Friday, September 10, 2010

Nine Eternities in Doom


An iconic shot of Vincent Price as THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES. This cult favourite holds the distinction of being the film Who drummer Keith Moon was watching during his drug overdose of 1978. 

SINCE making WITCHFINDER GENERAL, Vincent Price had increasingly become an indigenous part of British productions at a time of declining audiences and stale output. American International Pictures had disengaged itself from further co-projects with Hammer after THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, but AIP was in danger of becoming just as out of touch with its core audience. Music had replaced movies as the premier entertainment for the young, and in July 1970 the BBFC had raised the age limit on X certificates from 16 to 18 years, enabling filmmakers to exploit a more liberal censorship regime and produce more lurid output to lure audiences back into theatres. Although THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES was a return to horror epitomised by HOUSE OF WAX in its Grand Guignol, it chimed with a prevailing mood among disenchanted youth, as Dr Phibes was seen to champion a lost ideal, making a last stand against impersonal capitalism. Additionally, its concept of nine murders in a single story - one per reel - would later become integral to the slasher boom.

This short lived series - both directed by Robert Fuest - is often applauded for giving Price the classic monster role his career had previously lacked, but the two titles can also lay claim to evoking the black humour of James Whale and even Monty Python (in THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES, Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is addressed as Pike or Bream). This first film sees Phibes - a hideously disfigured musical genius and doctor of theology - enacting an elaborate vendetta against the surgical team whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife Victoria (Caroline Munro), contriving their deaths to accord with the curses inflicted on the Pharaohs by Moses in the book of Exodus. Exactly why Phibes should choose to inflict Hebrew curses is never explained, though their nature would fit his raison d'etre of elaborate murder. This lack of detail is synonymous with the two movies, further illustrated by Phibes' sketchy survival from a car crash, and the origins of his mute female assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North).

Vulnavia (model and artist Valli Kemp) is summoned from the netherworld to aid Dr Phibes' Egyptian expedition in DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN.

As Phibes, Price contrives to tip a wink not only at his horror heritage, but also at his celebrity as an art authority; having drained every drop of blood from Dr Longstreet (Terry-Thomas), Phibes glides out of shot, only to glide back in to tut over his victim's taste in visual artifacts. Yet for its colourful touches and opulent production design, THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES is a shallow experience, undermined by its dramatis personae: the victims are only present as a prelude to their inventive deaths, and there are at least twice as many comedy police inspectors that are strictly necessary. Only Joseph Cotton - as Dr Vesalius - lends any gravitas to his role.

For DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, the mad doctor is pitted against an adversary of similar cunning and intent, Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), who has been artificially sustaining his youth (which, again, is never fully explained). The film contrives to engineer Phibes' return but not that of Vulnavia (Valli Kemp), who is now represented as an ethereal spirit to be invoked at will. The elegant interiors of the first film are replaced by pastiche - Victoria's coffin sporting radiator grilles of a Rolls-Royce - and the sequel's obsessing over a sacred relic is the derivative stiff of Universal Mummy movies, not for the sophistication of Phibes. However, the film is buoyed by some notable guest appearances, such as Peter Cushing (intended as Vesalius for the first film) and Beryl Reid.