Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies Double Feature: The Abominable Doctor Phibes/Doctor Phibes Rises Again

Sometimes I want nothing more than to see Vincent Price hamming up a storm in Technicolor. This weekend was one of those times. I didn't have immediate access to the Corman Poe cycle films, so a double feature of Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death was out. I DO have both of the Phibes movies, however, so the theme this weekend became Vincent Price Movies With "Doctor Phibes" In The Title.

The Abominable Doctor Phibes
There is a serious dearth of films with organ playing madmen in them - especially nowadays. I love that The Abominable Doctor Phibes embraces this shtick wholeheartedly from the very first scene. The 'good' Doctor has Art Deco surroundings, a mechanical Jazz band, a lovely assistant who is well trained in interpretive dance, the violin and murder, and a taste for shiny capes and robes. And, of course, a talent for elaborate murders based on the 10 plagues of Egypt. Doctor Phibes is a super villain in a world without super heroes. I imagine he's a little lonely because of that (and, you know, that his beloved wife is dead - or mostly so, if the sequel is to be believed).

"No, I will not do 'Piano Man.' Vulnavia, please kill this man with a spoon."

There are opponents, of course - primarily in the form of Detective Trout and Sgt. Schenley of Scotland Yard. Trout does the best he can to solve the murders and bring Phibes to justice, but he's named Trout - it's just not inspiring. He also has a terrible habit of being juuust a little too late to the party - something his superiors are happy to point out. (The one time he's early to a murder it doesn't matter - the victim is killed by a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Yes. I said a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Due to the spirals of the horn they're actually forced to unscrew the poor devil from the wall...)

"On the report he was like this when we got here, right?"

The reason behind all the elaborate deaths - and the most straightforward one is packing a vintage airplane with huge rats - involves the untimely demise of Mrs. Victoria Phibes. It seems she died on the operating table and Phibes intends to visit these plagues on each person who was present in the operating room, culminating with the death of the primary surgeon, Dr. Vesalius. Actually, because the penultimate plague is "The Death of the Firstborn," Phibes actually threatens the life of Vesalius' son.

He also has time to get his dance on.

Phibes is a villain, make no mistake - many of the people who are killed had only the most tangential involvement and cannot seriously be taken as guilty of anything. A nurse's death is particularly gruesome (locusts eat her face, if you want to know) and she probably didn't do anything but swab brows and hand over instruments. Regardless, it IS Phibes we end up rooting for. In a bland and bureaucratic world Phibes is all color and passion, music and motion. He has personality - and most of the rest of the cast does not. Price just lights up the screen - even though he never actually speaks! (Phibes must talk - and eat - through a hole in his neck.)

"This? Oh, just something I picked up at Goodwill. It was 99 cents!"

The final confrontation between Vesalius and Phibes actually presages Saw in some respects - Phibes has locked Vesalius' son on an operating table that is suspended beneath a device that will drip acid on to the boys face in 10 minutes. The only way to unlock the contraption holding they boy is for Vesalius to operate on him to remove a key that Phibes has lodged next to the boys heart. Open heart surgery in 10 minutes for the life of his son.

"I just hope your hands are steadier than when you did my 'facelift' doctor."

In true melodramatic fashion Phibes saves the final curse - darkness - for himself and joins his wife in death. Or does he?

Doctor Phibes Rises Again
The success of the original Phibes movie meant that a second was rushed into production. At one point there seemed to be a concerted effort to make the Phibes films into a genuine franchise - several scripts and titles were bandied about well into the 1980's - but nothing seems to have come of it (until recently - see The Bottom Line).

The sequel takes place three years after the events of the first film, as the planets come into a grand conjunction and Phibes returns to life (this is despite his blood being replaced with embalming fluid at the end of the first film). He apparently has a plan involving an ancient Egyptian tomb, a mountain and a river - the end result of which will be the return of his beloved wife.

Though the same people are involved in the second film it's just not quite as good. Oh, Price is excellent as always - and they allowed for more inflection in his electronic voice this time around. The murders are appropriately garish and gruesome. Some of the sets are really fantastic as well. However, there's just less... heart in it. The reasons for the murders are less compelling and they're pretty damn elaborate for being mostly half-assed at the last minute. Did you know his lovely, mute assistant from the first film is named Vulnavia? You will by the end of this movie, because every time he opens his... tube, he says her name. I liked it better when she was a mysterious presence - unknown and unexplained.

It's nice to see the violin return in the same role, though.

In addition they've inexplicably re-used some actors in different roles - major roles - and it knocks you out of the flow whenever it happens.

Robert Quarry (Count Yorga himself) offers a foil almost worthy of Phibes this time around in the character of Darius Biederbeck. A man with dark secrets of his own. Unfortunately the two actors aren't on screen together until the final scenes.

"Count Yorga? Who is this Yorga you speak of?"
"But it says here on IMDB..."

Though the Egyptian trappings offer an interesting new location for Phibes machination and the jokes are plentiful - if overly broad this time around - the whole of the picture just never rises to the same giddy heights of the first film. The music isn't as good, the cinematography isn't as good and the story - though it has possibilities unexplored - is not quite up to snuff either. It's still a good time, it just suffers in comparison to the original.

"Years from now a show called Lost will reference this moment and no one will get it."

The Bottom Line
Way too much fun, and one of a handful of 1970's Vincent Price films I really enjoy. (These make great companion pieces to Theater of Blood, FYI.) It's obvious everyone had a great time making these - particularly the first one - and I'm a little sad they never got a chance to make any more sequels with Price.

FYI - according to rumor, Malcolm Macdowel is slated to start in a remake, Forever Phibes. While I can't image it being anywhere near as over-the-top glorious as its predecessors, I nonetheless look forward to seeing shiny robes, art deco sets, mysterious but lovely assistants and all the thunderous organ music I can stand.

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