Friday, 30 December 2011

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

This is the last review I’ll be doing in this strange, alcohol-fuelled, work-free interregnum between Christmas and New Year and, indeed, my last review of 2011. In 2012 I’ll go back to the usual schedule, continuing with the Buffyverse and (mostly) a film on Saturdays. I’ll also be reviewing certain programmes pretty much as they air in the UK- Doctor Who, obviously, but also, starting next week, Sherlock. In the meantime, here’s a fun little movie review that I didn’t have to think too hard about.

This is the perfect movie to watch if you have a certain sense of humour and you don’t want anything too heavy; it spends ninety minutes doing nothing but mocking its own tropes. Phibes (played, with the expected brilliance, by Vincent Price) has an absurd lack of any real motive for his ridiculously over-theatrical crimes, and that every little intricate little thing goes to plan is utterly unrealistic, but all of this is gleefully thrown in our faces; the film knows exactly what it’s doing. That Phibes is just a take on a certain archetype is shown near the end as he reveals his true, horrifying, Lon Chaney-esque face, and starts playing the organ in an obvious reference to Universal’s silent version of Phantom of the Opera. Yep, this is more of that metatextual fun that I love so much.

The police are hilarious, too; nice, decent, but with all the plodding incompetence that tradition leads us to expect from the Yard. For all that Trout (a great performance from Peter Jeffrey) is a thoroughly decent, put-upon chap (his interactions with his superior are the funniest thing about the film, mainly because his superior is only saying what the audience thinks!), he cocks every single thing up at every single opportunity.

All of the surgeons are subject to a certain amount of mockery too, and none more so than Terry-Thomas’ lecherous old man.  This is not a film that exactly treats authority figures with respect; in fact the gleeful grotesqueness of the various methods of dispatch is the film’s main selling point, as the audience has fun trying to guess how the theme of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, revealed quite earlier on, will show itself in the murders. The chap being impaled by a brass unicorn is the best, but many of them are quite horrific, especially the frog mask. Given the otherwise light tone of the film, there’s something particularly nasty about this one.

Still, it’s a superbly entertaining, and rather undemanding, piece of entertainment. One thing, though; who was Vulnavia?


  1. Ah yes, a classic i enjoyed since i saw it on TV when i was 5.

    Predates Se7en, Saw and more.