Sunday, March 22, 2015

Horror Watch: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

After visiting Austin's Sfanthor! sci-fi/fantasy/horror shop and classic horror wax museum, I began pondering the fact that I'm probably more familiar with Vincent Price as the amiable but possibly murderous roles in noir films like Laura and His Kind of Woman.  But I quite like House on Haunted Hill and House of Wax.  I've been aware of the cult following for The Abominable Dr. Phibes since I watched a few minutes of it on the TV at Vulcan Video circa 2001.  But, it just never crossed my path.

Despite promises to do otherwise (and go full in on a BluRay set), I picked up a cheaply priced DVD boxed set that included Dr. Phibes and which I'll, no doubt, be bothering you guys with for a while.

This movie is British set and produced, but for international appeal, they cast Price as our lead villain and one of my favorite actors of his generation, Joseph Cotten as one of the guys on Phibes' trail.

I find British horror extremely strange, but only in that each time I need to cast aside my usual notions of horror.  It always looks like it was shot with every light in the room turned on and goes for color in a way that's contrary to American ideas on the topic,  which, to this day reflects the black & white roots of horror and the German Expressionist influence.  What might be in a long shadow or what we can't see is as important (or more so) than what we can peep.

From the Hammer school, it's more about the horror of the idea.  We're going to see Dr. Frankenstein toiling and being a jack-ass to everyone.  Or we're going to get a pretty good idea of what a fiend Dracula might be because there he is with blood on his face.  Or, when they figure out  Gorgon is killing all those people, we full on see the Gorgon show up.  The slow reveal is a sort of non-standard thing here.  It's just different.

Phibes is just about a weird dude who works out the fact that medical malpractice may not have been a thing yet in 1920's England by going after the medical team that failed to save the life of his wife.  And because he's a fun guy, he decides to make a theme serial killing, by choosing one of the 10 plagues as a manner of death for each of the victims.  So, you know, we get bats for some reason at the beginning of the movie.

I'm making light, but it's actually all pretty intense.  The stuffy lawmen of Scotland Yard beging looking for a pattern after the second bizarre murder, and can't quite keep up as Dr. Phibes' meticulous plans go like clockwork, each member of the medical team killed in new and grisly ways (my favorite was the frog mask) tied loosely to the plagues.

It's hard not to see movies like Saw as the heirs to the Phibes throne, but I'm more like to point to Seven as the more appropriate successor.  Religious symbolism, baffled lawmen, a series of murders...  There have been others, but that's the one that popped most immediately to mind.

It's a bizarrely surreal movie from the first scene of Phibes on his organ and with his clockwork orchestra.  The plot is light enough to allow for these over the top flourishes that make Phibes truly a memorable villain.

The movie also stars an aging Joseph Cotten, who puts a surprising bit of energy into a role as one of the doctors Phibes will be targeting and helps to unravel the mystery.

I don't want to talk too much about it, because there's so much going on with the movie, but I think y'all should just check it out.  It certainly held up to the hype.

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