The Inspirational Dr Phibes
Filmmaker Alex Secker discusses how Vincent Price and Robert Fuest’s early 70s cult classics continue to influence the horror genre...
Despite their somewhat small cult following and lack of mainstream recognition, Robert Fuest’s 1971 horror comedy, The Abominable Dr Phibes, and its direct sequel, 1972’s Dr Phibes Rises Again, cast a long shadow across the horror genre. While people are busy pointing to the likes of Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween for setting up the traditional slasher formula, the exploits of Dr Phibes and their impact on the subgenre, in my opinion at least, go frustratingly unnoticed.
Now, I’m by no means claiming that Clarke and Carpenter didn’t have an important part to play in the creation of what would become known as the slasher subgenre. Of course, Clarke’s Black Christmas is no doubt responsible for introducing both the genre’s preoccupation with holiday dates and female victims, while Carpenter’s Halloween gave us the masked killer and a more structured version of what would become the more traditional formula. But, for all their influence, neither film is especially interested in the more complex and over-the-top death sequences that slashers would become known for.
Indeed, both Black Christmas and Halloween are more focused on atmospheric scares. While we may consider the slasher sub-genre to be focused on increasingly more and more absurd murder sequences – Freddy Krueger’s toying with the teens of Elm Street or Jason Voorhees’s vicious attacks on the poor camp counsellors – neither of the aforementioned trend-setters play into those expectations. Billy in Black Christmas hides in the attic, abusing the girls through prank calls and then attacking quickly and bluntly with whatever he can get his hands on, while Michael Myers favours a butcher’s knife, stabbing most of his victims to death with a cold detachment.
It is in Fuest’s Dr Phibes films that we find this more outlandish, more absurdist take on death that has become an integral part of the slasher sub-genre. Both films are built entirely around gruesome murder sequences, often imbued with a sense of grim and darkly humorous irony. The movies take a sort of gleeful yet sinister pleasure in their kills, often playing them out in extended sequences with the focus very much on the nasty methods used to carry them out. Moreover, the films joyfully revel in the gorier details, closeups of bloodied faces, and the aftermath of the gruesome crimes is where their attention lay.
The Abominable Dr Phibes stars horror icon Vincent Price as the eponymous hero, a famous concert organist who exacts bloody, violent revenge upon the team that attended the surgery which ultimately led to his wife’s death. Phibes, never one for subtlety bases his murders on the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament. The film follows Phibes as he carries out his ghoulish killings, as well as the bumbling and useless police detectives who are desperate to capture the killer. It’s a bizarre, slightly surreal experience of a movie, with an over-the-top and often garish art-deco style and a genuinely fun, campy tone.
Its sequel, meanwhile, which was released a year later, follows Phibes as he heads to Egypt in search of a mythical river that will resurrect his dead wife and give both of them eternal life. Phibes, however, is not the only person searching for the river, and so he – along with the help of his silent assistant Vulnavia – sets about killing the competition, this time in methods inspired by Egyptian mythology. Much like its predecessor, Dr Phibes Rises Again has far more interest in the murders than it does in any sense of logic or consistency.
Much like the slasher movies to come, both of Doctor Phibes’ outings care little for their plots. The narratives act more like a string on which to hang a series of ever more outlandish kill scenes than they do a genuine attempt to tell a story. Unlike Black Christmas or Halloween, which do try to deliver on more than a simple move from death to death, the Dr Phibes films are eager to brush past the more plot driver moments and onto the, for lack of a better term, ‘good stuff’.
The deaths themselves range from genuinely nasty (slowly eaten to death by locusts) to hilariously absurd and complex (crushed in a giant screw press while a massive fan covers the noise by simulating a sandstorm), and while tonally they may very well be a million miles from the grislier kills that we expect from slasher films, their purpose is much the same. Phibes is our hero and the audience is encouraged to cheer for him. The police are presented as inept and out of their depth, while Phibes remains consistently two steps ahead of every other character. Price’s presence does a lot of the heavy lifting here, but both movies know how to use him effectively.
Phibes is unable to speak, and so his voice is heard through a gramophone attached to his voice-box. Price does good work moving his throat and jaw in line with the voice, which is overlaid on top. It makes him a sort of strange, foreboding figure, otherworldly and yet somehow grounded. Moreover, he wears a mask – although that mask is of Price’s face. Price’s antagonist/protagonist is horribly scarred, and so hides his monstrous true appearance by applying a series of prosthetics. This allows the movies to get the most from Price’s iconic appearance while also delivering a shocking reveal during the first film’s climactic scene, in which Phibes removes his “mask” to reveal the terror underneath.
In a way, this moment reminds me of some of the unmasking moments in later Friday the 13th films. Phibes’ true appearance resembles a decomposing corpse, with skeletal features protruding through rotting flesh. We see a similar sort of aesthetic applied to Jason Voorhees, a killer who himself is seeking bloody revenge for the death of a loved one.
Interestingly, we can see the films’ more overt inspirations years later. David Fincher’s now-iconic crime thriller Se7en seems to draw from Phibes’ performative approach to killing. Whereas Phibes bases his gruesome murders on the Ten Plagues and then on Egyptian mythology, Se7en’s John Doe uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi. Much like Phibes’ twisted humour, there is often a grim irony to the killings present in Se7en.
This grim irony is also heavily present in the Saw franchise, which, much like Se7en, takes major inspiration from Phibes. At the end of the first Phibes movie, the titular Doctor sets a trap for his final victim that is very reminiscent of Saw’s nasty “games”. Under the guise of the plague of the Death of the First Born, Phibes has kidnapped his victim’s eldest son and placed him under anaesthesia, ready for surgery. A small key has been implanted near the boy’s heart that will unlock the restraints that hold him to the table. Phibes informs his victim, a surgeon named Dr Vesalius, that he has suspended a container full of acid above the boy and that it will open in six minutes – the same length of time his wife had on the operating table – destroying his face. Vesalius must remove the key from his son’s body before the acid is released.
There is an undeniable comparison between Dr Phibes and the Saw franchise’s Jigsaw Killer. Both are under the belief that their crimes are a form of warped justice, that their victims deserve their fate, and that they are somehow writing the wrongs of the world. Moreover, both have tragic backstories and are presented, in certain lights at least, as sympathetic villains.
It may not be recognised as such, but I believe it is clear that both The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again have had a huge impact, and continues to have an impact, on the horror genre, and in particular the slasher genre. For all their camp, cheesy qualities, they offer up a curious look at a sort of proto-slasher unlike any other.