular world. I love it.
The long-retired but still-living Fuest had a strange career. He was a production designer for British television for several years and debuted as a director with the Swinging London comedy, Just Like a Woman. He followed with several episodes of the TV series The Avengers and an adaptation of Wuthering Heights starring a young Timothy Dalton. Then came a run of horror films: And Soon the Darkness, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, the sci-fi/adventure/horror hybrid The Last Days of Man on Earth, and The Devil's Rain, the latter featuring one of the most bizarre casts ever for a horror film about Satanic cults with the power to melt people's faces off - Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, Keenan Wynn, a young Tom Skerritt, a young John Travolta, Claudio Brook, and Mr. Church of Satan himself, Anton LaVey. He ended his career with a lot of TV, including several ABC Afterschool Specials, and the European sexploitation movie Aphrodite. He retired in 1987.
So, he didn't exactly go out in a blaze of glory, but Fuest is a legend based solely on The Abominable Dr. Phibes. I recommend it to every living thing.