It's not that the masterpieces are in any way soft food. Far from it. But anyone who loves good cooking knows that the delicacies are often the little-known or the side trips from the accepted, everyday menu. The real meat of art appreciation and enjoyment is often the undiscovered, the unknown, the newly discovered, or those delectable tidbits we rediscover for ourselves.
--Vincent Price, I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography: 142-43
In the small pantheon of actors closely identified with the horror film, Vincent Price holds a prominent position. Heretofore a reliable character actor of the studio era, in the late 1950s Price became a major star in exploitation horror films directed by William Castle and Roger Corman. Released through American International Pictures (AIP) in the early 60s, Corman cast Price in a series of increasingly lurid horror tales loosely adapted from the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Price's status as horror icon was firmly established by the time he starred in AIP's The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), a garish and violent extension of the Corman tradition. Proudly (and untruthfully) billed as "Vincent Price's 100th Film," Dr. Phibes remains a neglected but stylistically rich genre film whose particular attractions include a shrewd recruitment of the actor's public as well as on-screen personae into its tale of an eminently cultured revenge killer. Often denigrated when mentioned at all, the film's neglect seems related to ambivalence about its star, as well as to its appearance in the midst of a major stylistic upheaval in the genre that soon found critics (led by Robin Wood) championing a more brutal, ideologically disturbing strain of horror centered around the nuclear family (e.g., Night of the Living Dead , The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , The Hills Have Eyes ). In retrospect, however, Dr. Phibes marks an important transitional moment in the development of the horror genre in the 1970s, an exceptionally rich period for the form.
Served up with flair on modest means by Robert Fuest (a writer-director of the droll British spy series The Avengers), The Abominable Dr. Phibes straddled important trends of the horror film in the 60s and 70s. Displaying the increasingly graphic violence energizing exploitation movies of the time, a trend inexorably working its way into the mainstream, Dr. Phibes satisfied AIP's grindhouse aesthetic while continuing to assimilate the stylistic marks of Hammer's sumptuous gothic horror productions of the previous decade, an evident influence on the earlier Corman/ Poe films. The production design of Dr. Phibes, set in 1929 London, features Art Nouveau decor, props, and costumes, bringing it closer to its contemporary period than the indeterminate mid-19th century settings of the Hammer horror series. Along with its modernist mise-en-scene though, Dr. Phibes includes slyly self-reflexive humor that plays off the classic Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), as well as Price's own increasing status as horror star. This mix of graphic violence and self-conscious comedy would characterize postmodern horror films of the 80s and 90s, films such as Re-Animator (1985), Return of the Living Dead (1985), and the Scream series (1996-ff).
Fuest's picture stars Price as Dr. Anton Phibes, renowned organist and
theologian whose badly injured wife Victoria dies in surgery following
an auto accident. Racing to her side, Phibes himself is burned in a crash
and presumed dead. Though terribly disfigured he resurfaces several years
later and begins systematically eliminating the nine members of the surgical
team he madly blames for Victoria's death. Assisted by his beautiful if
ethereal servant Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes slays the doctors in
a series of inventive set pieces that employ motifs adapted from the Old
Testament curses visited on the Pharaoh (blood, boils, frogs, death of
the first born, etc.). He is pursued by the hapless Inspector Trout (Peter
Jeffrey) of Scotland Yard, and the canny surgeon Dr. Vesalius (Joseph
Cotten), who proves the better detective.
The Dr. Phibes character was a combination of two predecessors: Lon Chancy's Erik in The Phantom of the Opera, and Price's own role in the early 3-D hit House of Wax (1953), noted by his biographer Lucy Chase Williams as the "... film that changed the direction of Vincent Price's career" (130). Both Chancy's Phantom and Price's Henry Jarrod are "mad artists," a staple character of the horror and psychological romance genres. (1) Like Erik, Dr. Phibes is an organist (Price makes much of sinuous, exaggerated hand gestures as he plays), and all three characters wear masks or make-up over blasted features. Like Jarrod in House of Wax, Phibes has been badly burned, and although their make-ups are quite different in execution, the doctor's unmasked face borrowed the famous "living skull" conception Chaney designed for the Phantom. In addition, all three films feature unmasking scenes as central moments of horror. The comic irony here (only latent in House of Wax, since Price was not yet closely identified with horror) is that the "mask" worn by Phibes after the accident is to us the familiar if pallid and red-eyed visage of Vincent Price himself. He must strip off this "disguise" at the end to reveal an actual monster's face apparently beneath his own.
Moreover, Phibes like the Phantom is a "theatrical" personage, not only in his vocation (Phibes was previously a distinguished organist who had performed at the Royal Albert Hall), but also in his self-aggrandizing personal style. At the climax of Phantom, Chaney momentarily halts a pursuing mob by clutching an imaginary bomb in his upraised fist, then opens it with a big smile to reveal an empty hand, bowing low and reveling in his performance moments before he is overwhelmed and killed. Where Henry Jarrod--no longer able to sculpt with hands seared in the fire, that destroyed his wax museum--obsessively seeks to recreate his lost artistic creations by embalming freshly murdered victims with wax, Phibes worships at the shrine of his dead wife (seen only in photographs, slides, and other graphic renderings), and channels his artistic impulses into elaborate, often witty episodes of murder-as-performance-art. A complex play of artifice and actuality, being and simulacra appears throughout the film, of which Price's own face supposedly hiding a ghastly visage becomes the climactic example.
Harry Benshoff, one of the few critics to have seriously analyzed this film, offers a reading of the Phibes character as a "camp Superman" and "gay avenger," an analysis that trades on the film's textual features as much as perceptions of Price's career in regard to the actor's rumored but never publicly confirmed homosexual identity. Benshoff notes that:
Price's bigger-than-life performances and somewhat effeminate persona
have made him a favorite among queer spectators for years.. . Vincent
Price's leers and fluid eyebrows have always suggested a secret kinkiness.
Price's real-life persona--as art critic and master-chef--also contributed
to his gay appeal, while his own brand of "Expressionist" acting
challenged hegemonic notions of taste. (208)
Even after House of Wax, five years passed before Vincent Price became
a full-fledged horror star. During this time, a series of social, economic,
and aesthetic factors propelled the horror film to a prominence not seen
since the nascent science fiction boom eclipsed the genre after World
War II. Price's rise to genre stardom ignited in 1958 with a supporting
role in Fox's cult favorite The Fly and the lead in William Castle's The
House on Haunted Hill. This coincided with the beginning of the monster
movie teenage fan phenomenon sparked by Screen Gem's highly successful
syndication of its "Shock Theater" package of vintage Universal
horror movies to local television stations in 1957, the same year Hammer
Films' international impact on the genre commenced with the release of
Curse of Frankenstein. According to AIP co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff, when
his company made the difficult decision to begin producing fewer but more
expensive color movies in the late 1950s, it came in direct response to
growing competition in the market they themselves had opened for exploitation
horror pictures and other genres aimed at teen audiences. (2) (AIP had
released I Was A Teenage Werewolf, one of its most characteristic and
successful movies in 1957.) House of Usher (1960), the first of Corman's
Poe pictures, marked the beginning of this new phase in the studio's history,
and the start of Price's busy fifteen-year association with AIP.
As his career in horror movies began, the actor diligently pursued his longtime interests in art history and gourmet cooking and continued to cultivate a parallel public image as an aesthete and epicure. Vincent Price the art critic and collector, author, raconteur, and gourmet chef appeared in regular public lectures, publications, and television talk show segments from the late 1950s onward. In a series of moves that now seems both propitious and calculated, Price published a paean to his lifelong love of art in 1959 entitled I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography, penned an introduction to a slender volume of The Drawings of Delacroix in 1961, and endorsed several cookbooks in the 1960s. As an actor, the Vincent Price of c.1960 was still the veteran contract player who had won good notices for parts in mainstream hits such as Laura (1944), Dragonwyck (1946), and The Ten Commandments (1956). He was not then synonymous with The Tingler (1959), House of Usher, and The Fly. Ultimately, it is the juxtaposit ion of this cultured public image with Price's almost exclusive dedication to exploitation horror roles that produced the dissonance Benshoff identifies as the actor's camp appeal.
NIGHTMARES BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Despite being born into an affluent St. Louis manufacturing family and
a Yale education in the early 1930s, Vincent Price remained resolutely
non-elitist in his public demeanor and often proudly called attention
to his Midwestern roots. With his sly smile and self-effacing humor, Price's
art lectures, talk show spots, and other public performances aimed to
make his higher tastes available to all; he cultivated the image of a
cosmopolitan teacher of art appreciation and gourmet cuisine made accessible
to the masses. In I Like What I Know, Price describes his selection as
a juror for the Pittsburgh International Art Exhibition in 1958 on a panel
that included Marcel Duchamp and several nationally prominent art historians
and curators. Understanding that he had been invited because of his celebrity
as much as his genuine knowledge of art and feeling slightly intimidated,
he reasoned to himself that, "... you have only one thing to recommend
you ... maybe two: passion for the visual arts and the fact that you
Perhaps the most widely circulated, even stunning application of this ideal was the beginning of Price's association with Sears, Roebuck in the late 1950s, a company whose history was redolent of Middle American practicality and democracy. Sears historian James Worthy has claimed that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often the only books found in isolated rural homes were the Bible and the Sears catalog, the latter freely distributed by the thousands and then hundreds of thousands through the U.S. Mail. (3) By the 1950s, Sears had broadly expanded from its base of small town and rural customers reached via catalog sales, and was operating hundreds of retail outlets in the new and growing suburban areas of the country. Where once the Sears catalog had linked remote farming communities of a predominantly rural nation to the material plenty of the urban and, by extension, modern world, the company was now catering more to a rising and enlarging suburban middle class in an economic boom time. As Gordon Weil contends in Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.:
In the immediate postwar period, people eagerly splurged their disposable income in a rash of consumer purchases. This buying did not represent merely pent-up demand after the sacrifices of the war years but was a sure sign of emergence from the working class by millions of people. Educated under the G.I. Bill, young men, children of factory workers, were able to achieve managerial and professional positions. With their new-found income, they set out to buy the luxuries of life about which their families had always dreamed. (256)
Enter Vincent Price. In 1959, the actor provided supplemental text describing the canonical artworks adorning a garish family Bible (Sears had seemingly bought out its 1890s household competition!) sold through the company's famous Christmas "Wish Book." The verbose title of this giltedged, boxed edition magically collided high and popular culture references: The Holy Bible, illustrated from the works of Michelangelo Buonaroti, 1475-2564. Conceived by Vincent Price expressly for Sears, Roebuck, and Company. In the 1964 Christmas catalog, "The Michelangelo Bible"--festooned with slick reproductions of Sistine Chapel frescoes--retailed for the hefty sum of $29. Surplus value was being offered here. This was not just any Bible, but one that conferred prestige, culture, and a concrete symbol of social status on its owner, and all for only $4/month if you preferred credit. Emphasizing his personal imprint on the edition, the ad copy signed by Price explained:
The Bible is the world's greatest work of literary art, and Michelangelo
is the artist who best visualized its stories capturing all their grandeur
and majesty. I often thought of an ideal volume that would combine the
two. . . . The illustrations are accompanied by my explanatory text to
show how vital a part the great Biblical stories played in the creation
of Michelangelo's masterpieces. (Sears Christmas: 289) (4)
The actor himself appeared in catalog layouts for more secular holiday products, "Personally selected for you by Vincent Price." In addition to a line of signature Christmas cards illustrated by Renaissance masters ("Christmas cards should reflect your taste as well as your thoughts of others"), Sears' 1964 Christmas book featured a full-color spread offering an artificial tree ready for trimming, ornaments included. The company boasted that, "Once again Sears has drawn upon the impeccable taste of Vincent Price. We now offer the same delicate ornaments, the same tree that Mr. Price selected and decorated in his own home" (Sears Christmas: 258, 268). Dressed in a natty business suit, Price posed beside the tree set amidst a warm, wood-paneled interior, implicitly his living room. Vending Christmas trees through the mail was a vestige of the old Sears, Roebuck whose catalogs had offered countless products from thimbles to plowshares, livestock, automobiles, and entire prefabricated houses. Yet this 1964 offering had a contemporary angle. Price's "impeccable taste" and comfortable, bourgeois style was recruited to promote the relatively new phenomenon of the artificial Christmas tree which had been largely resisted by tradition-minded Americans long accustomed to live and fresh-cut trees.
The final item Price endorsed for Sears that year is of particular interest because it unites the two aspects of his public personae: "The Vincent Price Movie Maker's Outfit." The set not only included an 8mm movie camera and tripod, but props, costumes, and a make-up kit along with a 58-page (!) manual which included tips on lighting, continuity, and acting. Again playing on elite vs. popular tensions ("now you can produce home movies so professional they're exciting to watch . . ."), the copy stresses the personal touch of Price as educator and expert:
Isn't it terrible to be bored to tears by a friend's dull family movies? We think so. That's why Sears went to Hollywood veteran actor-producer Vincent Price. We asked him to write screenplays and a director's manual that would help our friends use dramatic Hollywood techniques with a minimum of equipment and experience. (Sears Christmas: 283)
The layout features an imaginary production still from the set of The Nativity: Dad stands behind the camera doubling as director and cinematographer, while Mom holds up the slate before a group of costumed kids (and one doll) playing the Holy Family and wise men in a make-shift manger. In a mail-order version of the Hollywood studio system, the division of labor structures the entire family's busy engagement in the shooting of a pre-planned scenario laid down by an executive producer who has even included specific title cards to be shot and cut into the silent production. In addition to The Nativity--"a reverent Christmas play"--the scripts attributed to Price include "The Frog Prince . . . a delightful child's fairy tale," and best of all, "Dr. Psycho . . . an entertaining horror comedy." Excuse me, but this is where we came in.
FILM STYLE IN DR. PHIBES
Detractors have usually dismissed Dr. Phibes as "camp." Yet
as Susan Sontag points out in "Notes on 'Camp'," there are several
different definitions of the term that vary in complexity and attitude
toward the object or text so viewed. One of the most common usages is
superior, derisive laughter at a failed, seemingly naive work. Most out-of-hand
dismissals of Dr. Phibes have been of this nature, though without sustained
analysis to support such a view. (5) However, as Sontag argues, ".
. . the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and
exaggeration" (275)--a definition that suits the affect of Dr. Phibes,
which knowingly revels in its own stylistic excess.
Fuest unfolds his murder scenes with languid but deliberate pace, using
a gliding camera and subtle cutting to develop carefully structured little
mysteries that build anticipation in the viewer even as they grow increasingly
horrific for the victims. The murder of one physician while at the controls
of his private plane is a fine example, an assured blend of black comedy
and genuine horror. As the scene begins, Phibes and Vulnavia position
themselves on a hillside and erect a telescope through which he can observe
his latest spectacle. She provides musical accompaniment to the performance
by calmly playing a disquieting melody on a white violin--Busby Berkeley
in miniature. In moody compositions reminiscent of post-war art cinema,
Fuest shoots the duo from low angles against a dreary sky framed through
the legs of the telescope. The intercutting of the plane's takeoff while
a detective races after it by car trying to avert disaster contrasts with
Phibes' silent calm, marked only by a Chaplinesque sniff of a daisy as
he waits to savor his handiwork.
Vulnavia's white violin used as a particular reference to Busby Berkeley
(cf. the abstract "Shadow Waltz" number in Gold Diggers of 1933)
seems calculated here because Dr. Phibes makes musical performance and
dance a recurrent stylistic motif. (And in parallel to the riot of feminine
flesh in Berkeley's best work, Vulnavia's odd moniker is surely a brash
play on words.) Accordingly, there are more costume changes for the monster
and his servant here than in probably any other horror film, though a
parade of outlandish costumes is a typical, even requisite convention
of the musical. Dr. Phibes opens on a shot of an ornate marble floor and
short staircase leading up to a proscenium stage in the ballroom of a
mansion, from which muffled organ music grows louder as the eponymous
doctor, in hooded black satin robe, rises from beneath the stage playing
a theater organ. He descends the stairs, which are flanked by "Dr.
Phibes's Clockwork Wizards"--a tuxedoed, mechanical orchestra arranged
on either side--and winds t hem to life. As the swaying doctor conducts
the band, Vulnavia gets a similarly theatrical entrance, posed in a doorframe
in beaded white gown, backlit by blinding light, before moving out to
join the doctor for a waltz. Fuest even shoots several overhead angles
of the whirling dancers, evocative of Berkeley's most famous visual device.
And this is the prelude to a horror film! (6)
While Phibes seems to be a classical musician (to complement his doctorate
in theology), the AIP pressbook, supplying information not immediately
apparent in the film, stresses associations with popular entertainment
forms: "True to his showbiz background," it states, the interior
of Phibes' mansion resembles, "... an early cinema lobby decor of
chrome, mirrors, and marble; a monstrous theater organ and a main salon
like a taxi-dance ballroom." (7) The imprecise tension between high
and popular culture built into the movie's set design perfectly correlates
with the persona of its star. Similarly, another of the musical entr'actes
seemingly negates the air of elegance in the tango/dinner scene, as Vulnavia
is shown indifferently stacking chairs and sweeping up while the clockwork
piano player croons "One For My Baby." As she pauses to listen
and slowly lights a cigarette, Vulnavia transforms from shimmering angel
of death to languid barfly. The choice here of Frank Sinatra's famous
after-hours "drunk song" is an obvious anachronism, the tune
not written until 1943. Thus, musical selections make ironic commentary
on the proceedings, regardless of period authenticity. (The end credits
roll to a brassy arrangement of "Over the Rainbow" written for
The Wizard of Oz in 1939, the song Benshoff refers to as "the gay
male national anthem" .) Yet these abrupt, often comically inconsistent
transformations, like other movements of tone and style in the film, reiterate
themes of performance, theatricality, and fluidity of identity.
Cook's summary of horror film trends in the 70s calls Dr. Phibes a "horror parody," yet the movie is less a parody of the genre than a riff on Vincent Price's star image. Initially, familiar techniques of self-conscious humor occur in the film, as when Phibes' organ console descends to the uptempo strains of "Dark Town Strutter's Ball" and we cut to a fancy-dress costume party. In a setting derived from The Phantom of the Opera's Technicolor bal masque scene, Phibes appears at the party in tuxedo and feathery hawk mask to present a deadly gift to an unsuspecting doctor, a large frog's head mask rigged with spring-loaded gears that will gradually tighten and crush his skull. Telegraphing the victim's fate is the scene's comic premise. "I'm a psychiatrist--head-shrinker" the doc cheerfully explains to his silent companion, who even through half-shrouded face manages to share a dark, knowing look with the audience. Still, the doctor's death is gruesome, related through subjective hand-held camera, blurred visual s, and the distorted laughter of other revelers as he strangles and collapses, blood oozing from the frog mask.
Though it marks the most sustained elaboration of the theme, Dr. Phibes was not the first time Price had spoofed his public persona. In The Black Cat segment of Corman's omnibus film Tales of Terror (1962), Price and Peter Lorre execute wonderful comic turns as a snobbish connoisseur and drunken lout, respectively, who match palates in a wine-tasting duel. While Price performs fastidious rituals to gently sip and sample each offering, Lorre gulps down full glasses-yet unflaggingly identifies every vintage. Two of the most effective murder scenes in Dr. Phibes connect directly with Price's off-screen persona as fussy gourmand and arbiter of "impeccable taste," particularly in art. Yet where Price was a generous, inclusive tutor for the masses, Phibes is a most unforgiving aesthete, one who does not tolerate the low tastes of others nor permit even minor details to go unsupervised in the creation of his death traps.
The extended sequence of a nurse's murder opens with a long take of Vulnavia
(in diaphanous Cossack garb with tall fur hat) watching curiously as the
doctor pushes a gold-plated wheelbarrow piled with raw Brussels sprouts.
As he passes with this bizarre cargo, she turns and looks quizzically
at us. A clock chimes on the soundtrack and the next scene shows Phibes
in chef's apron supervising a complex apparatus of burners and tubing
(the AIP pressbook refers to the "Rube Goldberg" nature of Phibes'
inventions), boiling down the vegetables into a thick, green soup. As
sprouts pour down a chute into the pot, Vulnavia appears in gold lame
costume with petite angel wings, bearing a small basket of sprouts from
which Phibes hand-selects some ingredients, disdainfully tossing aside
those blemished, less-than-perfect specimens. Could one expect less from
the author of fancy recipe books and master of talk show cooking demos?
Carrying the joke over the top, he sticks a fingerful of green stuff into
his "mouth," that is , the useful hole in his neck, followed
by a loud slurping sound and a nod of satisfaction. (This vigilant attention
to the preparation of a meal will culminate in another long sequence in
which Phibes drips the syrupy goo over the sedated nurse's face and then
sets ravenous locusts to chew away her flesh.)
DR. PHIBES AND GENRE TRANSITION
The medium-budget horror film of approximately 1957-1973 was highly dependent
on the star system. The ploy of publicizing The Abominable Dr. Phibes
as Vincent Price's 100th film thus conferred a certain prestige. Price
was well known by this time as a prolific "horror star" who
was assuming the mantel of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and was a leading
rival of popular contemporaries Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. AIP
advertising had already played up "the Triumvirate of Terror"
(Karloff, Lorre, and Price) featured in The Raven (1963), for example.
Promoting Dr. Phibes as a magnum opus of Price's career could not but
help the movie, suggesting that it was a notch up in production values
and prestige from run-of-the-mill horror vehicles while furthering the
association between actor and character.
Although it was written and shot as "The Curse of Dr. Phibes," the picture was previewed as simply Dr. Phibes then released under its final odd but memorable title. (Hammer produced a low-thrills horror film in 1957 called The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.) It is likely that AIP cofounder James H. Nicholson was behind the flourish of making Dr. Phibes "abominable" after the preview. Sam Arkoff praises his late partner's talent for composing catchy titles, which in common exploitation movie practice often preceded any particular ideas about a story. Moreover, the use of such an overblown adjective here suggested that a measure of ironic humor might also characterize the production.
Still, Arkoff notes that AIP encountered an unusual problem in advertising
The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Nicholson came up with the slogan "Love
means never having to say you're ugly," which was meant to parody
the ad line from the Paramount hit Love Story (1970), "Love means
never having to say you're sorry." (Posters and ad slicks for this
release feature a "romantic" pose of the skull-faced Phibes
poised to kiss Vulnavia amidst brightly-hued framing effects derived from
the "mod" graphic style of designer Peter Max.) Arkoff believes
this comic approach left audiences unsure as to what kind of a picture
it was. The film was given a second release after the first one sputtered,
using a pitch that emphasized traditional horror elements (e.g., the doctor's
head on a skull-and-crossbones form, and the tagline "Back from the
Dead for Revenge!"). Of the second release, Arkoff says, "This
time, it attracted the usual horror fans, and with word of mouth, it also
drew a more stylish, campy audience--and convinced us to make a profitable
sequel" (195). Arkoff's characterization of this subsidiary audience
uses familiar code words that strongly suggest the film attracted gay
audiences, which lends additional support for Benshoff's reading. Although
a straight! gay division of the original audience seems particularly germane
here, this partition can be further subsumed within the larger distinction,
traditional/ironic. The parallels between actor Vincent Price and the
fictional monster he played invited and reinforced such varied receptions.
Screenwriters James Whiton and William Goldstein say that having successfully pitched the Phibes story to AIP, they were told it might initiate a series of films. (8) But only one occasionally effective though formulaic sequel was released in 1972, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. (A second sequel, to be called "The Brides of Dr. Phibes," was announced in the trades but never produced.) Still, the formula yielded a series of sorts after all. Price followed the second Phibes picture with two clever variations, UA's Theatre of Blood (1973), whose reputation has grown in recent years, and the interesting if finally less successful Madhouse (1974), an AIP co-production with Amicus studios, Hammer's major British rival in the horror field.
Madhouse, in which Price plays a faded horror star who may be committing
grisly murders in the persona of his screen character Dr. Death, is something
like the actor's take on The Shootist (1976), John Wayne's nostalgic swansong
which it anticipated by two years. Wayne's last film begins with clips
from the actor's storied screen career described as the salad days of
his now aging gun-fighter character. Highlights from the career of Price's
character, horror star Paul Toombes, are screened at several points in
Madhouse--familiar clips from House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum (1961),
The Raven, and other Corman/Poe pictures. "Basil ... I had some real
help on that one," Toombes/Price wistfully observes to fellow actor
Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing), watching a bit from Tales of Terror in which
Price co-starred with the late Basil Rathbone. The Toombes role was a
logical summation of Price's career to this point, following the direction
signaled by The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Madhouse was in this sense the
"last" Vincent Price film, although the actor continued working
until just before his death in 1993. But Madhouse marked his final appearance
as a horror lead before he was transformed into pure icon, Vincent-Price-the-horror-star
who supplied the tongue-in-cheek rap for the bridge of Michael Jackson's
hit single and music video Thriller (1983) or portrayed the mad scientist
who creates Edward Scissorhands in Tim Burton's 1990 film of the same
The question of whether an older, and suddenly tamer, style of horror film--represented in this case by the Corman/Price pictures--retained any relevance or power whatsoever in a society consumed with the real horrors of the Vietnam War and attendant domestic upheavals had been posed a few years earlier in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968). Setting a precedent for the manipulation of Price's persona in Dr. Phibes, the film stars the aged Boris Karloff as famed horror actor Byron Orlok, who confronts a psychotic serial gunman at the drive-in premier of his latest horror movie (actually, clips from Corman's The Terror ). In Targets, the chiaroscuro of European expressionism is replaced by a quotidian setting, the smoggy haze of a southern California suburb. It is here that the new "monster," a seemingly average mid-century everyman, inexplicably slays his entire family before venturing out to shoot at cars on the freeway. (The character was based on Charles Whitman, the bell-tower sniper at the Universit y of Texas in 1966.) Bogdanovich's finest conceit is the sniper shooting from behind the movie screen at unsuspecting victims sitting in their cars, a horribly literal rendering of William Castle's gimmick effects such as "Emerge-o," a plastic skeleton that flew from the screen and over the heads of kids watching The House on Haunted Hill.
By the time Dr. Phibes appeared, exploitation movies were competing with escalating levels of sex and violence in mainstream genres. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), et al. flaunted intense, bloody violence in prestigious Hollywood releases while the exploitation horror film was itself being revolutionized by underground hits like Night of the Living Dead. Compared to George Romero's zombie shocker or major grind-house hits after the Phibes "cycle" such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit On Your Grave (1974), or even the harsh, genre-bending nihilism of Conqueror Worm/Witchfinder General (1968)--one of Price's best performances (9)--Dr. Phibes was far less explicit. Though Variety could single out The Abominable Dr. Phibes as part of a new trend in especially gruesome horror, Price brought refinement, even gracefulness, to gore. The relatively reduced violence in Dr. Phibes, leavened with wry comedy besides, is not from reticence but arises (as I have tried to sug gest) from carefully controlled stylization, one that harkens back in many ways to venerable predecessors like Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Yet at virtually this moment that style was falling out of favor.
While few critics today would find the aforementioned "realist"
horror films of c. 1970 lacking in style either visually or thematically,
these movies were at the time deplored, marginalized, or ignored precisely
because they seemed to lack the traditional signifiers of fantasy that
marked the classic horror films--expressionistic mise-en-scene, supernatural
menace, clear demarcation between good and evil, a cathartic destruction
of the monster at the end. Dr. Phibes provided all these things, at least
on the surface, while knowingly altering them at the same time. The film
ends traditionally yet anti-climactically. Dr. Vesalius manages to rescue
his kidnapped son at the last moment and poor Vulnavia receives the acid
intended for the boy, collapsing in a smoky heap with only the spikes
of her headpiece quivering at the bottom of the frame to mark her death.
Phibes escapes into the crypt with the stolen body of Victoria, filling
his veins with yellow embalming fluid as the mirrored (appropriately)
lid of the sarcophagus closes over them, leaving the police confused as
ever as the screen goes dark. After the credits (for those sticking around),
Price's ghoulish laughter is heard again, refusing complete closure and
implying a sequel. Still, the movie does not end with the jolting irresolution,
erased moral boundaries, or even victory for the monster that would increasingly
characterize horror films of every stripe through the 70s (e.g., The Exorcist
, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie , The Omen , Halloween
, Dracula , etc.), though it certainly tended in that direction.
(1.) For discussion of the "mad artist" figure across the genre's history see Schneider 2003.
(2.) See Arkoff and Turbo: 91-92.
(3.) Worthy interviewed in Mr. Sears' Catalogue (videorecording). Presented by WGBH/Boston; WNET/New York; KCET/Los Angeles; Obenhaus Films, Inc. Written and produced by Edward Gray and Mark Obenhaus; directed by Edward Gray and Ken Levis. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 1989.
(4.) The Sears, Roebuck catalogs have been collected in library microfilm editions.
(5.) In his otherwise balanced and insightful A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972, David Pine calls Dr. Phibes "Perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945" (175). The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror moans that "[art director] Brian Eatwell's lavish and expensive art deco sets are wasted by the picture's crassly undergraduate approach..." (228).
(6.) Comedian Gene Wilder has said that his inspiration for the screenplay of Young Frankenstein (1975) came from the unlikely image of the Frankenstein monster in top hat and tails, an idea realized with the Monster (Peter Boyle) on stage growling out "Puttin' on the Ritz." As wonderful as Wilder's anarchic juxtaposition turned out, Dr. Phibes had featured a more restrained take on this idea several years earlier. Dr. Phibes similarly anticipated the camp juxtaposition of musical and horror film made famous by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
(7.) AIP Pressbook, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Author's collection.
(8.) Williams: 229.
Arkoff, Sam with Richard Turbo. Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants. NewYork: Birch Lane Press, 1992.
Benshoff, Harry. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.
Clarens, Carlos. An illustrated History of the Horror Film (1967). New York: Paragon Books, 1979.
Cook, David. Lost illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000.
Hardy, Phil (ed.). The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror. New York: Overlook Press, 1995.
Hunt, Leon. "Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Visceral Classic." in Andy Black (ed.), Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book 1. London: Creation Books, 1996. 123-30.
Pirie, David. A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972. New York: Avon, 1974.
Price, Vincent. The Drawings of Delacroix. Los Angeles: Borden Publishing, 1961.
-----. I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.
Schneider, Steven Jay. "Murder as Art/The Art of Murder: Aestheticizing
Violence in Modern Cinematic Horror." in Steven Jay Schneider and
Daniel Shaw (eds.), Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic
Horror. Lanham. MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003. 171-94.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on 'Camp'." In Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1966: 275-92.
Weil, Gordon. Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A.: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew. New York: Stein and Day, 1977.
Williams, Lucy Chase. The Complete Films of Vincent Price. Secaucus,
NJ: Citadel Press, 1998.
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