The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

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Since the entirety of October is officially Halloween this year (shut up, you!), we at Psycho Drive-In have decided to attempt to fill the month with thirty-one recommendations for horror-related movies, comics, books, TV shows, toys, games, and everything in-between. It’s gonna be a grab-bag of goodies we feel you should be exposed to, whether you like it or not! But don’t expect your standard suggestions for Halloween fun, we’re digging into some stuff that we love in the hopes that you might make this October a little bit weirder than usual.

Weirder in a good way. Not like what’s going on outside in the hellscape of 2020.

Let me preface this piece with the fact that I believe everything that Vincent Price did during his long career in the genre of horror, is amazing. This includes The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby Doo, The Monster Club, and the apple shrunken head kit. This premise established and hopefully agreed upon, there are some Price films that are more widely appreciated than others. These range from the relatively straight scares of House of Wax (1953) or Witchfinder General (1968), the well-regarded Poe adaptations The Masque of the Red Death (1964) or The Raven (1963), and the sci-fi tinged Last Man on Earth (1964)and The Fly (1958). There is not a bad choice in the bunch, and that barely scratches the surface on Price’s many films.

Perhaps no film so encompasses what makes him a horror icon, however, than The Abominable Dr. Phibes, where Price enacts biblical revenge on the medical team he holds responsible for the death of his wife. This is enough grist for a good horror flick (and possibly a comic from Jack Kirby), but Price elevates the character. It is hard to imagine any other actor marrying the menace of Phibes’ actions with the queerness of the character. Price gleefully plays a pipe organ, bedecks himself in cravatted robes, and runs circles around the buttoned-up masculinity of Joseph Cotten. This is all without mentioning that the good/bad doctor’s assistant is the lovely Vulnavia, who shares Phibes’ impeccable sense of fashion, joins him in a refined waltz, and serves as the perfect platonic partner in his murderous pursuits. Though the doctor’s inherent fabulousness is not strictly text in the film- he had a wife, after all- I think Phibes can safely be ensconced beside the Babadook as a gay horror icon.

My only regret is that the character was only revived once, for Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Though the second film can’t sneak up on you in the manner of the original, it gets a lot of points for moving the theme and setting to Egypt. Price again has a ball and the film provides him a worthy adversary, Count Yorga portrayer Robert Quarry as the improbably named alchemist Biederbeck. New Coke Vulnavia is also fine. Phibes exits the film in true boss mode: victorious, using a coffin as a boat, and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Though sequels were planned that would have pitted Price against luminaries such a David Carradine, Roddy McDowall, and Orson Welles, the performance of the sequel did not merit continuation of the franchise, leaving the Phibes character undefeated even by the ravages of time.

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