After a hiatus of some amount of time, Jesse Bullington are once again doing Films of High Adventure, you know, where we watch “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. This week we recap something we viewed a while ago, which was definitely a film, but the adventure in it was more bizarre than high, at least in the sense of the word “high” that we usually intend to evoke. . .
Also Known As: No joke, the first two times I started writing the title I wrote The Awesome Dr. Phibes, and then, catching myself, started typing The Amazing Dr. Phibes instead. Ok, so not technically alternate titles, but a telling sign nonetheless. . .
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Robert Fuest, who also helmed The Last Man on Earth (I Am Legend with Vincent Price in the lead!), The Devil’s Rain (The Milk and Cheese favorite starring Ernest Borgnine!), and a bunch of episodes of The Avengers (if you’re not familiar with John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel it’s high time you made their acquaintance). Script by James Whiton (uh, an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and William Goldstein (screen story credit for The Amazing Dobermans, a movie featuring Fred Astaire fighting crime with a pack of pinschers), although Fuest apparently rewrote most of it. On one side of the ring of absurdity we have Vincent Price (everything that is good in this world) as Dr. Phibes and Bond-girl (On her Majesty’s Secret Service) Virginia North as his assistant Vulnavia (!), and on the other we have Joseph Cotton (The Third Man), Hugh Griffith (Tom Jones, the whacked out Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad), Peter Jeffrey (Count Grendel in some old Dr. Who episodes), and a host of other actors looking to chew some scenery and get done in by the good Dr. Phibes. Bizzaro soundtrack by various artists, including lots of organ music and Vincent singing “Over the Rainbow.”
Quote: “Nine killed you! Nine shall die! Nine eternities in DOOM!”
Alternate quote: “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”
First viewing by Molly: Pretty recently
First viewing by Jesse: Really young
Most recent viewing by both: The aforementioned “pretty recently”
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Well, none, given that I’d never even heard of this weird little movie, but given that my early adolescence was largely me thinking The Phantom of the Opera was like, the single most amazingly romantic book evarrrrrrrr and why didn’t Christine go for the Phantom when he was clearly so much more interesting than that milquetoast nothing-master Raoul, I feel like I was a pump well-primed for this omgwtfbbq-fest, especially the bizarre Phibes/Vulnavia relationship.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. Of all the old horror movie icons, Price was my favorite, and of all his roles, this was perhaps the most important to Young Me.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: “WTF is this?”
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Excited. Price undeniably made some stinkers in his time, but I was confident that this film had aged like a fine Roquefort. I had no idea if Molly would love it or hate it, and, frankly, didn’t give a damn—nothing could possibly diminish the experience, though I of course hoped she would dig it. . . contrary to what this column might occasionally imply, I don’t actually enjoy punishing Molly with cinema.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Awesome. I really, really liked it, even though now, as an adult, I often find things that have a sort of Phantom of the Opera-ish sensibility about them to be pretty tiresome—obsession is really only sexy on the page or on the screen, a lesson I hope the legions of Twilight fans realize before they end up in problematic relationships with dudes who like to creep into the bedrooms of girls that smell real good and only have two emotional modes—constipated disapproval or condescending amusement.
N-E-WAYZ, I had my doubts during the opening sequence that has Dr. Phibes in a hooded robe playing an organ, but as the movie progressed into unapologetic insanity, I warmed to it, and then thoroughly enjoyed it. At the center of my affection was the Phibes-Vulnavia relationship, which is just so outright bizarre that it works perfectly without explanation. Wikipedia says that originally it was to be revealed that Vulnavia was one of Dr. Phibes’ clockwork creations, but I call bullshit on that, and I’m glad they left it undefined. For me, it’s a much more amazing scenario if Vulnavia is. . . just. . . some girl he met somehow? Who was totally OK hunting down and murdering doctors and nurses as long as Dr. Phibes kept her in furry hats and let her pose like a Mucha girl while he put on his gold lame cape and played music. Sure! Why not?
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Such exquisite film-making! Fitting tidily into the “Vincent Price whacks a bunch of people according to a theme” sub-genre of the great man’s career, I say, with only slight reservation, that this is the best of the bunch. Theatre of Blood makes it a tough call, as the murders in that film are all based on scenes from Shakespeare instead of biblical plagues, and it features a fencing match on trampolines, but Phibes still comes out ahead if no other reason than I saw it first and that has to count for something.
I suppose the main thing I had forgotten over the years was how bugfuck the movie really is—virtually no effort is put into explaining how Phibes manages to pull off his outlandish murders, let alone build a clockwork band and, maybe, girlfriend. . . he’s a doctor, sure, but a doctor of divinity and musicology (for serious). I suppose if they had started worrying about logic and realism they would have had to scrap the scene where fruitbats suck a guy’s blood, or the part with the locusts that. . . well, it really has to be seen to be believed, but the point is if reality intruded then all the fun would be gone and you’d be left with, I dunno, Se7en.*
The thing is, other than the poster and spoiler-heavy trailer, the movie seems to play it fairly straight-faced. Maybe? As a kid I certainly took it very seriously, yet rooted unreservedly for Phibes—he did what he did for love, after all, and is that so wrong? As an eight year old I had a hard time holding him accountable for his nefarious deeds, and as a twenty-eight year old I still refuse to pass judgment on the doctor.
It’s a bizarre, campy picture even by Price standards, and the script gives him ample room to do what he does best, even if he is talking out of his neck. It’s impossible not to root for Phibes, if only to see what insanely complicated murder he will pull off next, and I still get choked up thinking about what happens to poor Vulnavia. To say they don’t make them like this anymore is a bit of an understatement—gone are the days when studios would be like “this makes absolutely no sense, and doesn’t seem to be a comedy but definitely isn’t a horror film, either, and will use up a decent sized budget. . . but what the hell, go nuts—have your proto-slasher lead cover Judy Garland while you’re at it.” Alas.
High Points: Vincent Price doing what he does best. How straight everyone is playing it. The unsettling—and unaddressed—relationship between Phibes and Vulnavia. Vulnavia herself, and apparently we’re not the only ones to realize this—somebody out there on the internet not only recognized her importance, but also the importance of mistakenly attributing the Flashdance theme to Hall and Oates:
Final Verdict: Excellent.
Next week: Batman? This column needs an enema, so. . .
*Uninteresting Facts about Molly’s Youth: I’ve never seen Se7en all the way through because when I was in 8th grade or thereabouts, I had a friend who wanted me to see it, but she claimed most of the movie was “boring” and thus fast-forwarded her VHS copy to all the murders. So to this day, my only notion of that film is something along the lines of Brad Pitt being Angry (or something) at Keven Spacey for asploding a fat man and raping someone with a bizarre BDSM-inspired knife harness? Yeah.