I watched this a few months before starting this site, and totally loved it. Then a few weeks ago I became possessed to own it, and set aside time to watch it with my boyfriend, who I thought might like it. Upon review, it’s still very good, but maybe I didn’t quite need to OWN it. I think nothing can replicate that first time, when its delightfully wacky nature can be a surprise.
The movie opens with Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes in his grand ballroom. He plays this giant ornate organ with these wonderfully cheap red pieces of plastic sticking out, then winds up his band of mechanical musicians and dances. The door opens to a vision of his assistant, who joins him in a grand dance. This is “the girl,” who is also played by the woman who plays Vulnavia, Phibes dead wife, who he lost years previously when nine surgeons [NINE surgeons? She must have been in pretty bad shape] failed to save her on the operating table. I THINK we’re supposed to think that his assistant is NOT Vulnavia, but another woman that looks just like her, because we’ll later see Phibes delivering words of love to his departed’s photograph, and you’re like, if that’s her, why doesn’t he just tell her himself? Maybe, like many men, he has trouble expressing his true feelings in person. None of this might have happened if they’d had Oprah back then.
So the two of them pile an ominous-looking birdcage into their car and head off, where they dump the contents into this guy’s bedroom. The guy wakes up a bit later to find his room full of really hungry bats who basically gnaw his face off.
We now introduce the “bumbling British cops” portion of our entertainment, as we meet a very good Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout, who learns that another surgeon [did I tell you that the bat victim was a surgeon?] was killed the week before by multiple bee stings, and that his face was covered in boils. This leads Trout to say, in that funny way only the British can execute: “Boils?” You may also notice that the first dialogue of this film comes ten minutes in.
Phibes dispatches a few more doctors in quick succession. A guy who describes himself as a “head shrinker,” gets his head shrunk as Phibes gives him a frog mask [for the masked ball] that slowly constricts and crushes his head in the middle of the party. Then there’s a dirty old Brit with a mustache [and we DO love dirty old Brits with mustaches] who drinks heavily while he watches a mail-order movie of a scantily-clad woman dancing with a snake. Phibes drains all of the blood from his body. Don’t miss the moment when Phibes comes back to look at a tacky painting, then looks at the victim like “Oh, COME now...”
Phibes then goes home and plugs his neck into his organ, which allows him to speak [without moving his lips] to the photo of Vulnavia. It has been 33 minutes before Phibes speaks his first word. Then he and his assistant enjoy a cocktail, which Phibes drinks by pouring into the back of his neck. Price carries it all off with high serious humor, and it’s obvious throughout the movie that he’s having the time of his life.
The inspectors soon figure out that Phibes is murdering surgeons in the manner and order of the ten curses visited upon Egypt, and that these doctors were the ones who operated on his wife. His wife’s full name, by the way, is Victoria Regina Phibes, and since the British pronounce ‘Regina’ in a manner that rhymes with the word for a woman’s genitals, be and my boyfriend sat up in my bed saying “her middle name is Vagina?” I also think it’s no accident that Phibes’ name for her, Vulnavia, also has a rather ‘vulva’-ish sound.
By now you will also have noticed that Phibes is always presented in this outrageous Victorian décor [complete with many female, possibly-Vulnavia heads… and her birth name is Victoria], while the police are always presented in very modern, stylish [for 1971 Britain] environments. Anyway, the police round up the remaining surgeons in order to protect them, but Phibes always seems to be able to outwit them. One of these ways includes a catapulted brass unicorn’s head [which, if I’m not mistaken, is not one of the curses they originally mentioned, which the film simply ignores], which is followed by some black comedy with trying to remove the corpse from the wall he has been impaled to. There’s also an amusing scene, mostly because Price seems to be having such a whale of a time, where he studiously selects only the finest Brussels sprouts. You’ll see.
My boyfriend was sitting there saying “this is Seven… this is Seven…” at periodic intervals because yes, this movie is basically Seven [or, sorry, Se7en], and one suspects that it inspired the screenwriter at least in part. What’s remarkable about this movie is how is successfully includes all of the bumbling British cop humor, matches it with the fucking bizarre Dr. Phibes humor, yet manages through all this to remain genuinely creepy and suspenseful. There is a part toward the end that is pretty much out of the Saw movies, and it’s quite remarkable to blend the horror with the completely wacky humor so well. If there were ever a movie that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp could do wonderful honor to a remake of, this is it.
The next day after I originally watched this move the first time, I went out to get the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which just wasn’t as good. Maybe it’s because one is used to the vibe and what is going to happen, but it also seemed more flaccid and pointless to me. You can find both movies on one DVD.
You know, now that I’ve written this, maybe I AM glad I own it after all.
Yes! It is hilarious and creepy and bizarre, all at the same time.
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN is basically the same movie, but in Egypt and not as good.