Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trick Or Trailers: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

When fans look back on the '70s, even for those who didn't live through that decade, to think of what legacy the '70s left the genre is to celebrate the gritty, grindhouse style classics like Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). But that wasn't the '70s that I knew. As a kid I had no awareness of that side of the horror genre. It wasn't just that I didn't see those movies, I didn't even know they existed. Later in the decade, I knew about the likes of Halloween and Dawn of the Dead (both 1978) but for most of the '70s, modern horror to me was about eco-horror films like Frogs (1972), the '50s-throwbacks from Bert I. Gordon like Foods of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977), and Godzilla movies. In other words, I hardly had my finger on the pulse of the decade.

Thanks to TV, however, I was well versed in classic horror and genre stalwarts like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Cushing were heroes to me as much as they had been to fans of previous generations. But among the classic horror stars, Vincent Price was always my favorite - maybe because he was still such an active presence on TV while I was growing up. I saw him everywhere - as Eggman on Batman reruns, as a guest host on The Muppet Show, on Hollywood Squares, and he even showed up in commercials for the game Hangman ("Wrong window!").

But the definitive Price movie for me was 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes. When I first saw it on Channel 30's The 4 o'Clock Movie, I was transfixed by its vivid colors, its art deco set design, its lurid violence (the death by locusts was the grisliest thing I had seen up to that point), and by Price himself in the role of vengeance-seeking organist, Anton Phibes. Thanks to the imagination of director Robert Fuest, there was a strange, ornate quality to the movie (with details like Phibes' clockwork band of mannequins) that I hadn't encountered before. I had never seen a movie as elaborately art-directed and stylized as Phibes.

The ghost of Phibes still haunts modern horror in the form of the elaborate murder schemes of Se7en (1995), the Saw films, and in the currently playing action/splatter hybrid Law Abiding Citizen. But there's nothing quite like the distinctive handiwork of the original mad planner. Even if it isn't "probably the most terrifying motion picture you'll ever see," as its trailer promised, The Abominable Dr. Phibes does curse most other films to be disappointments.


MrJeffery said...

Cool poster. What an odd little movie.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, in my opinion it's one of the few horror movies to successfully pull off a quirky attitude. And although I haven't seen its sequel - Dr. Phibes Rises Again - in years, I remember it being nearly as good as the original.

Chris 'Frog Queen' Davis said...

One of the frog queen's favorites, don't know why, but I just love watching this one over and over :)


Anonymous said...

Love this movie. Watching it again a couple weeks back, I couldn't help but think the directors of Saw ripped off the constricting mask idea from the masquerade scene.

Jeff Allard said...

Frog Queen, I don't think there's any mystery why anyone would want to watch this over and over again - it's just a great movie!

And PoT, the Saw series definitely owes a debt of gratitude to Phibes. I don't know whether Wan and Whannell consciously took a page from the Phibes films but it's hard to believe they didn't.

Phantom of Pulp said...

A superb film. It strikes a tone that is totally unique, and never degenerates into parody.

The sequel is also amazing. The climax, in which Phibes exits on his raft -- as "Over The Rainbow" plays -- is beautiful.

senski said...

I dare not even get started on Dr. Phibes, or I'll go on and on. This was one of the first horror movies I saw in a theater way back in 1971, and I absolutely cherish it.

Every now and then there are rumblings - usually from the UK - that there are plans to turn this into a stage musical. Since it almost is already, I'd love to see some talented people give it a try.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Another of my all time favorites.
It made a HUGE impression on me when my dad took us to see it as kids.
Even then it wasn't really scary... but it had such a different sort of style compared to anything I'd seen.
The ending in particular really got to me... with the self-embalming... and Somewhere Over The Rainbow playing over the closed sarcophagus... that scene kind of changed my brain.

Jeff Allard said...

Phantom, Senski, Knob - thanks for the comments! I guess it's unanimous - everyone loves Phibes! The idea of a Phibes musical sounds perfect, by the way - I can't believe someone hasn't already done it by now.