“The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971)
Robert Fuest (September 27, 1927 – March 21, 2012)
(Originally posted April 15, 2012)
With its roots in the serial murder giallo tradition of both Mario Bava’s“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and “Blood and Black Lace”, Robert Fuest’s stylish “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was produced at a time when the horror film was in critical need of rejuvenation. By 1971, the horror franchise of Poe adaptations had deteriorated from the classy and classic Roger Corman series into a meandering continuation of American International releases including productions incorrectly identified as Edgar Allan Poe inspired (confusing and frustrating the audience) including films which may have attracted wider audiences had they been handled with properly honest marketing techniques ( for example,”The Conquerer Worm”, needlessly retitled from the original, more appropriate “Witchfinder General”, a superior film, unlike the similarly themed “Cry of the Banshee” which actually was marketed with patently manufactured Poe writings in its advertising campaign to disguise its false attribution) and further misguided adaptations (“The Oblong Box”, “Murders in the Rue Morgue”) which, whether literal to not to their source materials, made it conspicuously evident that the AIP productions were moribund in a creative mire. Great Britain’s Hammer Films, by this time, had reached an equally alarming state of exhaustion with their signature Gothic material and found no foothold in expanding their horror traditions- whether through creative timidity or diminishing financing for what were perceived as out-of-date conceptions -with the introduction of such desperate gimmicks as a spate of lesbian vampire thrillers neither finding nor engaging an appreciable audience.
Enter into this flaccid arena, the Art Deco masterwork of giddy Grand Guignol known as “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, a period horror piece whose indeterminate time frame (though it’s insinuated to unfold in the mid 1920’s) grants the privilege of entering a world of immaculate cinema artifice, of complete suspension of disbelief, a glittery bauble of movie illusion in which the “villain” may operate with delighted impunity straddling the rules of both the corporeal and the supernatural as following the dictates of both the traditional genre horrors and the more contemporary giallo form. It’s clear from the start that Fuest does not intend any of the proceedings to be taken seriously and this complete absence of self-conscious importance (which differs from self-conscious awareness, which the film is brimming with- to the benefit of the viewer -so much so that Phibes’ lovely mute assistant Vulnavia [the striking Virginia North] breaks the “fourth wall” at one point to regard the audience with a look of mock astonishment) is what fuels the film with its dazzling sense of whimsy. Horrible things happen, but they are done so stylishly, it almost becomes a privilege to be invited as a fellow provocateur in sharing in the ingenious unveiling of each of the mad Doctor’s subsequent murderous enterprises- a significant development, though unnoticed at the time, in the horror genre.
There is a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” when Norman Bates is disposing of Marion Crane’s car in a nearby swamp. The car slowly descends under the muck, and then stops suddenly, still exposed for any investigators to discover. Norman holds his breath in anticipation…and so does the audience, and then, just as suddenly, the car continues its watery submersion. In one miraculous stroke Hitchcock transfers the audience’s sympathy from the victim to the perpetrator (or at least, to an abetter of the perpetrator as far as the audience knows at the time). Michael Powell attempted a similar experiment in transference of audience empathy with his notorious “Peeping Tom”, released the same year as “Psycho” though rather than an equally lucrative commercial reception, Powell’s film was met with an animosity so intense it annihilated his film career. (Hitchcock as a provocateur of violence would not be a great stretch given his chosen filmmaking field of interest, but the more genteel Powell was a different case entirely, and his film presented an more overtly sexually aberrant protagonist impossible to empathize with as opposed to Anthony Perkins’ All-American son only revealed to be a deranged psychotic in the final minutes of the film.) The aforementioned scene in “Psycho” was an historic and seminal moment in film; the apotheosis of Hitchcock’s raison d’etre in audience manipulation. (The entire basis of the limited arena of his craft.) The experimentation of audience manipulation would reach its most completely realized fruition- and public admission to what he was up to for anyone keen enough to be looking -in his subsequent feature “The Birds”, which manifests its intentions in two key scenes. The first, a scene in a diner in which among the trapped townsfolk is an hysterical mother (Doreen Lang) pointing to the source to whom she believes has brought the destructive birds to Bodega Bay. She then speaks directly at the camera, in a Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) P.O.V. shot, and screams:
“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. Evil!”
Clearly the character is directing her comments directly to the audience, as Hitchcock is cannily acknowledging the audience’s complicity in the onscreen mayhem. It happens because, and only because, the audience wants it to happen. The reason for paying a ticket of admission. The second scene is the finale in which Mitch (Rod Taylor), his family and Melanie all escape in a car amid the thousands of birds laying siege to his house. The expectation is that they will be attacked and this is the beginning of an exciting action climax, but the attack never happens, and the final shot shows the car driving off into the distance unmolested. This ending is one of the single most controversial of Hitchcock’s career as it outraged a great many viewers and critics who felt cheated of the cathartic violence they were anticipating; even with the inclusion of several gruesome tableaux included earlier in the feature which obviously did little but whet an appetite tantamount to a bloodlust. If Hitchcock’s career long manipulation of the audience needed further embellishment, it’s quite possible that the director found he had reached the limits of explicit visualization of his most personal themes which may account for the rather tepidly conceived series of films to follow from the so-called “Master of Suspense” as there was little maneuvering room for increasingly jarring manipulation left after the more extreme calculations enacted in both “Psycho” and “The Birds”. In a way, Hitchcock may have been too clever in his audience mind games, and opened a Pandora’s Box that his more subtly skillful manipulations were no longer able to satisfy; the audience seized with a growing appetite for more gratuitous shocks and sensations borne of the new freedoms that came with the relaxing of industry attitudes toward such instantly antiquated virtues as morality and sympathetic sentiment. In 1967 Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” pushed the audience empathy toward the violently antisocial even further by proffering a pair of cold-blooded killers as a romantic duo, to whom the audience were expected to follow and become emotionally invested in simply because they were more attractive and better coiffed than the sweaty Oakies who were surrounding them. The scene late in the film where Clyde Barrow’s (Warren Beatty) protracted impotence is miraculously cured by Bonnie reading her newly penned “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”- a self-glorifying advertisement for the villain as misunderstood romantic idol if ever there was one -as the wind playfully gambols about the meadow as if we were in a soft-focus commercial for shampoo or feminine hygiene products, is symptomatic of the sympathetic portrayal the film offered in its landmark approach to discarding the heretofore banned depictions of heroic criminals due to the then-newly dissolved restrictions imposed for thirty five years by the Production Code. The film’s controversy remains to this day and it’ open invitation of the romanticized purveyor of violence has had extreme ramifications to the film (and television) industry which have yet to be accurately measured to this day.
Which brings us back to “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, a film eagerly willing to take advantage of the cultural shifts in attitudes toward the attraction of villainy in entertainment as well as satisfying Hitchcock’s unearthed audience pathology for anarchic behavior. Never for one moment in the film is Phibes regarded as anyone but the central figure of interest; even a resistance to the purveyor of the immoral acts, leading to a sympathetic eye toward any other character is challenged with a deliberately engineered empathetic perspective as screenwriters William Goldstein and James Whiton create a world of ciphers, in which the victims, though playing important roles in Phibes’ psyche, integral to his revenge, are formally represented as mere one-dimensional figures whose only function is to keep the storyline chugging along. This viewpoint is essential in understanding the psychological shift that takes place in directing audience empathy in this film. By using the demonstrably effective tools of empathic alteration championed by Hitchcock-through a subtle transmutation of the viewer’s moral perspective by means of a cinematic variation of “intelligent design” in which through the combined manipulation of narrative and image, in concert, a temporary alteration of the emotional, and if wholly successful, moral state will occur- the writers and director of “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” have successfully created the first horror film in which the audience is overtly expected to remain in an unrelieved synergy with the killer, to disavow any compassion for the victims of his murderous rampage and to desire and find satisfaction in any ultimate escape from punishment.
The film shreds the very concept of anti-hero (becoming increasingly fashionable in 60’s American cinema with such popular successes as “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) and create an entirely new type of film type: the hero villain. Certainly the premise of the serial murderer was nothing new to film, finding its most consistent expression, up to that time, in what is referred to in the U.S. as the Italian giallo field, but never before was the expressed intent of the film to be following the killer as a convenient transmigration of the concept of movie “hero”. This was prevalent in the post-Code American films mentioned earlier- each administering a newer form of the anti-hero- but each of the protagonists met with a violent end, as if the rules of lawful retribution in the Code had not yet been fully expunged from memory. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” changes all of the rules, and administer the evolving changes of post-Code reprobate criminality without the final hypocritical insistence on comeuppance. For the first time in commercial cinema, and certainly the first time in horror films, the audience was allowed to enjoy the fruits of villainy without the pernicious killjoy imposition of a Production Code-fed “Crime Does Not Pay” finale. (It always seemed a slap in the face that you were allowed to enjoy a Cagney gangster film for two hours only to have the inevitable cold shoulder of moral disapproval [by way of a Tommy gun blast or similar instrument of awkward piety] rearing its ugly head at the eleventh hour. Crime may not have paid, according to the moralists of the Hays Office, but the villains certainly looked like they were having a grand time until the end.)
This might make a film an unrelievedly distasteful experience were it not for the ingenious tone of the film: not straight horror (and certainly not mystery) but black comedy laced with a floridly flamboyant visual style. The films frames literally pop with colors and exotically articulated Art Deco details; a visual toy box treat for the eyes that makes it impossible not to delight in the anarchic sense of whimsy with which the entire production was conceived and executed. Fuest does wonders in controlling the absurdist tone of the story, while the film is peppered with truly surrealist touches such as the occasional musical interlude in which the murders scenes or police procedurals are likely to be interpolated with Big Band favorites, a mad organ recital on a glittery neon Wurlitzer worthy of Oz or an impromptu two-step. The entire film reeks of what is easily labelled “camp” and yet the deliberation of this style and the high end of artistic accomplishment in its realization sends the film out of the usual camp/cult Stratosphere and into a sui generis trajectory. Unlike the artfully surreptitious manipulations of Hitchcock, Fuest’s film openly identifies the anarchic willingness of the audience to shed its moral high ground and openly plays with the receptivity to bloodlust the audience spent decades having hammered back into the dark recesses of their minds. The variation of moral empathy within the intellectual construction of the scenario combined with the floridly playful tone of the physical production creates a type of cinematic soufflé of the variety which continually rises with increasing imaginative excitement and like the best movie confections, both delights and nourishes the filmic palate to the final frame.
For a horror film there is a surprising absence of both mystery and suspense, but this is by design; the genre satisfactions emanating not so much in the fiendish applications of tortuous adaptations of Biblical horrors, but in the saucy, wink-wink style which justifies the viewer’s embrace of the grue as a high form of amusement. The story is constructed in the typical cat-and-mouse narrative structure, with the police in constant pursuit of a mad killer, but in this case, the game is more reasonably described as a turtle-and-mouse exercise, with the police endearingly plodding as the madman continues his Rube Goldberg-like scheme of retribution unabated. From the first minutes it is apparent to the viewer just who is behind the series of imaginatively gruesome murders as we watch in every detail Dr. Phibes and Vulnavia at work on dispensing a victim, Dr. Dunwoody (Edward Burnham) with no less than a cage full of bats in his bedroom. The savagery and mysterious circumstances of the act leaves Scotland Yard Inspector Trout (a delightfully befuddled but persevering) Peter Jeffrey) baffled, all the more so than when he is informed by his partner Sgt. Tom Schenley (an equally amusing Norman Jones) that another doctor has recently been discovered in his library, stung to death by bees. The film then follows the dual story of both Phibes in his nefarious enterprise, and Inspector Trout in his investigation to unravel the puzzling reason why so many medical professionals are dying through circumstances completely alien to their surroundings (First bees and bats, later rats, locusts and a hailstorm in the backseat of a motor vehicle!) with the first concrete clue provided by a dropped amulet at the murder scene of one Dr. Longstreet (the glorious Terry-Thomas, making mountains out of an extended cameo molehill) who is undone by the curse of “Blood”. As it turns out, as Trout discovers in an opportune meeting with a Rabbi (Hugh Griffith) the murders are following the pattern of Biblical curses: “The ten curses visited upon Pharaoh before Exodus”, as Griffith’s rabbi explains. Further investigation by Trout will lead to the name Dr. Anton Phibes, whose wife Victoria (portrayed mainly in photographs by an unbilled Caroline Munro) died years earlier under the ministrations of the same medical personnel being systematically purged. Eventually, it emerges that the trail of victimization centers about the wittily named Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) who is quite the unpleasant fellow; arrogant, rude and dismissive, though he is soon caught in the fervor of investigating the search for the killer, his appetite for unraveling the mystery doubly ignited when the chief suspect in the case in presumed to have died ten years before in a flaming car wreck!
Cotten’s performance is central in distinguishing the tone of the film from run-of-the-mill mystery/horror to black comedy/horror as his Vesalius is a richly complex creation; quite the adversary, not so much for Phibes, who seems blessed with an almost supernatural prescience on how to accomplish the most complicated homicidal machinations without detection, but to the fragile fidelity directed toward the very concept of the”heroic villain” itself. Vesalius’ initial condescension of the police (in the form of Inspector Trout) is predictably distancing- the policeman being such an affably likeable presence -perhaps exaggerated by the fact that Vesalius is the only role in the film in whose tone of characterization is in direct opposition to the film’s more overtly absurdist humor. Cotten is placed in the unenviable position of being the only straight man in a carnival of black humor; a task which he handles with great poise, commendably aided by some sharp dialogue and the fortuitous occasion of having much of his character developed during some well matched interplay between his character and Jeffrey’s Trout. For the record, as impressive as Vincent Price‘s presence as Phibes is- a basically mute performance, with later dubbed dialogue, Price demonstrates a theatrically graceful physicality which is too often overlooked in his vast arsenal of thespian instruments, showing evidence that he would have made a splendidly expressive silent film actor -the performance of the film is Peter Jeffrey as the often incredulously baffled, but never less than astute Inspector Trout, a marvelous comic creation threatened to be overlooked and undervalued due to the many more flamboyant or overtly eccentric characters surrounding him. Of equal value is Virginia North as the seemingly omnipresent Vulnavia, the beauteous mute companion of Phibes, the subject of a delightful running gag of having her garbed in outlandishly fashionable couture that changes with every scene (often times several times within a sequence) for no other apparent reason except for the fact that it’s stylish to do so.
The film is in essence one grand, albeit twisted, jest; an ode to undying affection in the guise of an Art Deco pageant of spectacular heinously homicidal Rube Goldberg-like invention. A dizzying confluence of performance, writing, direction and design most pleasingly entwined to produce a vision of originality in a genre depleted by creative exhaustion and a natural stepping stone (aside from more immediate siblings as the direct, disappointing sequel “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” [see Nites at the Drive-In for a more complete appraisal] and the Shakespearean variant of the “Phibes” formula, “Theater of Blood”) to the next generation of reinvigorated popularity of American horror films with the emergence of the rather unfortunate, and far less imaginatively conceived “slasher” subgenre.