Friday, August 12, 2011

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

by Garrett "SeƱor Mysterioso" Cook

What makes a movie a perfect revenge movie? Is it the best scenes of violence? The most passion in the vigilante? The biggest transgression performed against someone? The most elaborate triumph over those that wronged them? I don’t know. But I have a good idea what, for me, makes a perfect horror movie. Intriguing acts of violence, atmosphere, macabre beauty, good performances and a sense of fun present in even the bleakest of circumstances. And to a certain extent for me, answers. I do not believe one should stop engaging their brain when people start getting killed. This is absurd. Some poor fictional son of a bitch just died, the least you can do is think about why. So, if you walk away from a horror movie without having to think about or feel or know something you didn’t before, you’ve gotten a bum deal, no matter how many bare breasts, exploding heads or ghastly makeups you’ve seen. The Abominable Doctor Phibes might not be the perfect revenge movie, but for me at least, it’s the perfect horror movie about revenge.

From the first moments, this movie is spellbinding. A beautiful swan of a woman and a black clad man dance together in a weird steampunk ballroom to the music of mechanized musicians. They place a cage in a box, and the film transitions into this man and this woman loading it into his bizarre car. They lower said cage into a sleeping man’s bedroom. The cage is full of bats, which claw and bite him to death. Your first thought is probably “Wow, that’s really fucking cool. These two freaks just killed a man with a bunch of bats.” The second thought will probably be “What kind of crazy sadist would use a bunch of bats to kill somebody in their sleep? What kind of asshole does that?” If you watch horror movies, you’ve seen Jason slamming a sleeping bag full of two sex-crazed teenagers that are only slightly less mentally deficient than he is into a tree, Leatherface chainsawing hippies, Ichi the Killer kick-slashing a man in half. But this is methodical, weird and pretty damn cruel. This is the sort of shit Batman and Daredevil have to put the kibosh on. This isn’t just killing, this is supervillainy. Strange and flamboyant beyond even the typical machinations of this movie’s star, the great Vincent Price.

And that’s only the start of this violent, garish pulp mystery, which has something unusual at its core. When you first get to see a skullfaced Price putting his Vincent Price face on one piece at a time, then sitting down to play his organ, he becomes likeable, a real person who has built an unreal world with unreal rules around himself. Suddenly, seeing this man who has a false face he has to put on one piece at a time to go out and commit absurd crimes, you start wondering what it is that moves somebody so vulnerable and so weird to do this. And this comic villain, who seemed at first a combination of Fu Manchu and the Phantom of the Opera, has you convinced that whatever reason he has for exsanguinating Terry-Thomas has to be a good one.

Things get even more muddled when you look at the police detective who’s tracking down this perfectly charming but eccentric vigilante. Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard is awkward, a little slow on the uptake, a kind of British Keystone cop. He’s perfectly likeable, but you know from the moment you see him that he’ll always be one step behind and Phibes probably won’t be prevented from committing any more of these strange, artistic ritual murderers, which are inspired by the Ten Plagues of Egypt. It’s as if the film knows that you don’t want Phibes to get caught. Sure you might worry a little for Joseph Cotten and his son, who are on the hit list, but the movie seems to have decided from the beginning that Phibes is at least partially in the right.

Why? Because Phibes lost the woman he loved. And even though he still has a gorgeous assistant who will do anything for him and whose origin is never explained at all, he cannot get over this. Nine surgeons were working on his wife and as far as Phibes is concerned, nine surgeons failed. And nine surgeons are going to pay. Phibes saw these men playing God as doctors do, and so Phibes has decided to play God himself. We can feel his loss, feel the heat of his vengeance and understand that this man’s rituals are just to make sense out of life and to make up for the nonintervention of the God that didn’t help him. Ten plagues to bring down the system that oppressed him by taking from him the only person that mattered to him, like a surrogate Moses, empowered by a god in his head.

Voltaire said, “If God didn’t exist, then it would be necessary to invent him.” Phibes does just that, with locusts, with rats, hail and a brass unicorn thrown out of a car (they can’t all be great ideas). And Phibes tests the institutions that couldn’t save his wife. If these doctors were any good, they could save each other’s lives (particularly Joseph Cotten); if the police were worth their salt, they could prevent the murder. We want our doctors and police to be capable of protecting us, we want them to do their jobs and we want to know why they fail when they do. But making the world unsafe in order to do this makes him part of the reason why we need doctors and policemen in the first place. This is not a perfect revenge movie because the revenge is not perfectly justified, our perceptions are warped, our reasoning for accepting or not accepting the justification is an emotional one and an irrational drive.

A sad lonely man working for a higher law wants to know why society failed him. If he weren’t so damn weird and hideous and violent, he could be Batman; if his logic didn’t fall apart quickly, he wouldn’t be anything like Fu Manchu or Jigsaw from the Saw movies. Revenge movies make revenge make sense. Horror movies show us how our world is warped, unsafe and frightening. You can lose the ones you love and be turned into something rotten (literally in the case of the cadaverous Phibes), you can be something rotten and your rationale can still be perfectly sensible to regular human beings. Revenge is thus both sensible and scary in the context of this movie. This perfectly shot, campily acted, perfectly violent, perfectly exciting, perfect horror movie.

(Please visit Garrett Cook's Amazon page here.)