Drop-Dead Chic

PHBPSTR

Other than the behavior of its title character, there’s nothing abominable about 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  It’s one of the wittiest and most gorgeously designed horror films you’re ever likely to see.  Much of the credit for its visual non-abominableness must go to the film’s set designer, Brian Eatwell, a name I’m not familiar with; but if his other film work was on a par with what he did for Phibes, Mr. Eatwell must have done so indeed.

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What Phibes and Eatwell do is blend the look and design of the 20th century’s two most stylish decades—the 1920s (in which the film is set) and the 1960s (out of which the film came)—and make it click.  The effect is Mod meets Mad:  Décor and costumes combine bright, near-psychedelic colors; art deco/nouveau stylings; mid-century modern furnishings; enough glitter, feathers, and fringe to supply the next ten years of Mardi Gras parades; and a blasé, almost hipster-cool attitude toward its depicted horrors.  Just note its opening image, of an organ-playing Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price, soaring to blissful heights of ham) rising to audience view from unknown depths (Mendelsohn’s “War March of The Priests” blasting forth), his black-cowled form foregrounded by blood-red lighting on the pipes.  How many horror films start off with its main character dressed for a campy New Year’s Eve costume party?  And providing his own entrance music to boot? 

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The opening is a throwback to, and comment on, all those Phantom of the Opera adaptations, but, though scarred like the Phantom (as well as being a lover of good music), Phibes—both character and film—is witty, knowing, and cool, and blessed with, shall we say, a killer sense of humor.  And rather than hiding in sewers, he camps out (in more than one sense) in a fabulous mansion, containing an art-nouveau ballroom, an ebony-and-gold underground crypt (equipped with telephone), a musical band of automaton musicians, and a surgeon’s operating room decked out in ultra-sleek medical swank (could this have influenced David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers?).  What can I say; it’s to die for.

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Stripped of its ornamental overlay, Phibes’ story is the standard horror plot, of the And-Then-There-Were-None school:  The one-by-one bumping-off of a series of deserving victims, their punishments fitting their crimes.  In this case the terminations are based on the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt (as well as high art, Phibes goes in for high drama), the targets dispatched by inventively ghoulish methods that suggest Frogs, Hail, Blood, Locusts, and so forth.  But though Phibes is essentially a serial killer, you’re not appalled by him.  You don’t even dislike him—you just admire his flair.  You may even root for him, because he kills for a sympathetic purpose—to avenge the death of his beautiful young wife on the team of callous doctors responsible for her demise.  A revenge fantasy that might be shared by not a few in the audience.

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The film is clever enough to keep its victims distant and unconcerned; they’re all rich and well fed, and wallow in luxury digs.  One of the few given some characterization is enacted, with a delicately droll wink, by the great Terry-Thomas, who plays a physician with a taste for perverse pleasures—he’s introduced watching a semi-pornographic silent film of a female snake charmer and her serpent, the pair entwined in lewdly suggestive poses (a shot of Thomas, seen from the back, his arm cranking the camera handle as he ogles lady and reptile, strongly suggests a masturbatory motion).  You can’t help but feel that murder would be just another kinky thrill for this guy.

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Otherwise, we sit back and enjoy watching Phibes eliminate his victims by progressively outrageous means.  The most eye-catching is what might be called the War March of the Locusts, as a line of these squirm-inducing Acrididae crawl down a long glass tube, to drop onto a sleeping victim whose face has been spattered with puréed vegetable matter.  The result, while leaving much to the fancy, is still satisfyingly grim to imagine.  My own favorite, though, is the one involving Bats—lots of bats, with lots (lots) of closeups, of small, snouted, furred faces, like tiny, malevolent dogs that want to snuggle up close and sniff.  (You may or may not think them cute.  Depending on your own perverse tastes.)

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The film is packed with other horror tropes such as the mad doctor (it’s right in his name) and his willing assistant, here a beautiful mute woman (Virginia North) who saws away at the violin during each victim’s demise, as well as a tribe of clueless police, and the final would-be mark trying to outrace his doom.  Meanwhile, Phibes booms out Mendelsohn on the organ, recites John Donne’s poetry to photographs of his late wife (an uncredited Caroline Munro), and gleefully charts the progress of his revenge.  There’s even an in-joke on Price’s known talents as a gourmet cook, as he prepares purée for his insectoid friends with only the best ingredients.  (Surely those busy little cicadas deserve to eat as well as their film’s designer?)

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The filmmakers wisely kept their work short, its length scraping just over 90 minutes, enough to entertain but not bore.  The tone is joshing, the murders gruesome but not gory, and you admire how seductively designed each one is.  But that seems to be the point.  The glam sets, the offhand humor, the mix of styles…it’s horror presented as cold-blooded chic, the style detaching it from straight shock and elevating it to elegance and panache; where even a death by skewering is done via a beautifully crafted brass unicorn head.  It might be murder but it’s in the best of taste.  Without giving anything away, at film’s end you can only mourn the destruction of all that gorgeous décor (couldn’t they have saved one glittery little piece?).  The film could be summed up by how one witness describes Phibes’ alluring sidekick:  “Fash-ion-able,” he gushes, as if recalling a vision granted to the blest.  Perverse praise, indeed.

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Bonus Clip:  Courtesy of the YouTube channel Gorey Bits, here’s a look at the best pieces, glittery or otherwise, culled from The Abominable Dr. Phibes:  

You can watch the entire film of The Abominable Dr. Phibes on YouTube here, or here (while available).

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