Monday, October 15, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 15

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

78. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971- dir. Robert Fuest)

Horror had mutated into an artier, more political, more self-aware beast by the time the ‘60s shuddered to a close. It had also gone international, and the monster movies of the past had been supplanted by harsher violence, sweatier sex, and consciously probing social commentary. Out went the innocence, in came the irony as later ‘60s offerings like Spider Baby and Rosemary’s Baby swept in the cult movie era. A sad symbol of this new era was the passing and winding down of so many horror stars of yore. Peter Lorre— a sort of honorary genre star for his roles in Fritz Lang’s child-killer noir M and the more legitimate horrors Mad Love and The Beast with Five Fingers—was the first to check out on March 23, 1964. On February 2, 1969, the genre’s greatest star flickered out when Boris Karloff succumbed to emphysema, bronchitis, and cardiopulmonary failure. It took three ailments to bring down the mighty Frankenstein Monster. Lon Chaney, Jr., managed two credits in the new decade with the not-too-fondly-remembered The Female Bunch and Dracula vs. Frankenstein, but our favorite moon howler, long ravaged by alcoholism, died of heart failure on July 12, 1973. This left Vincent Price as the final member of the old guard to carry classic horror’s torch into the future. Part Phantom of the Opera homage, part camp surrealist concoction, The Abominable Dr. Phibes was the perfect vehicle to power Price into the ‘70s. As early as 1959, Price had transitioned from the more sober horrors of The Fly to the winking fun of House on Haunted Hill. Throughout the ‘60s, he’d cultivated his talent for finding the fun in the frightening with his scenery-munching turns in Roger Corman’s horror comedies that pitted him against Karloff and Lorre and even further out roles like the ridiculous master criminal Egghead on TV’s “Batman”. Despite the occasional straight-faced part in The Masque of the Red Death or Witchfinder General, Price’s campy die had been cast. Perhaps no film fit that persona better than Phibes, even as the actor gives one of his more restrained performances. Part of this is surely due to the restrictions of the character. Phibes is the survivor of a car crash who has lost the ability to speak, forcing him to (somehow) communicate through a phonograph. The robotic vinyl voice levels out Price’s relishing cadence, while his elaborate costumes worthy of Liberace restrain his usual limb flailing. But with so much wildness swirling around him, Price doesn’t really need to do anything too crazy. The elaborate murders based on the ten plagues of ancient Egypt he devises to take revenge against the medical workers who failed to save his wife do a lot of the work for him. With the help of his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes sics a flock of lip-licking bats on a snoozing victim, smooshes a guy’s head with a frog mask, creates a deadly hailstorm in the backseat of a car, and unleashes a plague of blonde rats in the cockpit of a biplane. He saves the most awful punishment for Dr. Vesalius (a game Joseph Cotton), and a necrophilia-tinged one for himself.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is as visually outré as its plot, the mad doctor tinkling the giant psychedelic pipe organ in his garish art deco lair, dancing to his weird clockwork big band with Vulvania, who wears bizarre Busby-Berkley-esque gowns, or making calls on a rotary phone with a photo of his dead wife (sex symbol Caroline Munro, whom we only see as a photo, and briefly, a corpse) at the center of the dial. Even with all of his film’s silliness, Robert Fuest manages some disturbing images, as when he zooms in on a rat pulling apart red meat in the cockpit scene or when Phibes yanks off his Vincent Price mask to reveal a hideously scarred skull. The film also set off a new subgenre in which Price plays some sort of ham executing a series of gimmicky murders. The doctor would be back in Dr. Phibes Rises Again. In Theater of Blood, Price would play a lousy actor offing his critics with inspiration from Shakespeare. Though regarded as a genre great, the film suffers significantly from ugly cinematography. By far the best of Price’s new strain of camp horror was the first entry.

 See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1970s here.
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