April 11, 2011

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)



"After a team of surgeons botch his beloved wife's surgery, leaving her for dead, the emotionally distraught Dr. Phibes creatively concocts a fatal prescription for revenge. Using the Good Book as his guide, Phibes unleashes a score of old testament atrocities - from a plague of locusts to an attack of rats - on his enemies."

Have you ever rewatched a film from your childhood with memories of it being really good only to discover as an adult that it was a load of old crap? Well, that's how I felt about "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" except that I never liked it much as a child either.

Now I realise that "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is a cult classic for many people and is not a true horror film for a great many others, but bearing in mind that it was a forerunner of "Se7en" and "Saw", the vengeful serial killer storyline of "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" has become a staple of the horror genre. I've seen people argue that "Se7en" stole its plot directly from "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" minus all the campness and art deco set decorations, and they are probably right. I would argue in return that "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" stole a great many ideas from "The Avengers" and "Batman", and so did everything else from that era. Nothing is ever that original anyway.

The things I've always hated about "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" are mainly to do with the pace at which the story unfolds, the overly comedic British police, and the absolutely useless reactions of Dr. Phibes' (yes, I'm using the American way of abbreviating doctor with the full stop/period) victims.

When I rewatched the DVD earlier this morning, it was hard going to even stay awake for the first ten minutes due to it all being style over substance until the first murder by fruit bats occurred. Actually, it was the second murder as you only get to hear about the first murder using bees from one of the detectives. I don't think anyone at the time could figure out how to create the plague of boils caused by bee stings, but I would have liked to have seen them try.

Out of all the nitpicky things to annoy me the most though were Dr. Phibes' exaggerated hand gestures when he was supposed to be playing the organ. Well, obviously he wasn't really playing it nor were his Frank Sidebottom-headed robot musicians playing any of their instruments either. In spite of all the flawless 1920s set decoration, nobody seemed to care if anything else looked real or not and, in my opinion, that makes it a very bad movie.

Other things which threw me completely out of my willing suspension of disbelief were how I couldn't pin the time period down. The art deco (or art nouveau) stuff could be in vogue at any time, and since things don't change that much in England, it could just be due to well maintained listed buildings. The old cars were definitely later and the Tiger Moth biplane was created in the 1930s (albeit without the 1970s' "No Smoking" sign screwed to the dashboard in the cockpit). The heavy suits worn by the detectives looked very early 1960s although the uniformed police could have been from the '40s or '50s as far as I know. I've read that it was all supposed to be set in 1929, but it was all over the place. Couple all that with the late Peter Jeffrey's obviously 1970s comedic delivery as Inspector Trout and you have one hell of a mess to get your head around.


But since it's all fantasy anyway, maybe these things work in favour of "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" especially when it comes to creating a cult film. I don't really understand how that works or why something so obviously bad gets promoted to greatness, but to each his own. I'm sure that most people will agree with me that "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is flawed, dated and overrated whatever their opinion of cult films is anyway.

I didn't watch "The Abominable Dr. Phibes' just to pull it apart but to see if it should remain as a recommendation in my "Video Vault". I didn't have a problem with Joseph Cotten's bad acting, the far-fetched nature of the story, or even all the plotholes surrounding the mute Vulnavia. What concerned me the most was that it was actually all very boring. The supposedly ingenious murders and their horrific aftermaths weren't all that entertaining to me as a fully grown adult living in the 21st century. There was no tension or suspense involved in any of the punishments even with the timed one at the end and I didn't know enough about any of the characters apart from Terry Thomas (who always seemed to play the same role in films) to feel anything for them. None of the victims tried to fight back either, and that was just odd.

I suppose that if I ever decided to overthink things then I could probably empathize with Dr. Phibes, but only if I'd ever been married to the uncredited Caroline Munro and lost her. Yeah, losing a gorgeous trophy wife like that would be enough to drive anyone nuts. But surely to gain a non-speaking Virginia North as a replacement would be satisfying enough, wouldn't it? Actually, the more I do think about it, I'd prefer Valli Kemp from the awful sequel "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" which was on the same DVD.

I highly doubt that anyone who saw "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" when it was released in 1971 was horrified or scared by it. British horror films of that time, especially AIP produced films set in Britain, were actually way of sync with the nastiness that American and European filmmakers were delighting their audiences with. If anything, "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" was a throwback to the cosy Roger Corman, Hammer and Amicus style from ten years before and would have stood out glaringly as such amidst the competition. I wasn't there at the time though so all this is just hypothesis.

Another major factor in determining whether or not anyone would still enjoy "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is how much they like Vincent Price. People who have read further into my blogs will probably already know that I bought Vincent Price's autographed cookbook (signed to Boris Karloff) from the auction of Mrs Evie Karloff's estate which was coincidentally on the day that Vincent Price died (October 25th, 1993). At the time, I was even more into all things horror related especially anything to do with the old guys. If you haven't already seen it, here's a link to a post about Vincent Price's "A Treasury of Great Recipes" on The Bloody Forum and a picture to whet your appetite:


Even though I would class myself as a Vincent Price fan, I really didn't like him as Dr. Phibes. The whole role was a mockery of what he could achieve as an actor. Even though he was hardly the most physical of actors, I still think that "The Last Man on Earth" was his best film with "Witchfinder General" a close second. I know that other people will disagree (especially the essay writers over at vincentprice.org), but everybody who likes Vincent Price chooses a different favourite film of his as being his best anyway.

Anyway, should I leave "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" in the Video Vault and recommend it to you? I think not. Since it was originally a borderline entry with a score of only 5 out of 10, I can't justify putting it anywhere now except The Dungeon. It's a shame, but when your tastes change as much as mine have over the years, it really is a case of putting childish things like this away and moving on.

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