50 Years of Horror: 1971 – The Abominable Doctor Phibes

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“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

– Superintendent Waverley, The Abominable Doctor Phibes

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Vincent Price in “The Abominable Doctor Phibes”

The Abominable Doctor Phibes is a delight, and that is just not something you hear people say about horror movies. It is a horror movie, and a comedy, and a pulp adventure, and a — musical? — and even that doesn’t cover it. It’s a thrilling production with a lush, opulent look, a virtuoso performance by Vincent Price, lurid effects, and wild contrivances. It’s a celebration of a certain style of filmmaking — but it’s also (almost) a farewell. A new horror was emerging, and it would have no patience for the gaudy, over-the-top spectacles that Price had so often headlined.

Director Peter Bogdanovich had predicted a transition from the old-fashioned frights in his debut, Targets (1968). The film contrasts the twilight of fading horror star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) with the rise of a contemporary monster: a mass shooter. Bogdanovich, who would become a leading light of the New Hollywood with 1971’s The Last Picture Show, shows affection for the school of horror Karloff represents. But Targets — perhaps in spite of itself — argues for the genre’s evolution. Throughout, we catch glimpses of a film-within-the-film, purported to be Orlok’s latest effort (actually scenes from Roger Corman’s 1963 production, The Terror). These fragments serve as an ironic counterpoint to the “real” movie, and there’s no question which is better. Any terror in The Terror pales beside that generated by the all-too-plausible madman of Targets. Whatever its intent, Targets not only anticipated the future of horror, but showed that with it came the promise of re-invigoration.

Three years later, that future was dawning. But the producers of The Abominable Doctor Phibes wouldn’t give up their ground before they put on a hell of a show.

Horror in 1971

Where to start?

Vampires — the go-to cashcow of 1970 — were still a thing in ‘71, with our old friend Count Yorga returning in (yes) The Return of Count Yorga, Barnabas Collins back in Night of Dark Shadows, and…well, you get the idea.

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Soledad Miranda in “Vampyros Lesbos”

Vampyros Lesbos bears perhaps the most on-the-nose title of all time, and it’s about exactly what you think it is. A likely inspiration for From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Vampyros Lesbos introduces us to Countess Nadine (Soledad Miranda), vampire stripper and psychic seductress of the ostensibly straight women who, for some reason, attend her all-female revue. Vampyros Lesbos is dreamlike and art-housey, yet exploitative enough that (as of this writing) an almost certainly illegal copy of it is hosted on a prominent porn site. Beyond the copious nudity, the film’s enduring popularity boils down to a great score and the smoldering charisma of Soledad Miranda. Unfortunately, Vampyros Lesbos did not raise her profile as one might expect; before its release, the actress was killed in a tragic car accident.

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An unfortunate (?) gentleman is fanged to death by Mary (…or Madeleine? it’s a little hard to tell) Collinson in “Twins of Evil”

Hot on the heels of its success with The Vampire Lovers (1970), Hammer produced two semi-sequels — Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil — as well as Countess Dracula, a fictionalized biography of murderess Elizabeth Bathory, with Vampire Lovers star Ingrid Pitt in the title role. Countess Dracula is the best of the lot, an off-model Hammer picture that plays more like a (sleazy) historical costume drama than a typical gothic. The studio was experimenting with new approaches, but wouldn’t stray far from what had always worked for them in the past.

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Andrea Rau in “Daughters of Darkness”

Bolder is Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, a stylish Belgian film that informs works as wide-ranging as The Hunger (1983), Hostel: Part II (2007), “American Horror Story: Hotel” (2015-16), and a host of ‘90s movies that mostly played on late-night Cinemax. The story of a newly-eloped couple who encounter a pair of vampires at a remote hotel, Daughters of Darkness is a sexy, nightmarish, Freudian fairy tale that critics have been decoding ever since. It’s an achingly gorgeous, transcendent film, and it’s only natural that we should move on from it to some total trash.

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Kitty! Miss Precious Purrfect (left) samples some delicious Lotus Cat Food (“For Cats Who Like People”) in “The Corpse Grinders”

I give you The Corpse Grinders, which asks us to imagine what would happen if our own cats — accidentally given a taste for human flesh when unscrupulous pet food manufacturers secretly mix dead bodies into their product — set out to make us into prey. The answer is adorable. Cats, presumably hurled at their victims by stagehands lurking just off-screen, attack their masters with their precious little tongues as the actors (one guesses) try not to crack up. The film’s themes are less amusing: poverty, exploitation, lonely deaths, wasted lives. For all that’s easy to mock about The Corpse Grinders, its low-rent, ugly world has a disturbing authenticity.

There is a similarly noir-ish sensibility to Blood and Lace, another no-budget thriller, but a far more effective one. Ellie (Melody Patterson) is a young woman sent to live at an orphanage after her mother, a prostitute, is brutally murdered. We soon realize something is very, very wrong with everyone we meet: Ellie’s governess is deranged, the house handyman is a violent psychopath, and even a concerned policeman (who might in another movie be the hero) seems motivated by an interest in the underaged Ellie that is…unsavory. Late in the proceedings, Ellie is plagued by dream-visions of what she takes to be her mother’s killer — and it’s at this point that the modern viewer may do a double-take. The familiar face of its monster aside (Wes Craven…may have been a fan?), Blood and Lace is a compelling film in its own right.

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The burn-scarred killer from Ellie’s nightmares in “Blood and Lace” may bear a slight resemblance to…nahhhhh

Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve), a slasher movie with an ingenious mystery at its center, also has an unexpected resonance for today’s audience. Friday the 13th (1980) may borrow from Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978), but its very DNA is A Bay of Blood minus all the smart stuff. Even one or two of the Friday series’ most notorious kills (e.g., the in flagrante delicto couple run through by the same spear) are first seen here. To be fair, the series’ most famous element takes a few installments to evolve into his final form; he’s barely a factor in the original Friday, and has no antecedent in A Bay of Blood. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two films are striking.

Cult darling Let’s Scare Jessica to Death walks a line between madness and the uncanny. Jessica (Zohra Lampert), recently released from a mental institution, moves to the woods of Connecticut with her husband and a friend. Filmed largely in daylight, Let’s Scare to Jessica to Death makes of its pastoral setting a surprisingly disquieting milieu. Voices from nowhere hiss across the soundscape, accusing whispers that only Jessica can hear. A vague but ominous plot — something about ghosts, vampires, and surgically-altered townspeople — takes shape. The viewer is left to puzzle out whether the threat is external, supernatural, a product of Jessica’s imagination, or some combination thereof. Those seeking answers may find the end result frustrating.

American horror wasn’t confined to the grindhouse. Hollywood brought us Willard, a dark comedy about an alienated man (Bruce Davison) whose closest friends are the rats that live in his mother’s basement. The rats consider Willard a friend, too…and will do anything for him. Willard isn’t much of a scary movie; the shocks it delivers are too little, too late. But as a quirky character study, it’s enormously entertaining and affecting.

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Barbara Bach and Jean Sorel in “Short Night of Glass Dolls”

The giallo was huge in 1971, and this year’s giallos are among the most lavishly-designed, visually succulent suspense films of the era. The Black Belly of the Tarantula and The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave are especially dazzling, triumphs of art direction that are mostly about naked women, BDSM and murder. Short Night of Glass Dolls is a political variation, the tale of a foreign journalist in Prague who tries to help the woman he loves escape a repressive regime and somehow gets shot up with paralyzing venom for his trouble.

Director Curtis Harrington released two films in 1971 — What’s the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Harrington was a fascinating figure, an occultist whose early avant-garde work gave way to moody horror pictures such as Night Tide (1961) and Queen of Blood (1966). Both his 1971 features star Shelley Winters, a Hollywood name whose fortunes were in decline. What’s the Matter with Helen?, the better of the two, pairs Winters with Debbie Reynolds (another leading lady whose career had seen better days) as survivors of a shared tragedy who run away to 1930s Los Angeles to start a new life. Helen (Winters) is slowly undone by guilt and paranoia, certain that a stalker from their past has followed them to California, and things go gruesomely awry.

What’s the Matter with Helen? is a love letter to Old Hollywood. Harrington’s film begins as a pitch perfect emulation of the musicals and melodramas of the era in which it’s set. Helen is the worm in the apple, constantly undermining her own happiness in the name of mindfulness, and as her self-destructive failure to just leave well enough alone gradually ruins everything, the film takes on a darker, more contemporary tone. One could argue What’s the Matter with Helen? is really about the comforts of old-school cinema being lost to the pessimism of film in the ‘70s…which brings us at last to —

Our Feature Presentation

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The Abominable Doctor Phibes stars Vincent Price as a man who has vowed vengeance on the physicians who failed to save his wife’s life. The couple had been in a car accident, and Doctor Anton Phibes (Price) was himself horrifically disfigured and rendered mute, which surely didn’t make things any better.

While he feels comfortable judging the competence of medical doctors, Phibes is not one himself; his education is in music and theology, a combination that apparently grants one superhuman powers of mechanical invention. Phibes is able to rebuild his face with prosthetics, develop a means of “speaking” via a phonograph-like device of his own creation, and design all manner of elaborate traps for his victims, whom he sets out to kill in ways that recall the biblical plagues of Egypt (this is where the theology background comes in). Phibes also has an entire in-house band of robot musicians that he apparently built himself, and…

So yeah: This may not be the film to take all that seriously.

The Abominable Doctor Phibes, set in the 1920s, is in some ways less a horror story than a pulp adventure. Phibes isn’t The Shadow or Doc Savage — while we feel a little sorry for him, he’s definitely no hero — but with his mad, murderous schemes and impossible devices, he’s essentially a supervillain. He even has a beautiful, deadly assistant (a la Lex Luthor’s Mercy). We spend a lot of time with the cops who try (and fail) to outthink Phibes and curtail his assassination attempts, but we aren’t rooting for them. We’re rooting for Doctor Phibes. It’s that kind of movie.

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Phibes and his assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), draw blood from an unhappy (and unwilling) donor

Modern audiences are familiar with the strain of horror film in which the monster — though evil — is the fan favorite. This is not to be confused with horror films in which the monster is noble but misunderstood. No: Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger are evil. They are not the protagonists, and indeed in their earliest appearances they are simply bad news. As these characters recur, however, an interesting change takes place. The later films still have ostensible heroes, but less attention is paid to them; the films lavish more time and care on the monsters, and it’s only genre convention that sees them destroyed by the end credits. The audience builds a relationship with anyone it sees again and again at the movies. Whoever goes up against Dracula in this chapter is here today, gone tomorrow. But we know Dracula will be back. He’s the guy we came to see.

While The Abominable Doctor Phibes marked the good doctor’s debut, Vincent Price had been around for decades, and was as loved as any franchise-leading movie monster would ever be. But Price neither coasts on his reputation nor panders. Buried under strange, corpse-like makeup, Price delivers a riveting performance that is something close to mime. We hear his voice, but it emanates from the machine Phibes has built to compensate for his inability to speak, not from the man himself. The character of Phibes owes a good deal to The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and it may be no coincidence that Price — like Lon Chaney before him — acted his role in silence. 

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Lon Chaney in “Phantom of the Opera” (1925)

It’s easy to envision how this could have gone wrong. Yet there is nothing arch or affected about Price’s work here. Over-the-top as the film around him is, Price remains the calm at the center of the storm, sometimes communicating an interior monologue through subtle looks and gestures, sometimes giving us nothing but an unsettling, unreadable expression. When called upon to act against himself — that is, to stand silent as his own pre-recorded voice addresses us — Price is content to let his words dominate the scene, as if they belonged to someone stronger, speaking on his behalf. Sometimes we see his throat working, struggling to articulate the sounds that the machine broadcasts. At these moments, we feel a profound sense of what Phibes has lost. The erudite, confident voice is that of the actor we know from countless roles. This wreck of a man who wears a ghastly approximation of his face must have been through something unthinkable.

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As with Boris Karloff’s part in Targets, there is an element of metafiction to Vincent Price’s role in The Abominable Doctor Phibes. Here again is an actor late in his career, the type of horror film that had made him famous losing its luster. But The Abominable Doctor Phibes would have a considerably happier coda for Vincent Price. The film’s success would ensure a sequel the following year, and — if Price’s career would never again be what it was in his heyday — neither would his star ever truly fall. This is saying something extraordinary, given that the horror landscape would soon change forever.

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Next Time: Doctor Phibes rises again, but horror is going to some decidedly less fanciful places in John Boorman’s Deliverance. Plus: Blacula! Be here!

  • Dex

    One of my top 5 Price flicks. Love this movie!! The Saw-inspiring ending is worth the trip alone.