Friday 28 June 2013

The Abominable Dr Phibes [1971]

THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES is a British / American horror-comedy that was directed by Robert Fuest and originally released in May 1971.  It stars Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Joseph Cotten and Virginia North with guest appearances from Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas.  Price plays Dr Anton Phibes, a horribly disfigured academic / concert organist who returns from the grave to wreak terrible rewengi on the team of surgeons and doctors who failed to prevent his wife dying on the operating table.

On the face of it, that description makes DR PHIBES sound little different to numerous other horror films of the period; the basic plot is almost identical to THEATRE OF BLOOD [1973] and not a million miles away from the Hammer version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA [1962].  However, in other respects it is pretty much unique, certainly among British horror films: its incredible set design, innovative use of sound and determination to tell the story primarily through these elements (as opposed to the script) make it much closer to, and indeed precursor of, the almost abstract horror films produced on the continent in the mid 1970s.

An illustration of the superb production design for which DR PHIBES is justly renowned and an indication of how European (as opposed to British) the film's visual sense is - this still could easily come from a Dario Argento movie

In addition to its novel approach to form the film is notable for its bizarre sense of humour which encompasses surrealism, word play, visual gags and black comedy.

Two moments of broad comedy
Impressive as these separate technical and stylistic achievements are, it is the way in which they are drawn together to create a strange and unsettling but credible and consistent world of their own that sets DR PHIBES apart and the credit for that has to go to director Robert Fuest.

The hospital...
Early in his career Fuest had worked in television, mainly in the art department.  He is credited with production design on a number of episodes of THE AVENGERS in the early 1960s, eventually graduating to directing some episodes at the end of the decade.  By the time Fuest came to work on DR PHIBES he'd also got a couple of feature films under his belt too.

...and apartment...
The script is credited to James Whiton and William Goldstein but it is claimed that Fuest more or less rewrote the whole thing himself.  To what extent that is true I don't know; certainly Whiton and Goldstein did very little else in the movie business, so make of that what you will.  The claim certainly makes sense though because it would mean that Fuest essentially had total control of the production: writing, directing and almost certainly a big hand in the production design.  And that level of control could explain why the film has such incredible visual and thematic unity.

...and Phibes' house show demonstrate the consistent vision that sustains the film's look
The commitment to visual storytelling is total.  There isn't a single word of dialogue uttered in the first ten minutes and neither Dr Phibes nor his assistant - the fantastically named Vulnavia - speak any lines at all (Vincent Price's lines are recorded).  Imagine the problems that creates for the director, or at least a director of talkies because of course at one time all films were made that way.  And it is very much that period - the 1920s, the jazz age - to which this film looks back, not just in its period setting, but in the way it is put together.

Vincent Price as Dr Anton Phibes - the bolt on his neck is where he plugs his voicebox in
When you think about it, it's bordering on the perverse to hire Vincent Price - whose greatest asset was his wonderful voice - and put him in what is effectively a silent movie but that's typical of the film's high risk approach.  He's terrific in this though, as he is in almost everything he did; a little glance here, a pause there - this is how he builds the character of Phibes into a murderous lunatic and yet one who has been driven mad through grief.

Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout
Peter Jeffrey, memorable as the headmaster in Lindsay Anderson's IF... [1968], plays somewhat against type as the rather dim-witted Inspector Trout ("Pike!", "Bream!").  He's a primarily comic character though, which certainly was Jeffrey's forte, and yet he has an admirable doggedness about him and an endearing inefficiency that allows him to function as the film's nominal hero.

Terry-Thomas as Dr Longstreet, enjoying a mucky movie, another nod to the early days of film
Joseph Cotten, one of Orson Welles's closest collaborators and a link to the golden age of Hollywood, plays Dr Vesalius (these names!) and Terry-Thomas, who I've never really been a big fan of but is one of British cinema's most recognisable and fondly-remembered stars, one of the doctors on Phibes' hit list.  Also in the cast, as Vesalius's son, is Sean Bury who had a small but significant role in the aforementioned IF... as the bewildered new pupil Jute, and genre favourite Caroline Munro in yet another non-speaking part as Phibes' dead wife Victoria.

The curse of the first born: Joseph Cotten (L) and Sean Bury (R)
Behind the camera for DR PHIBES was Norman Warwick who was some of a horror specialist, having shot three anthology horrors, DR JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE [1971] and four episodes of HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR [1980], among others.  The film's terrific score which includes beautiful arrangements of period songs was written and arranged by Basil Kirchin; it really is excellent and, despite only getting a brief mention from me, is an integral part of the film's quality.  The film was produced by American International Pictures, or AIP, the great US B-movie production company for whom Roger Corman made most of his best work, including the famous Poe / Corman cycle of films, most of which starred Dr Phibes himself, Vincent Price.

One final word about Robert Fuest.  As if to prove the old Hollywood adage that 'you're only as good as your last picture', Fuest only made three more features after DR PHIBES, despite its strong performance at the box office.  One of those three was a direct sequel - DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN - which appeared in 1972.  Another was the Michael Moorcock adaptation THE FINAL PROGRAMME [1973] which I saw recently and was very impressed by.  Fuest's final theatrical feature was made in America in 1975 and is called THE DEVIL'S RAIN; it has a terrible reputation and is often cited as being the only film in which you can see John Travolta melt and Ernest Borgnine turn into a goat.  Although that is perfectly true I actually think it's better than most people would have you believe: it builds up a very eerie atmosphere and benefits from a superb cast (plus William Shatner). It got a critical shoeing sadly and for Fuest that was that: a promising film career killed stone dead.  He continued to work but almost exclusively in television. He seemed happy enough with his lot though and often turned up at film festivals and fan conventions to talk about his career.  He died last year aged 84.

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