Just watched "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," one of my favorite Technicolor Art Deco horror films. Vincent Price doing all of his lines into that crazy golden Victrola, the camp appeal of the whole thing. Funny looking at it now, how it seems like a precursor to much darker films, like “Saw” and “Seven.” Deliriously goofy. The makers thumb their noses at trite, elitist concepts like - coherence and plausibility.
That movie contains the most passive murder victims ever. If Vincent Price came into your room holding a bunch of jugs, a tube and a needle, wouldn’t you – like –try to leave? Or if he came into your car holding some sort of homemade death ray – and a strange woman in a fur hat sat on the hood playing a violin - wouldn’t you try to – I don’t know – get out of the car?
There is not even the slightest attempt to explain how a celebrated concert organist has figured out how to do things like –build an entire clockwork band of musicians, build a device which can lower the temperature inside a car to below one hundred degrees, find a whole lot of tropical bats – never mind how to pay for it. It’s just a plain old Jacobean revenge tale. The focus is on the elaborate, Rube Goldberg set up of the murders, not anything like character or believability. (The hook – for those of you who have never treated yourself to this – those who look with proud disdain on Vincent Price films – is that the murders are based on the Biblical curses of the pharaohs.)
Favorite scene: the locust murder. We see Vincent Price making a concoction of what look like thousands of Brussels sprouts. He tastes it at one point. (He doesn’t have a mouth anymore due to a horrible accident, so he sticks his fingers in a hole in his neck and we hear these weird slurping sounds.) Then he goes into a hospital, drills a hole in the ceiling above the victim, and starts slowly dripping what looks like crème de menthe onto the sleeping woman. Why the hell she doesn’t wake up is beyond me. If someone dripped gooey syrup all over me while sleeping, I’d sure wake up. (Scratch that.) Then he lowers a tube full of big, mean looking locusts through the hole in the ceiling. That would sure wake me up if the syrup didn’t.
When next we see her – when the cops burst through the door and realize they are once again too late to STOP THE MADMAN PHIBES – she’s a skeleton. With a wig! Because everyone knows that locusts eat human flesh! Especially if it tastes like Brussels sprouts! Right??? RIGHT?????
All kidding aside – you know what I really love about this movie? Vincent Price. The movie works because Price was an actor of such incredible dignity. (Like Boris Karloff, another favorite of mine.) He could make infantile, ridiculous material work because he played it like it was the most dignified and dramatically satisfying tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote. He never talked down to his material or his audience. Price elevated material with his presence.