Thursday, February 18, 2010

Phailure Is Not An Option

There are few characters in film more driven than Dr. Anton Phibes. The famed concert organist (with a doctorate in Theology) lost his beloved wife Victoria during a failed surgery and, although he is believed to have perished in a fiery car wreck en route to the hospital, he survived to apply all his wealth and knowledge towards exacting his revenge on the operating staff he blames for his wife's death.

The ornate death traps (fashioned according to the Twelve Plagues of Egypt, as described in the Old Testament) and precision planning that are Phibes' telltale handiwork have been famously adopted by subsequent movie villains - like John Doe, from Se7en (1995), Jigsaw from the Saw series, and most recently, Clyde Shelton from Law Abiding Citizen (2009). In each of these films, these highly intelligent villains (anti-heroes, really) have a near-omniscient ability to plan ahead and to account for every probability. While it would be better for the world if these geniuses would use their gifts to advance the greater good, that isn't much fun. Deep down, we all feel we have a few scores to settle and to imagine having the skills and the means to do so is an irresistible dream - so to hell with the greater good.

That's a selfish notion to hold and it's probably no wonder that 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes (directed with great style by Robert Fuest) made such an impression on me as a child. Children - even good ones - have an innately selfish streak and Phibes, like all revenge seekers, is a selfish, self-absorbed character. Even though his wife's death was an accident, he feels justified in taking whatever lives he deems responsible for his loss ("Nine eternities in doom!" he repeats like mantra). Watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes again, I was struck by how blameless Phibes' victims are. Phibes really is completely unreasonable in his vengeance - what's arguably the most horrific death of all, death by locusts, is reserved for the mere nurse who assisted in the operation - and I doubt if this story would be told the same way today. A few innocent victims are caught in the crossfire in Law Abiding Citizen but in general, everyone that Clyde Shelton targets has some kind of crime to answer for - even if the crime is simply compromising one's values to play along with a flawed, often corrupt, legal system.

Were The Abominable Dr. Phibes made today, surely we'd learn that there was some catastrophic screw-up during the operation on Phibes' wife. A screw-up, and then a subsequent cover-up. There would be a real reason for Phibes to punish these people by any means necessary. Instead, these are earnest, well-meaning professionals who simply failed to save a life in their care. Victoria Phibes died because no physician, no matter how skilled, can save every life. Phibes is someone who doesn't handle disappointment well, however. In fact, it makes him go nuclear.

Phibes' victims in the original film were - to a one - just hapless scapegoats, wholly undeserving of their grisly fates. Rather than have the character return to the land of the living in 1972's Dr. Phibes Rises Again (in which his new victims were conveniently made to be morally suspect, even villainous), perhaps the sequel should have followed Phibes into the afterlife where he could've found someone to pay for making such an imperfect world in the first place. Now that's a truly biblical revenge I'd have liked to have seen.


Bob Ignizio said...

As you point out, Phibes' victims aren't really to blame for his wife's death. And yet every time I watch this movie, I find myself rooting for the guy. He may be wrong, but at least in his own twisted mind he's the hero of the story. And thanks to Price's performance, it's hard not to get pulled into that mindset yourself on some level. Modern films seem to think it's somehow edgier to have everyone depicted in shades of grey, but what 'Phibes' does is far more subversive (not to mention fun).

Jeff Allard said...

I agree - and really, it wasn't until watching the movie again just recently that it occured to me how Phibes is going after completely innocent people. I guess I was dimly aware of it before but Price is so charming in the role that it's hard not to instinctively root for him, regardless of the morality involved.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Phibes strikes me as being something of an homage to 'pulp' villains like Dr. Fu Manchu, Dr. Moriarty and Dr. No.
An updating of the guy who straps the virgin to the railroad tracks or the path of the advancing buzzsaw.
My dad took me to this movie as a wee little kid (he was that kind of dad) and Phibes never scared me a bit. It always seemed to me that he must have some sort of legitimate beef. His victims, what little was shown of them, weren't particularly likeable... mostly seeming like upper class twits... except, of course, for the nurse.

Unknown said...

It's easy to empathize and sympathize with the Good Doctor because he is the only person to show any recognizably human emotions in the film, except for terror and dismay, of course. I guess I'm merely seconding Bob Ignizio.

Jeff Allard said...

Knob, great point about Phibes' link to the classic pulp villains!

And verysmallarray, I guess it's easy to sympathize with Phibes because everything he does is out of love for his lost wife. Plus, he has such a sweet set-up - who wouldn't want to live in that awesome art-deco pad?