Killtoberfest 3 – #1: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

In All, Movies by Kyu

Welcome, friends, to Killtoberfest 3: Third Time’s the Harm. Every year during the month of October I endeavor to watch and review at least 31 horror movies in 31 days. Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.

Last year, during Killtoberfest 2, I watched a series of double features. This year, like the Chesapeake Ripper, I will conduct my business in sounders of three, one film a night for three nights in a row along a particular theme. While the list is still in flux, I have the 10 sounder themes planned. There will be an Asian trio; three found footage films; a set of “extreme” horror movies; a group of not-really-horror films (as is traditional); a Nosferatu triple feature (the original, the Herzog remake, and Shadow of the Vampire); and a set of each from the 2010s, the 2000s, the 1990s, the 1980s, and starting tonight, the 1970s. Join me as I delve into the strangest, darkest, most perverse, and all around finest genre that cinema has to offer. This is Killtoberfest, and there is no escape! (Until November, anyway.)


“Nine killed you! Nine shall die! Nine eternities in DOOM!”

Our first film this year is also the first in the 1970s sounder, and it’s a trip for sure: 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

I don’t know the history well enough to state whether Phibes has as much direct influence as it seems to have, or if it is simply strongly emblematic of several aspects of the genre. But it seems as though this early 70s American International picture presages a whole swath of serial killer horror, from Bryan Fuller’s “murder as art” show Hannibal to the vengeance subplot of V for Vendetta to the baroque death traps of Saw. Most importantly, it feels like a direct precursor to Fincher’s Se7en. Both movies feature an insane but seemingly unstoppable killer performing a series of cruel, baroque murders which all fit into a gimmicky religious theme. Both movies intercut this process with the police investigation. Both films derive their ultimate tension from the question of whether or not the killer’s design will be completed. But where Se7en is serious cinema, a goofy premise elevated by impeccable craft and a deadly serious tone, Phibes is Gothicism and EC Comics morality intensified to the point of high camp… but still a fascinating and effective film.

The plot is so simple it hardly bears summarizing: a London detective inspector realizes that a pair of bizarre killings of medical professionals are not only connected but part of a pattern, a revenge plot years in the making and undertaken by a twisted man in a black, hooded robe. Each successive killing fits the pattern, each one a unique take on one of the Biblical plagues of Egypt. I will refrain from describing any here, as they’re the chief entertainment of the film, which keeps them coming at a wonderful clip whenever the pacing threatens to lag. It becomes an excellent game, as you try to guess how the killer will interpret the plague to murderous effect, and also how he will surmount or circumvent the increasing efforts of the police to protect his next victim, and then the film surprises you on both counts.

The other joy of the film is watching Vincent Price at work. A genuine movie star, Price was not made for realism, and that makes him perfect for this movie. Most films have one or two moments of overt style, a kind of curlicue on an otherwise normal story. Phibes is all curlicues, and the biggest and most twisted of all is the Doctor himself. An icon of film horror for decades at this point (since his performance in 1953’s House of Wax), Price was most at home playing villains, and ridiculously over the top villains at that. This might be his finest character, and he would go on to reprise it in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which I am so definitely watching next year. What makes the performance so great is how much Price is able to convey through layers of heavy make-up, bulky costumes, and the character’s inability to speak*. What comes across through little more than gestures and the eyes? The eerie presence of the pale, dead face that does not move; the peerless hate that glares out at the world from his make-up; the implacable, shambling gait of a man driven to obsession; and the minuscule upturn of the mouth that signals the cold satisfaction which comes with each next turn of his design.

I mentioned EC Comics as an influence on the film’s visually (and delightfully) garish style and semi-comedic tone, but in those comics the punishment fit the crime. In this film we learn little about the killer’s victims–in fact, it’s never actually clear that the victims did anything wrong, or if the killer is simply insane. The patterns that emerge over the course of the film suggest the latter, as each death plays out as a symbolic act expressing the murderer’s psychology rather than the sins of the murdered. Phibes goes about slathered in stage makeup to hide some horrible deformity that seems to drive his modus operandi far more than his pedestrian motive for vengeance; faces haunt his walls, count off his victims, and receive special attention in his schemes and death traps. He seems to have cast himself in the role of the Phantom of an Opera only he can hear, and the film periodically pauses to watch him play the organ in his vast Art Deco mansion, his tune accompanied by a robot band and danced to by his silent female assistant in fashionable wear. Later he will stump from room to room plugging a cord into speaker systems so that he may speak through an electronic attachment in his neck, slowly becoming one with the environments and events he has designed. His goal is expression by way of an annihilation so total it even includes himself.

What becomes clear over the course of the film is that, both within and without the film, the murders are less important as plot devices or even set pieces as they are as gruesome objet d’art. Each killing has elements, not just of different artistic mediums but of film or theatrical production–painting, sculpture, costuming, make-up–and is carefully presented for the eventual observer. For what is art without an audience? And the film structures itself like an afternoon of vaudeville: now comedy, now tragedy, now murder, next a musical interlude! The viewer is tugged this way and that by the roller coaster, eagerly awaiting the next kill, blanching at its grossness, marveling at the villain’s efforts, hoping he succeeds, hoping they catch him… The result is tremendous, memorable entertainment. The Abominable Dr. Phibes isn’t abominable at all. It’s pop art: beautiful, funny, creepy, and as required viewing as anything this weird can be. I can only hope that the rest of October will bring me as much joy as this.

– Kyu

(If you intend to watch this movie, don’t check out this trailer, which gives a ton of shit away, including the best kills. If not, at least take two minutes out of your day and gape at this, and marvel that it exists:)