Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ten Statements About....THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES (1971)

He says more with body language and a look than some horror
actors can say with everything in their arsenal.
"Nine killed you. Nine shall die. Nine eternities in doom."

1) You want proof that Vincent Price is a true actor and not the hammy caricature most people think he is? In this movie, Price manages to emote in subtle and meaningful ways while being robbed of both his face and, for the bulk of the story's ninety-eight minute run, his voice. It's truly one of his greatest performances.

2) And even though it wasn't written by Robert Fuest (although Fuest did do a slight rewrite to tone down the supposedly grotesquely violent nature of James Whiton and William Goldstein's original script), this film is his baby. There's a look and feel of the movie that can be seen as a direct connection between it and the television series where Fuest made his bones, The Avengers.

3) much so, that you can almost see the bad Doctor and his assistant, Vulnavia, as the evil mirror universe version of Steed and Peel. Each has their own stylistic stamp that makes them instantly recognizable, each shows an appreciation of finer things, and most importantly, each goes to some wild extremes in carrying out their purpose in life.

Perfection in woman-as-villian....thy name is Virginia North.
4) Virginia North may not be the most beautiful woman in the world--an argument could certainly be made that Vallie Kemp, who replaced her in the sequel, is a much more attractive gal--but she is without a doubt overpoweringly sexy in her role as Vulnavia. She's got a certain Grecian beauty, which coupled with her body language, makes her the perfect female assistant for any up-and-coming criminal madman. Hell, she manages to commit the usually unforgivable sin of breaking the fourth wall without distracting the audience from the story as a whole.

If I ever become an evil mastermind, I want Virginia North as my assistant.

5) My best friend Derrick pointed this out to me--the true hero of this film isn't Joseph Cotton's Vesalius, but Peter Jeffreys' excellent Inspector Trout. Trout is an exceptionally clever character--smart and capable of real cool deductions, but hampered almost entirely by people around him who look upon him as a simple blue-collar noob. It's his collaboration with Vesalius that drives the film's plot forward, and you definitely get the sense that if it wasn't for the classism of the people around him, he may very well have stopped Phibes.

6) You know something else I love about this film? I love how this could almost be looked upon as a musical. There are a number of cool sequences which are just Phibes playing with his clockwork band, or Vulnavia taking a break from cleaning up to listen to some music, or (my favorite) a victim having his neck crushed to powder by a gimmicked frog mask while Paul Frees sings 'Darktown Strutters Ball'. Hell, even the destruction of the mansion puts Vulnavia's swinging an axe every which way to jaunty jazz.

7) And while we're on the subject of Vulnavia, this film features one of the few times I can accept a 'Just Go With It' moment. We have literally no idea who she is, why she doesn't speak, and why she is so devoted to Phibes. But because so much else is explained so elegantly, and there's enough time between Phibes' supposed death and his ramapge, that we can accept her presence without knowing her backstory.

8) One of the true, small joys of this film is how even the smallest character is given little grace notes that lifts them up from being just a cardboard place setter of a character. Of the smaller parts, I'm rather partial to Aubrey Woods' fussy, prissy Goldsmith, but even someone like John Franklyn's Graveyard Attendant gets a pinch of flavoring. Hell, we even get a sense of Victoria (my beloved Caroline Munro) as a character even though she's primarily seen only in a series of snapshots.
Yep...I've stared at photos of Caroline Muro for hours as well...

9) Even though they don't get into it, I like how there's a definite resonance between Phibes and Vesalius--I have to assume that, like Phibes, Vesalius is widowed, and to an extent his son assists him in cracking the case (pointing him toward the music seller) the same way Vulnavia assists Phibes. Vesalius is a great opponent because he is Phibes, ummm, light mirror that reflects and informs our fiend's madness.

10) And the greatest thing about this film? Unlike similar movies of this type, where we're asked to sympathize with the villain, then turn around and root against him for the climax, Phibes gets away with it. He triumphs, giving our heroes the slip by using the Tenth Plague of The Pharoahs on himself...a trick he always planned.

Overall...I love this movie. It's one of my favorite films, period, and can be seen as one of the bridges between the 'classic' horror movies to the slasher films of the 70's and beyond. A great showcase for Price and Fuest, it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone interested in this period of scare flicks.

1 comment:

  1. Please do ten about Rises Again too, please. I hang on your every word.