Monday, October 04, 2004

The Abominable Dr. Phibes


(1971) ****

"It's the pyschic force that drives him...this maniacal precision!"

This might become my favorite Vincent Price movie ever. Taking place in 1930's-ish England, Dr. Phibes and his beautiful, mute assistant Vulnavia perform a series of murders (based on the Biblical plagues of Egypt) on the surgical team that failed to save Dr. Phibe's wife Victoria from death some years ago, at exactly the time Anton Phibes was allegedly killed in a fiery car accident.

It's the unbelievably ambitious style that makes this movie so great; these ritual murders are so elaborate they make the killings of Seven look like a lead pipe to the back of the head. Sitting in Dr. Phibes's lair is a wax bust of each of the intended victims, which Phibes gleefully melts with a blowtorch after each successful outing. He and Vulnavia will periodically waltz to the tunes of his mechanical band before heading out to do their nasty work, and she will occasionally play the violin in the background while Phibes carries out the death du jour. I started to wonder if there was a waiting list to get killed like this.

Dr. Phibes has a penchant for devices, so the flick's a Gothic festival of trap doors, jeweled catches, pulleys, cages, costume changes and spiralling tubes of acid. Since Phibes's accident prevents speech, we only hear Vincent Price's famous tones, sounding their craziest, when Phibes plugs a tube in his neck that connects to an old fashioned gramaphone. Watching the pasty-faced, dark-eyed Price emote without moving his lips while his voice is broadcast is a singular delight.

This movie is more funny than scary, but can boast some moments of genuine freakiness. I was quite impressed by the actor who let that tropical bat crawl on his chest; they certainly couldn't pay me enough money to do that.

One post on imdb called this "horror as it should be." I don't know about that, but The Abominal Dr. Phibes is operating out of that rare strata of stylistic vision in which you find Barbarella or Yellow Submarine, but with a delicious penny dreadful tone. Great fun.

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