Robert Fuest’s Vincent Price vehicle, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), is more or less something of the father of splatstick horror film. The movie doesn’t revel in gore for its own sake, and isn’t even particularly gory (it originally carried the equivalent of a PG rating). However, it doesn’t shy away from the grisly (I remember being slightly shocked by a few of the things in the film when I saw it as a teenager in the summer of 1971). Fuest uses the grisliness for essentially comic purposes. Now, it seems more quirky than ghastly, which isn’t that surprising when you examine the film and realize that it uses the template of an episode of The Avengers—and that isn’t surprising when you realize that Fuest started out directing episodes of that classic series.
If you think of the representative of the law in terms of John Steed and Emma Peel you’ll understand what I mean. Phibes follows the same basic approach as an Avengers episode, following them from one strange crime and one eccentric suspect to another. The tone is invariably quirky—as are the crimes, which mimic the biblical plagues visited on Egypt—and the helpful parties range from the eccentric (Hugh Griffith as a rabbi) to the downright dotty (Aubrey Woods as a goldsmith). The results are a great deal of fun.
The tone seems to have concerned American International as is evident from the original trailer—simply called Dr. Phibes when it was put together. They can’t get away from the humor aspect entirely, but they do their best to minimize it, focusing instead on the film’s more gruesome images. The announcer also assures us that this may well be “the most horrifying movie you will ever see.” Somewhere before release, however, the film picked up its full title and the posters went for the humorous tone, using a picture of Phibes (Price) without his mask in an embrace with his henchwoman (Virginia North) with the words “Love means never having to say you’re ugly” (a play on the previous year’s “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” tagline for Love Story) emblazoned above them. No one was expecting straightforward horror after that.
The story line is simply a revenge scheme by the supposedly dead Phibes, who is systematically bumping off the nine doctors he blames for his wife’s death. (Since Joseph Cotten is the second biggest name in the cast, he’s obviously going to be the last medico under assault.) In this regard, the film is a precursor to “creative deaths” movies ranging from The Omen (1976) to, alas, the Saw series of the past few years. The deaths in this case are neither the result of mere screenwriting, nor are they meant to particularly torture the victims. Instead, they are the deliberately showy work of master showman Phibes. They’re also generally clever—and played for black comedy.
As a Vincent Price vehicle—especially as one that became so popular that it rated a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972)—it’s a curious concept in that Phibes only speaks though an electronic device and his face (an elaborate mask) is largely immobile. (Indeed, Fuest fashioned a film that could have taken its place among the great unmasking films—think Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)—except the trailers and posters gave the game away.) For many performers this would have been a limitation, but Price was strong enough—and, let’s be honest, hammy enough—that he wasn’t in the least constrained by these restrictions.
Visually, Phibes is a treat with its riot of art nouveau and art deco design by Brian Eatwell. But much of the credit goes to Fuest, not only for the way he uses the design, but also for the way he’s able to make it all look a lot more impressive than the budget would have allowed. Watch the scene at a party when one of the victims meets his demise in a frog mask that crushes his head. If you pay close attention, you realize that this scene’s actual production value consists of little more than an elaborate staircase, some chandeliers, soft-focus star-cross filters and directorial camouflage. But the result looks like a million bucks. Come see the film for yourself, but remember, “There are two sides to Dr. Phibes—both of them evil!”
Dr. Phibes will show at 8 p.m., but there’s the usual pre-show lineup starting at 7:40 p.m. with “The Terror Invisible,” chapter nine of the barely thrilling 1934 Bela Lugosi serial The Return of Chandu and the Betty Boop cartoon Betty Boop’s Halloween Party (1934), so come early.