Gemma Files on Dr. Phibes (1971 & 1972)

Gemma Files is a celebrated author and film critic whose most recent books are A Book of Tongues and A Rope of Thorns. I met her at World Horror this year, and found her to be not only a wonderful conversationalist, but also one of the few people I’ve ever encountered whose knowledge of film puts my own thoroughly to shame. So when it came time to solicit people for my Vincent Price Halloween countdown, she was one of the first people I thought of. Here, she talks about both The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its successor Dr. Phibes Rises Again:

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My first official encounter with Vincent Price came via The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, a Canadian-made children’s comedy-horror show which used to run very early in the morning on CityTV. Price appeared as the host, intoning little pre-shot rhyming set-ups for the various segments, most of which starred local actor Billy Van under tonnes of unconvincing makeup. I was never entirely sure how to “take” the show overall, let alone Price’s performance; on the one hand, these bits were obviously meant to be funny, or they wouldn’t rhyme (this was my child’s logic), but the way he chose to emphasize various things, the weird rhythm and intonation he brought to every line, the weariness in his eyes, the cruelly faded, fleshy handsomeness of his face…it was a conundrum. It made me uncomfortable, which in turn kept me watching, even though I found myself saddled over and over with Van’s vaudevillian B.S.—a guru pelted with flowers, a gorilla felled by golf-balls, a werewolf deejay and an obese lab assistant dancing to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in front of a psychedelic background—rather than the far creepier, more dreadful truths that Price appeared to hint were coming.

Whenever I ran across Price later on, therefore, in more classic roles—as the titular character’s baffled brother in the original The Fly, for example, or Prince Prospero in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death—there always seemed to be something a bit “off” about him, as though he was doing a bad imitation of “himself”. Which may, I suppose, be why the two Price movies that work best for me are probably his simultaneously oddest, most eccentric and least dependent on vocal performance: Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again, in which Price plays Anton Phibes, “a doctor, scientist, organist and Biblical scholar” whose horribly scarred, probably undead visage is eternally hidden behind a slightly ill-fitting rubber mask cast in his own image, and who (much like DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise, another camp masterpiece whose main character is played for anything but laughs) is unable to speak at all unless he plugs an amplifier cord into the side of his neck.

Blaming the medical professionals who were unable to save his beloved wife from death for her demise, Dr. Phibes has spent years plotting an arcane and complex revenge that requires him to live in an Art Deco underground lair full of musical automata, sleeping next to his wife’s glass coffin and rising to exact ridiculously complex, “punishment fits the crime”-type revenge on every member of that fatal team. Like Saw‘s Jigsaw, he has a strict theme to keep to—in this case, all the murders are based on the Ten Plagues of Egypt, thus allowing him to substitute enbalming while alive for the waters turning to blood and a wind-up frog-mask whose clockwork mechanism slowly vice-grips one doctor’s head until his skull cracks for the plague of frogs. All this culminates with the death of the first-born, in which team leader Joseph Cotton must operate on his own son in order to retrieve the key which will prevent acid from dripping on the boy’s face.

Phibes is aided in his plans by Vulnavia, a mysterious, beautiful mute who appears to be as desperately in love with him as he is with his deceased spouse. As his lair burns at the end of the first film, he and Vulnavia share an open-mouthed (in his case, his mask having been ripped off sometime shortly before, very open-mouthed) kiss that has all the hallmarks of a Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe update, and has haunted my dreams ever since. Recently, on the Space Channel’s Fanboy Confidential‘s “Horror” episode, I watched Rue Morgue cover artist Gary Pullin get this very moment inscribed on his body in glorious grey and white, and envied him. It’s the ultimate “Death & the Maiden” scenario, simultaneously tearjerking and gag-inducing.

While Dr Phibes Rises Again can’t possibly top its predecessor, it’s still extremely strange—artificial, grandiose, big-W Weird. And both films definitely fill a niche no one else has ever (thus far) dared to occupy, effortlessly knitting camp to opera, humor to horror, style to substance; the stakes are high throughout and the payoff unique, to say the least. For a Hallowe’en night double-bill you probably haven’t seen before, therefore, you could certainly do a whole lot worse.

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