For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
During my movie-devouring formative years, it seemed like every horror movie book I got my hands on — as well as every third issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine — featured the same publicity shot from The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
If you are an old-school horror movie fan, you know the pic I’m talking about. It’s the one where the horribly burned face of the titular doctor is about to lock lips (although he doesn’t have lips) with his fashion-plate assistant, Vulnavia.
Thanks in part to that image, the film and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, took their places on my pre-teen must-see list. But those being the long-ago pre-VCR days, that meant I had to wait until Dr. Phibes’ films paid a house call to one of the creature-feature movie shows I (sac)religiously followed.
Eventually, my diligent perusal of TV Guide meant I managed to stay up to watch both on late-night TV. Truth is, before recently rewatching, I remembered little besides the fact that the first film involved the doctor’s efforts to bump off those he believed responsible for his wife’s death. And, of course, that it starred Vincent Price.
But I do remember noticing something missing: There wasn’t a scene that included that ubiquitous smooch image.
Was that creepy kiss edited out of the broadcast I saw? Was it a case of cinematic censorship? Was such a clutch too hot for TV?
Turns out no.
Even though the scene exists on the novelization cover, it just doesn’t exist in the film. Not only that, but the premise of the photo is wrong. Romance isn’t on the minds of either Vulnavia or the bad doc. In fact, his unmasked features are only seen very briefly in the flick — and a big reveal is spoiled by that image. (It was even on the movie’s poster).
So what is actually in – rather than not in – in those two films? Some nuttiness, to be sure, even by early 70s standards.
That’s clear from the get-go. The film opens with a ballroom presided over by the hooded doc banging away at a pipe organ. Technically, he’s playing a solo — unless you consider his backup band, a group of animatronic musicians going by the name Clockwork Wizards.
He’s joined by Vulnavia, whom we later learn is his silent assistant. After a waltz, the duo sets out on the first of a series of killings as elaborately absurd as any of the villainous schemes embarked on by Adam West-era Batman villains. The first — dropping a birdcage full of vampire bats into a guy’s bed chamber — is relatively mild compared to what’s to come, including a frog mask that crushes a guy’s skull and the insertion of a life-saving key in the heart of a first-born son.
Yes, Dr. Phibes — for no clear reason — has patterned his actions on the curses of the pharaoh. And lucky for him, the idiot inspectors who get far too much screen time and far too few laughs never seem to have read their Bibles.
In addition to a fondness for impractical homicides, Phibes also is a music buff. Included on the soundtrack are “One For My Baby (and One More For the Road),” “You Stepped Out of a Dream” and “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” bold choices for a 1970 flick.
These and other features certainly make The Abominable Dr. Phibes interesting. Alas, they don’t make the film as fun as adult me had hoped. It didn’t satisfy as horror, as camp or as campy horror. Price is having a good time. Or at least I hope he was given that he collected a paycheck without having to memorize any lines. (Phibes eats through a hole in his neck and speaks in voiceover throughout).
It’s a sad case of the movie stills being more fun than the film itself. Any ongoing interest comes from wanting to see how he’ll take out his next victim and what Vulnavia will be wearing next.
But the movie made money. And actually garnered some positive reviews. I’d love to report that the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, took the kicks of the first, minimized its flaws and upgraded the mini-franchise.
Alas, the opposite proved true.
The pleasantly simplistic structure of the first gave way to an over-cluttered backstory and huh? exposition — something involving the positioning of the planets, a mysterious map and a River of Life in Egypt that Phibes believes will revive his beloved wife. Robert Quarry plays a near-immortal explorer on the same quest. And somehow Vulnavia is back even though she was killed at the end of the previous film. (There’s a threequel novel out there that explains how she survived. I’m not compelled enough to find out how the writers weaseled out of that one.)
In Rises Again, Phibes not only takes Vulnavia to Egypt with him, he also carts along his dead wife and his mechanical band. There are more semi-creative killings — including stuffing a poor sap in a bottle and tossing him in the ocean — but little drive. And call me a spoilsport, but where the hell did he get that giant fan?
Rewatching both Phibes adventures made me wish for a film as memorable as that not-in-the-film image. And nostalgic for the feeling I had imagining it.
P.S. Malcolm McDowell was rumored for a remake. So was Johnny Depp in yet another Tim Burton project. I’m not optimistic.