Dear lord, do I love this movie. I’ve probably seen it 40-50 times at least.
Vincent Price stars as Dr. Anton Phibes: expert inventor, musicologist, classical organist, and doctor of theology. While rushing home from a conference while his wife underwent an emergency surgery, his car careened off a cliff while she died on the operating table. Now (now being 1925), the doctor — long believed dead, but instead burned beyond recognition with his face covered by a mask and his voice transmitted via a connection in his neck — has emerged from the shadows to seek revenge on the team of nine doctors and nurses whom he believes let his beloved Victoria Regina Phibes pass away.
This is a sumptuously beautiful movie. Chock full of art nouveau and deco decor (even though everyone mentions art deco in relation to the film, Phibes’ lair is much more heavily nouveau influenced), brilliant colors and exquisite sets and contraptions, it’s directed by Robert Fuest with his typical eye toward visual overload. The plot is direct and straightforward, yet subversive. Phibes is perhaps the only relatable character in the film. Long-suffering Inspector Harry Trout — who is investigating Phibes’ crimes — comes close, but we’re never made to really feel sympathetic toward his character. He’s basically the “straight man” in the comic relief portion of the film. No, Phibes is our anti-hero, carrying out unspeakable and elaborate revenge in the name of his eternal, undying love for Victoria.
And now that I think about it, there’s an element in the film that carries along a theme I brought up in yesterday’s discussion of DEMONS. Like that film (and Fulci’s THE BEYOND), there is a seemingly supernatural character whose existence winds up being in peril. Phibes is assisted by the mysterious Vulnavia. She never speaks (there’s only mention of her speaking with a banker at some point, and even that is in question), and is essentially summoned from out of the aether by Phibes at the film’s beginning. But she winds up being killed by ordinary means. (She returns in the sequel, played by a different actress…is she the incarnation of some spirit, taking on a new mortal shell whenever the old one passes? Who knows?)
In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Vincent Price’s passing from this mortal coil, give this one a watch tonight. It’s perfectly creepy, delightfully diabolical, and evil in the most romantic of possible ways. Heck, if you’ve got the time, watch the sequel too. It’s set in Egypt and it’s almost as much fun as the first.