Faces behind the mask: Vincent price, Dr. Phibes, and the horror genre in transition.
--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 t o 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 st atus 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 P rice'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)
Without disputing Benshoff's keen analysis (to which I am indebted) or taking a position on questions of Price's private identity, I hope to offer a different, perhaps parallel assessment of Dr. Phibes in relation to both specific aspects of its film style and its star's public persona that have been less closely examined. Specifically. I am concerned with constructions of Price's off-screen image and the ways in which its connotations of elitism or even "secret kinkiness" were parlayed into a democratic, thoroughly middle class image in the postwar period, one that made the actor (among other pursuits) a successful pitchman for Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Dr. Phi bes succeeds as exploitation horror while uniting and commenting on these major public and private tensions in its star's persona, the apparent as well as implicit parts of Price's career that made his celebrity image nearly as fluid as the motions of his eyebrows.
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 H. 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 hav e the good fortune to be able to communicate that passion to others, and for the past few years have had the chance to do it successfully" (266). Price's practiced ability to disseminate his learning to average people in an affecting way fulfilled his self-defined role as mediator between elite and popular tastes, the key to this aspect of his career.
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 offeri ng 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
Despite the optimism of the Sears catalog, "horror comedy" is actually quite difficult to produce in an "entertaining" or truly satisfying manner. A clumsy hybrid usually results, particularly when filmmakers seek (often unwisely) to be true to both modes. The unjustly maligned Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) succeeds as one of the vaudeville duo's best comedies precisely because it makes no attempt to frighten the audience. The comedians are terrified, but viewers never are. Unlike many attempts at mixing horror and humor, The Abominable Dr. Phibes skillfully balances each approach. In this respect, it benefited from being among the first films to enjoy opportunities to experiment with more outlandish sex and violence after the MPPA ratings system abolished formal censorship in 1968. The movie unflinchingly depicts bloody and sadistic murders, enabling its reception as a wrenching horror film that aims to shock even while it includes humorous touches. Indeed, about two weeks after its release Dr . Phibes was cited in a Variety article ". . . as part of a new wave of films 'containing extreme screen gore"' (quoted in Cook 2000: 224).
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.
What Benshoff terms Price's typical "Expressionist" acting style is meliorated here by the givens of the story. Price really gave two separate performances in this film, one in pantomime on camera and a second in the recording studio during postproduction. Due to his injuries, Phibes creeps through much of the film as a silent wraith, unnerving his victims with mute menace. Yet in one of the film's most memorable effects, the doctor speaks by using "his knowledge of music and acoustics" to mechanically synthesize his voice, plugging the cord of an antique Victrola into a conveniently located socket in his neck. Phibes' labored, halting speech and filtered vocal inflections repeat the themes of "artifice and exaggeration" that parallel the conceit that Price's own familiar face is a mask.
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.
As we have from the movie's first murder, in which a doctor is shredded by dozens of bats released from a shrouded cage in his bedroom, we wonder just what nasty fate awaits this victim. The pilot's flight is routine until a single rat crawls across his shoulder. His revulsion and quick toss of the creature brings a brief spell of relief--until more and more rats swarm through the cockpit, biting and ripping at the pilot who begins losing control of the aircraft as he battles the vermin. Below, Phibes bends over his telescope in anticipation as the sound of the plane's struggling motor signals distress. As the montage accelerates, the murder climaxes with a three-second close up of a rat chewing frantically on some unidentifiable bit of red flesh, a wincing shock because preceded by low-angle shots of the pilot overwhelmed with panic while rats crawl about his crotch. The roar of the falling plane ends in a loud explosion as we shock-cut back to Dr. Phibes triumphantly spinning the telescope on its mount and lightly applauding his own success.
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)
After each murder, Phibes blowtorches a wax bust of the victim, one of many motifs of simulacra in the film, accompanied by a soaring burst of French horns to herald his triumph. Musical interludes of another kind typically precede or follow murder scenes. As in Berkeley's backstage musicals, these scenes of music and dance are self-sufficient elaborations of style for its own sake, and serve no narrative function. After the curse of rats, for example, Phibes and Vulnavia dance an elegant tango in the ballroom, a scene which opens with the doctor lowering a theatrical backdrop (evocative of the exterior of a Monte Carlo hotel) and concluding with dinner and a toast, Phibes carefully pouring a glass of champagne into the hole in his neck.
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.
WILL THE REAL VINNIE PLEASE STAND Up?
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.)
The film's most fully realized and funny take on Price's public image appears in the murder of Dr. Longstreet, played by British comedian Terry-Thomas. The curse of blood will be realized by strapping down the doctor and slowly siphoning his veins quart by quart. Gruesome stuff to be sure, and played so with Longstreet reduced to a blue-white pallor as his life slips away, the mute Phibes glaring into his face. Yet the murder is bracketed by comedy both broad and subtle. Dr. Longstreet is a naughty boy. He shoos his aged housekeeper out for the evening so he can set up a projector and movie screen to watch porn loops of a harem girl cavorting with a snake. In a low-angle shot framed to look decidedly like masturbation, Fuest shoots Longstreet eagerly cranking the projector while he gulps a drink and stares at the screen. This tableau of furtive, adolescent guilt builds with his servant's brief return, and Longstreet's embarrassed scramble to keep her from seeing the film. She departs again and Longstreet quic kly resumes his fun only to be startled by the lovely Vulnavia standing before the screen. He can scarcely believe his good fortune when she smiles and guides him to a chair--that is, until Phibes appears.
With Longstreet now dead, Phibes places the last quart bottle of blood on the mantle, over which hangs a painting that only now becomes prominent. Evidently a version of Leda's union with Zeus that produced Castor and Pollux, the rococo scene includes a pair of swans whose necks form a heart shape. We may now have begun to notice the tacky, over-stuffed decor of Longstreet's rooms. Phibes stares off-screen at Longstreet's corpse. Then Vincent Price the epicure sniffs the evidently cheap brandy his victim was swilling and shoots him a withering look of sour anger. Phibes gathers his things and departs, though the camera holds on the mantle and painting in medium long shot. He slowly returns, drawn to inspect the vapid canvas. Surveying it in disbelief, Phibes again turns to gaze off-screen at the doctor's corpse with an even more disdainful look, as if to say, "Your taste is so abysmal, I'm doubly glad I killed you!" This is all communicated nonverbally through mise-en-scene, and Price's performance adds but a nother note of self-consciousness to the tale. It is a wickedly funny moment, as if Longstreet has literally been executed for criminal bad taste.
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 name.
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.
As both effective horror thriller and self-conscious play on Price's dual personae, Dr. Phibes heralded these changes in the genre. The question implicitly posed and never quite resolved in Price's bifurcated career is how we are to judge his avocation as popularizer and pitchman for commodified high culture. Is it to be celebrated as a "gay avenger's" final jape on straight, middle class society, or condemned as a cynical sell-out to sterile, middlebrow sensibilities? Responses have varied over the years, with negative critical assessments predominating, yet this tension remains central to Price's star persona regardless. Writing in the mid 1960s, when the Poe series had in fact concluded, genre historian Carlos Clarens winced that, "...the mind boggles at the thought of having the Complete Edgar Allan Poe translated into Vincent Price star vehicles" (151). Clarens clearly preferred horror films of a presumed higher cinematic pedigree, but there is no question that fans were
drawn by Price's unique combinati on of charm and menace. The Abominable Dr. Phibes provided perhaps the perfect vehicle for Vincent Price's talents in a vibrant, sophisticated film that has been too-long undervalued, a missing link in the stylistic evolution of the horror film during a particularly volatile and creative period in its history.
(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.
(9.) For insightful discussion of the use of Price's star persona in this cult film, see Hunt 1996.
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.
Sears Christmas, 1964. Chicago: Sears, Roebuck, and Company, 1964.
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.