The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Nine Eternities in Doom!)
Well when I do one thing it makes me think of another and sooner or later you have yourself a theme. We’re going to be showcasing another Vincent Price movie to kick off September and boy do I have a great one.
The 1970’s would see a lot of changes in the horror genre and the film industry in general. The ratings system by the motion pictures association was implemented, which is funny to think of as a new thing. The Gothic style of horror had gone the way of the Dodo after decades of being the formula for horror. Also, the post nuclear sci-fi was also proving to be less successful and audiences were ready for something new. They wanted something edgier, since we’re talking about a generation raised in the 1960’s it’s no wonder. Censorship laws were loosening and filmmakers wanted to push the limits.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Halloween I could go on and on. These new films were different; they were closer to home, smaller more realistic settings in suburban homes or neighborhoods. Or someplace that could be a little more than an hour out of town. Places that could excite people’s imaginations and make them question what that shadow outside the window was. There was more gore, nudity and bad language than you could shake a stick at, and the audiences went to see these films in droves. They made the films about the teenagers that were seeing them and it worked.
Before all of that, there was one film that sticks out in the early 70’s that really was a transitional movie. It had the grand sets and music of the older Gothic horrors, but it pushed the limits of gore for its age. To top it all off it had an amazing cast that starred Vincent Price in his 100th film; The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Released in 1971, by MGM, The Abominable Dr. Phibes would build upon the tragic monster character that was made famous in the Phantom of the Opera. The film opens up with a grand set that is Dr. Phibes home, we see a cloaked man, playing the organ with dramatic flair and enters a tall thin woman, in a pretty seventies interpretation of stylish wear, (which is weird because the movie is supposed to take place in 1925) they dance and it’s all very theatrical. There is also a really creepy clockwork band playing called “Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards” It’s a really surreal opening and it has no dialogue at all.
A series of strange murders start to occur, a man found dead in his room tore to shreds by bats, normally found in the tropics. The man was named Dr. Dunwoody and he wasn’t the first noted surgeon to be killed. Before (and off camera I guess) Professor Thornton was stung to death by bees. These two murders are not enough to call it a trend they police aren’t convinced they are related except for inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffery). Soon after (possibly the weirdest death scenes I’ve ever seen,) Dr. Hargreaves head is crushed inside a mechanical frog’s mask at some kind of masquerade party.
As each one of these death’s occur the police try to find a connection, but aside from them all being in the medical profession, they see no pattern. It’s not until the find Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) that they begin to piece it all together. All of the doctors being targeted worked together on one case. It seemed that his wife Victoria Phibes was sick and while she was being operated on by the team of seven doctors and one nurse; she died. Phibes is believe to be dead because on the on the way to see her, his car went over the side of a mountain and he was presumably killed. Trout has a gut feeling that Phibes isn’t dead and in this case he would be right.
He survived but his face was horribly disfigured and was left unable to speak. He wants revenge against the incompetent doctors that he says murdered her; nine to suffer his elaborate murders, all in the theme of the ten plagues of Egypt. (The ninth presumably would be himself)
Phibes is a friggin genius and the police can’t seem to do anything to stop him, even when they know who he’s going to kill. For a guy who’s apparent doctorates lie in music and theology he is an amazing inventor. Not only does he invent a machine, which is basically a gramophone hooked up to his neck to speak, he also creates a bunch clockwork people (his band) and other strange devices. (he actually makes a device that made a car 100 degrees below freezing)
He also has his badass silent assistant named Vulnavia played by the absolutely beautiful Virgina North. It never explains who she is or why she helps him, but she is his public face who handles a lot of day to day stuff for Phibes. She is also his accomplice to most of the murders. Originally in the script it was to be explained that she was actually just another of his clockwork creations but they decided against it, which was too bad because that would elevate her to “super-badass”.
There are a lot of hilariously campy things in this movie. The clockwork band itself is great aswell as the weird masks at the Masquerade but other things really made me laugh too. One death is lead into by one of the doctors watching the equivalent of 1925 porn. He hooks up this huge camera to play some woman belly dancing with a snake while her turns the crank all turned on, and sucking back scotch it. Another great what the fuck moment was when one of the last doctors killed was done in by a brass unicorn head being catapulted across the street and into his chest. They try to get him off the wall by spinning him around like a top. The police chief even says “I’m at a loss for words” well so am I chief, so am I. He also drives around in a car that has his profile painted on both sides of the window which is just fucked up.
There are a lot of things I can’t help but notice. The most glaring thing is how this sort of tragic, revenge for his wife, and wanting to be with her jazz really reminded me a mister freeze. It made me wonder if this might be one of the sources of inspiration, especially in the scenes where he is talking to his dead wife’s picture.
The last sequence is just fantastic and I’m going to spoil it because I need to, in order to make my next point. So SPOILER ALERT. Dr. Vesalius plague is; death of the first born. Phibes and his assistant kidnap the doctor’s son and lure him to Phibes home. Vesalius has six minutes to remove a key lodged in his son’s heart. The same six minutes his wife had on the operating table before she died. The key unlocks a chain around the boy’s neck that is secured to the operating table. Phibes set up this acid to trickle down and land on the boy’s face if the key isn’t retrieved. All the while Phibes taunts the doctor and it’s just fucking amazingly well done. This entire sequence is so similar of the recent saw series and the Jigsaw killer that it’s kind of hard to imagine this wasn’t part of the inspiration.
Doctor Phibes is an awesome villain, part mad doctor, part Phantom and part Jigsaw killer. It makes for a truly amazing character that really carries the entire film. So much so that it spawned a sequel Dr. Phibes Rides Again. It’s just as good and I actually got them both on one dvd for five bucks. I highly recommend you find these films and give them a watch.
See you next time and thanks for reading!