Thursday, 30 August 2012
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a 1971 horror film starring Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten. Its art deco sets, dark humor and performance by Price have made the film and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again cult classics.
Critic Christopher Null wrote of the film, "One of the '70s juiciest entries into the horror genre, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is Vincent Price at his campy best, a former doctor and concert organist (go figure that one out yourself) who is exacting revenge on the nine doctors he blames for botching his wife's surgery, which ended with her death. Through a series of tortuous means that would make a Bond villain green with envy, the hideous Phibes is matched by Joseph Cotten as the doc at the end of the road. A crazy script and an awesome score make this a true classic."
There is a tendency in critical analysis to view every aspect of a work as being the product of a conscious aesthetic or symbolic decision by its creator. Specious though the technique may be, applying it to the opening of Vincent Price’s seminal The Abominable Dr. Phibes yields some tantalizing results. A robed Phibes first appears seated at his massive, art-deco organ hammering out a virtuosic performance of a piece well-suited for a horror film. The work is Felix Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” an organ standard that originates from a Biblical play about a queen murdered by a man who had been hiding for years, patiently waiting to mete out divine punishment.
The origins and meaning of the piece go unremarked upon and have no bearing on the events of the film. The work is used simply to establish mood; an aural set-piece chosen for its sensory, rather than symbolic, qualities. The scene performs its function excellently, effectively establishing Phibes’ style of high gothic mingled with Technicolor modernism. Such visual and aural indulgences are Phibes’ hallmark and sensory engagement is the film’s primary and possibly only objective. Motive, logic, and realism are discarded in favor of the sumptuous visual, a methodical tempo, and the emotive power of Price’s eyes. It is an illogical film, filled with contradictions and anachronisms; to look for “meaning” in the individual parts is to miss the point. Scenes – and to a certain degree, the entire film – must be digested whole; each element empty save for what it contributes to the mise en scene. For these reasons, it is possible to view The Abominable Dr. Phibes as the quintessential horror film—a triumph of style over logic.