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307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, Continue reading 307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

CAPSULE: DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli,

PLOT: A master thief and his girlfriend carry off a series of audacious heists while evading the police and a rival criminal.

Still from Danger: Diabolik (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some perplexing plot developments and slightly surreal moments, Danger: Diabolik never really journeys beyond its cops-and-robbers framework.  Ultimately, it’s more a product of its era’s weirder impulses than anything truly out-there.

COMMENTS: Full of kitschy décor and colorful costuming, Danger: Diabolik is a time capsule of the late 1960s.  The high-tech hijinks of its masked title character (Law) are redolent of Batman and James Bond, but with his frivolous capers and improbable escapes, Diabolik tops even those series’ campy excesses.  The entire film is just a string of cat-and-mouse encounters, as the Javert-like Inspector Ginko (Piccoli) lays a trap—be it priceless emeralds or a 20 ton ingot of gold—only for Diabolik to abscond with the loot, and his sexy accomplice Eva (Mell).

It may be perplexing at first to see a glamorous ball of fluff like Diabolik being directed by Bava, a man who’s best-known for stylized horror films like Black Sunday.  But Bava seizes on Diabolik’s ridiculous premise as a perfect opportunity to pour on the eye candy, unhindered by considerations of logic or self-restraint.   So instead of just getting one more of the routine super-spy pastiches that were clogging the theaters in 1968, we get some delirious sequences influenced by psychedelia and pop art.  The most effective such moment transpires when a prostitute tries to describe Eva’s appearance, leading into a bizarre animated cavalcade of mutating female faces.

The rest of Diabolik, however, is less audacious.  The cast seems to exist outside of these creative outbursts, and their performances drone on, whether they’re madly overacting—like Thunderball‘s Adolfo Celi as an angry gangster, or Terry-Thomas as a tooth-gnashing government official—or else, like John Phillip Law, underacting to the point of barely giving a performance.  Law is so deadpan that it’s easy to forget he’s there, and that’s not exactly a desirable trait in a brazen anti-hero.  But who needs a believable performance when you’ve got sex amidst piles of cash?  Or a giant mirror as a method for deterring the police?  Or a grand finale that features an explosive vat of molten, “radioactivated” gold?

Diabolik’s triumph is that it dispenses with plausibility from the very first gush of multicolored fog, and doesn’t look back, prioritizing scenes of wacky spectacle over minor details like dialogue and characterization.  So it’s certainly not a good movie, per se—in fact, a truncated version was mocked in the last-ever episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”—but it does carry its worn premise to enthrallingly absurd heights.  For a viewer who wants some unrestrained campy nonsense, that should be as much of a lure as freshly cremated ashes chock-full of emeralds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Utilizing wide-angle lenses, day-glo colors, psychedelic sets, and outrageous costumes, Bava creates dynamic compositions which could have come straight from a comic-strip panel, along with some indelible images, none more so than Diabolik covered in gold at the end, or the shots of he and Eva making love on a spinning bed while covered by a pile of money.”–TV Guide

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Jules.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made. Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Fuest

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT:  Dr. Phibes, a mysterious, organ playing supervillain, kills off doctors in bizarre and ritualistic ways as Scotland Yard races to find the pattern to the crimes and the identity of the killer.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Dr. Phibes, the supervillain, is pretty damn weird, from his obsession with acting out 1920s torch songs to the audio jack in his neck that he connects to a phonograph when he wants to speak.  Dr. Phibes, the movie, is somewhat weird, though less so than its central character. Doubtlessly, the proper but incompetent Brits who are perpetually one step behind the bad doctor would term the goings-on here “decidedly odd.”  We’re not sold that Dr. Phibes is weird enough to make the List on a first pass, but we’re not comfortable writing it off, either, so it will sit in the Borderline category.

COMMENTS: The first scene of Dr. Phibes wisely spotlights the film’s keynote set and admirably sets a tone of ghoulish whimsy.  Organ music swells as the camera travels up a marble staircase until it reaches an odd atrium.  In the center sits an organ with a fan of pipes glowing with subtly garish yellows, pinks and reds.  Flanking this centerpiece are trees with stuffed birds of prey perched on their dead limbs.  At the organ sits the hunched, hooded figure of a man, who sways as if possessed and theatrically throws up his arms during  random passages as he plays.  After the opening credits fade a longshot reveals there is more to this room: there’s a clockwork band of automatons in tuxedos.  The hooded figure finishes his dirge, steps away, winds a crank and begins conducting the stiff figures as they belt out an impossibly lush big band ballad.  On a balcony above a door opens and out steps a beautiful brunette, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)