In the wake of all those very intense (and weird and problematic) Brian De Palma movies, I wanted something very different for my next entry in It’s All Connected 2020. I also really enjoyed seeing vintage John Travolta in Blow Out, so his was the first page I began going through on IMDb. There I found a real doozy of a picture called The Devil’s Rain that is a star-studded Satanic romp featuring Ernest Borgnine as a cult leader and brothers Mark and Tom — played by William Shatner and Tom Skerritt — opposing him! This film also marked the first film appearance by John Travolta (though I don’t think you can actually see him), the first appearance of an iconic horror mask AND the first time Ernest Borgnine threw up the devil horns. And it’s streaming on Amazon Video right now!Enter, If you dare…
Regular readers might have noticed a bit of a drop off in horror movie reviews lately, that’s because I’ve been saving up for October. Like many of my fellow bloggers, I’ll be attempting to watch and review a horror movie every single weekday (who has time to blog on the weekend?). And then another one. That’s right, a daily double dose of horror during the working week. That’s my intent at least. I’ve tried things like this before and both succeeded and failed, so we’ll see how well I do.
To kick off my October adventure, I decided to give The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again another look for the first time. Back when I worked as a lowly research assistant at Wizard a very nice person saw me eying the MGM Vincent Price box set and gave it to me. I was super thrilled because I’m a big Price fan, but haven’t seen nearly enough of his movies and this set has a ton of goodness (much of which I will be mining for this month’s posts). With both movies on one disc, it made great to start with.
I remember back in high school when I first got into horror, I found a website that had the top 666 horror movies of all time or something like that. I went through, copied and pasted the entire list into a Word doc and printed it out which acted as my first horror checklist before I picked up Creature Features. Anyway, I remember Abominable Dr. Phibes being high on that list because it was in alphabetical order. I had no idea what it was or who was in it, but it sounded kind of silly, like one of those wacky sci-fi comics from the silver age.
As it turns out, the movie is a little silly, but in a really strange and disturbing way, like seeing Leatherface putting make up on one of his people masks. See, the idea behind the movies is that Dr. Phibes’ wife died on the table of several surgeons. He himself got pretty messed up in an accident while trying to get to her at the hospital, so what does the bereft and disfigured husband do (that’s him in the spoiler-ish poster above)? First, build a face for himself that looks like a lumpy Vincent Price, then invent an elaborate voice box magnifier so he can talk, third get a woman servant named Vulnavia, after that get a mechanical band and play organ with them in your well-lit and stage like underground lair and finally start taking revenge on the men you see as responsible for your wife’s death. For far too much information you can check out the trailer. It’s very SPOILER heavy.
As you may have seen in the trailer, the kills in this movie are spectacular. Phibes bases them on the 10 plagues of Egypt from The Bible which means you get to see things like an ever-tightening frog mask killing a man, a bat climbing up a man’s chest and locusts eating a woman’s face off. And, man, does Price play the character with the perfect mix of theatricality and creepiness. One minute he’s playing organ with the mechanical band, the next he’s arranging to murder a man’s son with acid. It’s intense and could have easily veered into the completely ridiculous, but Price keeps things from getting too over the top. Now that I think about it, Phibes is kind of like the evil version of Batman with his lair, gadgets and way to kill anyone (though I think sitting a man down and draining the blood from him would only work in England, those people can be WAY too polite). The first movie ends with Phibes locking himself up with his wife’s preserved corpse in an underground coffin…
Only to be revived a few years later (according to the story) in Rises Again, neither of them looking the worse for wear. This time, Phibes isn’t so much set on revenge as bringing his beloved back to life thanks to some Egyptian mumbo jumbo. But, while they slumbered, his house was razed and the key to her resurrection was stolen by none other than vampire Count Yorga. Well, not exactly, but the guy who played the Count: Robert Quarry. Apparently there was lots of bad blood on set because Price heard that Quarry was being brought in to replace him as the studio’s main horror actor and Quarry didn’t like how Price got to do all of his lines in post thanks to the voice box doohickey. That tension comes across well as Phibes is trying to hunt down Quarry and his crew who are on a dig in Egypt to help prolong Quarry’s unnaturally long life.
Once Price realizes that Quarry has the piece he needs to bring his wife back to life he heads to Egypt, builds another ridiculously complex lair that includes his organ and the mechanical band and starts building traps for Quarry’s people like an eagle statue that grabs your arms while scorpions kill you and a bed that squishes you until you’re a bloody pancake.
Once again you get Price’s awesome performance, this time boosted by Quarry’s. The kills don’t look quite as good (the eagle looks like it might have been made of paper), but once again the final trap is a real nailbiter. In the previous movie a surgeon had to open up his son to remove a key that would release him from his bonds and get him out of the way of an acid drip Phibes devised. This time around, Quarry’s love interest is tied up on a board and covered in chicken wire with ever-rising water that will eventually smash her into some spikes hanging from the ceiling unless Quarry gives Phibes what he needs. Again, be warned that the trailer gives away most of the kills.
I really dug both of these movies. They’re weird and wild and colorful without being too much of any one thing. Phibes ranks up there with some of my all-time favorite movie killers now. He’s got some of Freddy’s quippiness, some of Michael Myers’ theatricality (dude loved posing bodies, remember) and a gimmick to beat all gimmicks (sorry, Seven, but 10 plagues beats 7 deadly sins!). There’s a lot online about potential sequels that never got made which is too bad because I think with Price any of them would have been a hoot, however, I’m not too keen on the idea of a remake (not that I’ve heard talk of one, I’m just saying) because, frankly, I think it could be too easily turned into torture porn nonsense. In many ways, Phibes is the precursor to Jigsaw from the Saw flicks in that he spends lots of time devising overly complex traps for people, but that doesn’t mean I want to see a new, old favorite blasted through the Hollywood remake machine. I’m perfectly fine with watching these early 70s classics!