Sometimes, it seems, no one is minding the till in the wilder, and more remote, boondocks of genre and exploitation cinema. Otherwise, what accounts for an artifact as utterly peculiar as the 1970 horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Made in England, and featuring Vincent Price, the movie is a mash-up of The Phantom of the Opera, the old Karloff and Lugosi film, The Black Cat, and a variety of mad-killer/revenge films such as Circus of Horrors and Horrors of the Black Museum. (There's a strong resemblance between Dr. Phibes and Brian de Palma's 1974 Phantom of the Paradise; Phibes also seems to have influenced the grand guignol horror movie, Seven, as well.) An exercise in sheer, flamboyant style, the film is designed as an opera staged in a style of advanced, surreal decadence: it's as if Oscar Wilde and Joris Huysman were enlisted to write a gory, sadistic revenge drama. Phibes luxuriates in eye-popping sets, astounding costumes, and elaborate instruments of death and torture that seem to belong in Richard Strauss' Elektra or Salome -- the film's décor overwhelms its feeble and ridiculous plot: it's a horror movie made according to the voluptuous dictates of the Vienna secession, a Jugendstil or Art Deco nightmare, featuring sleek symmetrical interiors decorated with the stylized faces of somnambulant dreamers, elongated women of the kind you might see in a painting by Egon Schiele or Klimt or Alphonse Mucha. Certainly, I've never seen anything like the sinister and ominously beautiful sets and surrealist incidental apparatus displayed in this film. Here's an example: Phibes must murder a nurse who is being kept under the house arrest for her own safety. He dons a monastic-looking hood and robe and sneaks into a room above the place where the woman is being guarded. Around his neck, Phibes is wearing a cloisonné necklace with a pendant that is marked with a word in Hebrew, gilt letters spelling out "locust." Phibes unscrolls an elaborate diagram of a completely naked woman and sets that image on the floor. Then, he drills through the image's face, penetrating into the room below where his target, the nurse is sleeping. He inserts a complicated-looking glass funnel through the hole and, then, pours some kind of bright green viscous substance through the funnel. In huge close-ups, we see the absinthe-colored syrup fall on the sleeping woman and, ultimately, encase her head in the stuff -- the vibrant green is luminous in the dark room. Phibes, then, unsheathes a glass tube filled with foot-long locusts -- he forces the locusts down into the apartment below. (We have earlier seen that the green syrup is a distillate of Brussel sprouts.) Phibes slinks away. A few minutes later, we are treated to huge close-up of a skull to which a little flesh is still clinging -- fat bronze locusts are sitting on the skull and we are given to believe that they have feasted on the nurse's face. This sequence is characteristic of the entire film, piling one uncanny image on top of another in delirious sequences that are risibly absurd. Apparently, the team that produced this film thought that they were making a macabre comedy, but the style is so overwhelming and the tone of the picture is so unrelievedly morbid and sadistic that the spectacle really isn't funny. (Gary Fuest who directed the picture was a set designer and assistant on the epochal British TV show The Avengers and Dr. Phibes employs many similar effects, particularly the strange conflation of Pop Art and ultra-modern architecture and costumes -- think Emma Peel's leather cat-suits -- and Edwardian vehicles and etiquette.) As in The Avengers, you can't ever pinpoint when the film is supposed to be taking place -- the police are dressed like John Steed, that is as Edwardian detectives, but there are hyper-modern paintings on the walls and the soundtrack includes music obviously recorded in the late nineteen-forties (for instance, "One for my baby and one for the road").
Phibes' plot is formulaic and utterly derivative. A great musician -- like all madmen he plays the organ -- Phibes went mad when his wife died on the operating table due to medical malpractice. Phibes drove his car off a cliff and was supposedly incinerated -- in fact, he was merely horribly disfigured in the crash. He has now come to London to kill the ten people who were in the operating room when his wife perished. For some inexplicable reason, Phibes has decided to kill his victims in accord with the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians by the angry God of Moses when Pharaoh refused to let the People of Israel go -- thus, there is death by boils, hail, locusts, rats, frogs, etc. After each killing, Phibes hangs a necklace around a wax model of his victim -- this necklace has as its pendant the cloisonné Hebrew character correlating to the plague visited upon the dead person. Using a blow-torch, Phibes melts down the wax effigies -- a reference to Vincent Price's role in the fifties' remake of The Mystery of the Wax Museum. Phibes has a female assistant, mute, although she plays the violin as a threnody at each of the baroque murders -- the assistant is picturesquely named Vulnavia and, at one point, she is literally dressed as the Woman in the Sun wearing a tiara with radiating golden rays. Vincent Price quotes John Donne love poems, gurgling them through an instrument attached to his throat since the fire has burned away his lips and tongue. He wears a mask that looks just like Vincent Price, although his (fake) skin seems wrinkled and immeasurably old, something like the wrinkled face of the mummy in that thirties' horror film. Price's eyes are red with weeping and, when he dances with the beautiful Vulnavia, he sips champagne, apparently by pouring it into a hole in his neck somewhere behind his ear. Price plays an organ mounted on an elevator lift and enclosed by scarlet red scallops in his Jugendstil mansion. The end of the film involves acid seeping like red honey through an elaborate coil, surgery performed under threat of this acid bath, a pale youth strapped to a table locked under the acid spigot, and Price sashaying about in a brilliant purple robe. At the climax, Price rips off his mask and displays his charred face while the acid pours down to shower Vulnavia, melting her into a puddle. A band of automatons plays songs from the twenties and thirties: "Darktown Strutters Ball", for instance, and, then, Phibes embalms himself alive in mirrored sarcophagus where the corpse of his wife is arrayed in lingerie -- this sequence is scored to "Somewhere over the Rainbow." The sarcophagus glides shut showing an inlaid image of a gemstone sun eclipsed by the moon -- this is the plague of darkness and the film's final fade-to-black. The picture features Terry Thomas, not as a suave gent, but a brute along the lines of Benny Hill -- after watching a hootchie-cooch girl make love to a boa constrictor, he gets exsanguinated. Joseph Cotton plays the surgeon who is scheduled as the last victim ("death of the first-born"). There are a couple of cowardly and useless cops who always happen on the murder scenes a little too late.