Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

My friend Shannon got The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971) in one of those double-feature midnight movie bargain DVD packs, and we threw it on last night to round out an evening of swimming at BF's pool. Now, there are two possible interpretations of the events which occurred when we popped this movie into the DVD player. One is that someone secretly replaced the pool's chlorine with LSD and we were tripping balls. The other is that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is really, truly one of the most bizzaro movies ever made.

My money's on the latter.
The titular abominable doctor (played by Vincent Price!) is on a quest to avenge his dead wife, who expired on the operating table. The doctors and nurses who performed her surgery are gradually dispatched by Phibes in fashions inspired by the seven plagues God visited on the Egyptians: bats, locusts, hail, etc. Why he chose this method to kill his victims is never really explained, but there's probably a good reason. It does seem to me as though it would be easier just to snipe them or mail them all anthrax, but what do I know? I'm not a doctor. Scotland Yard's Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is determined to bring Phibes to justice, but denied that pleasure when Phibes, having visited vengeance upon every entry on his hit list, uses a clockwork apparatus to enbalm himself and seal his body away alongside his dead wife. No surprise that there's a sequel (1972, also Robert Fuest).

Words cannot capture how weird this movie is. I'm not even talking about the plot outlined above, although god knows that's bonkers enough. I'm talking about the fact that Dr. Phibes spends the first five minutes of this movie polishing his clockwork orchestra, which plays no other role in the film. The fact that his murder-by-locusts for some reason requires Phibes to boil a gigantic pot of brussel sprouts down to Brussel Sprout Concentrate (he uses it as bait for the locusts, but the fruit flies in my kitchen aren't nearly so picky). I'm talking about the fact that for some reason Phibes' mouth is on his neck and he has to talk through a special neck telephone. It usually irritates me when people refer to this or that artist or artwork as "on drugs", as though talent and imagination can't bend the brain. In this case, though... I'm gonna give it a pass. Maybe the screenwriter was just high on life, but he was certainly high on something.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes gets a _/5. It's un-ratable. It's impossible to tell whether this movie is good or bad, let alone to tell whether it's meant to be horror or comedy; it doesn't succeed as either, and yet as the sole entry in a genre of its own, it's enjoyable enough. The production values and film stock quality are bargain basement, but the performances are excellent -- largely because the actors play it completely straight, with nary a tongue in a cheek. I hesitate to go so far as to recommend this movie, but I promise you you've never seen anything like it.

Careful with that axe Eugene
SCENE STEALER: Dr. Phibes breaks mad scientist tradition by keeping not a hunchback as a lackey, but a gorgeous art-deco fashion plate called Vulnavia (Virginia North). Vulnavia helps Dr. Phibes take his revenge on the medical profession until she unfortunately positions herself under an acid trap meant for someone else. Vulnavia is totally unnecessary to this movie, but that's part of her charm. She's like a Greek chorus figure, except that the film doesn't give her a single line. Still, when she listens to Dr. Phibes' nefarious plans, then silently turns to the camera and raises a skeptical eyebrow, you know that Vulnavia-the-lackey and you-the-viewer have reached an understanding: there is some weiiiiird shit goin' down.

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