Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Modern horror fans might think the opening scene to The Abominable Dr. Phibes is too long and rather pointless.  The long, static shot of Phibes (Vincent Price), in a black cape and playing a pipe organ while arising from a subterranean lair, give the appearance that director Robert Fuest walked away from the camera, allowing Price to indulge in his campy side.

And Price does ham it up.  His hands wave about without even attempting to match the soundtrack (though this might not be Price’s fault).  But the scene works on two levels.  It not only sets up the campy tone of the film, but also is a brilliant merging of a classic Gothic character into a more modern setting.  Without this scene, the film would fall flat, and Price’s wonderful campy performance would appear out of place, rather than just out of time.  As Phibes and his organ arise into a brilliant white, Art Deco themed ballroom (it’s no surprise if his appearance brings images of The Phantom of the Opera to mind), the character and the setting meld in a manner a less elaborate scene would lack.  This opening, and several other bits, makes the film a must see for horror fans.

A Gothic character and Art Deco isn't as easy to combine as chocolate and peanut butter.  Just saying.

As expected, the plot is paper-thin.  Scotland Yard Detective Trout (Peter Jeffery) links a series of murders, based on the plagues visited upon Egypt by Moses, to a medical team that failed to save the life of Victoria Phibes (an un-credited Caroline Munro) several years earlier.  Trout suspects Phibes, despite his reported death in a car crash as he raced to be at his wife’s side.  Working with the lead surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) to protect the other team members, the pair are always one step behind the diabolical genius.

Yes, it sounds like little more than an earlier, slower paced version of the more recent entries in the Saw franchise.  While the deaths are imaginative enough to make Jigsaw applaud in appreciation, Phibes is more interested in revenge than imparting a moral message.  Fitting into a role of the wronged, disfigured genius seen in countless films from the start of cinema, Phibes becomes a forgotten fixture in cinema history, his intentions driven by the simplest desire.  His madness is not to teach, nor the simple blanket of insanity that infused horror films since Psycho.  He is the desire to avenge oneself upon those that wronged him. 

But the script, as with the more modern setting, isn’t as simple minded.  During the film’s climax, Dr. Vesalius earnestly pleads that he and his team did everything possible to save Victoria.  And while Vesalius’ cries fall upon deaf ears, it does cause the audience to wonder if her death was unavoidable, rather than caused by malpractice.

Wow, that jury was really harsh!

In addition to their smart decision to leave Phibes’ motives questionable, screenwriters James Whiton and William Goldstein (and an uncredited Fuest) inject some wonderful, nasty humor into the script. The build-ups to, and executions of, the murders are ghoulish fun, as are some of the end results (just try not to chuckle as the Plauge of the Beasts victim is removed from the crime scene).  And naming Dr. Vesalius after Andreas Vesalius, the Belgium physician considered the father of modern anatomical studies (quite likely, given Vesalius’ task at the climax of the film) shows the writers did their homework, even if the audience didn’t get the joke.

The cast is wonderful.  While Price overshadows them all, chewing the scenery at every chance, the others are the perfect foil to Phibes.  Their subdued performance set them up as the perfect straight men and reinforces the idea that Phibes is a character out of place with the time period.  Only Terry-Thomas gets to ham it up, but only to sell his lecherous glee over a rather tame stag film.

Virginia North, playing Phibes’ mute assistant Vulnavia, deserves special mention.  The script never gives any hint why she is aiding Phibes, casting her as a surrogate for the audience, as we become so captivated by the insane doctor that we become as willing participant as she is.  Adding to the character’s allure is North’s physical performance.  She moves with the grace of a ballerina, as captivating as Price with a simple movement of a wrist or a graceful spin.  IMDb lists this as her final film credit, which is a shame, as her performance hints at talents untapped in previous roles.

And she's a terrific dance partner.  

The sets, designed by Bernard Reeves, are stunning.  And the design of Phibes’ more futuristic technology is terrific, as the machines still invoke a 1920s sensibility.  It’s a delicate balancing act, but the film scores once again, making this more of a timeless fantasy than one set in a particular era.

I’m trying not to spoil much more, as horror fans should seek out The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  Modern viewers might have trouble with the pace, but I suspect the rich performances, dark humor and death scenes that don’t need CGI or buckets of blood to be unnerving will win most horror fans over. 

Yea, just try not to squirm when you realize this is a pre-CGI bat.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959)

 I suspect many monster fan remember the infamous publicity still from The Monster of Piedras Blancas, with the titular creature holding a decapitated head.  It graced the pages of countless horror magazines and still haunts the memories of older monster kids, myself included.  But, as with trailers and Roger Corman posters, the movies aren’t always as good as the promotional material and this film just doesn’t live up to such a terrific image.  At least not the movie I imagined as a kid.

Yea, that's the stuff of monster kid dreams right there

The film start ominously enough, as the monster’s claw reached into a bowl left for it by Sturges (John Harmon), the town lighthouse keeper.  Yet despite his attempts to sate the monster’s appetite, and keep its existence secret, once Sturges loses his meat scrap supply, it’s only a matter of time before the monster uses the town as a buffet line.

Sturges also has to contend with his daughter Lucille (Jeanne Cormen), on vacation from the boarding school he sent her to a decade earlier to keep her safe from the monster.  Yes, he’s been keeping the Monster a secret for that long, regardless of the occasional missing tourist or two.  Now an adult, Lucille is dating the young local scientist Fred (Don Sullivan) and is prone to impromptu nighttime skinny-dipping sessions, which always peaks a monster’s interest. 

As the decapitated bodies start piling up, the town’s doctor (Les Tremayne) and constable (Forrest Lewis) try to keep the residence from panicking, assuming the murders to be the work of a lunatic.  Even though they find a mysterious scale at one of the murder sites, no one suspects a monster is on the loose until it pops out of hiding with the head of its latest victim.

Okay, it strolls out.

This brings up the biggest problem with the film.  The audience knows a monster is involved, yet it takes over 45 minutes for the creature to show up on screen, other than a menacing claw or a shadow cast against a wall.  And once it emerges, all the audience gets to see is a shot of its torso and arm, along with a decapitated head. 

Sure, the scene broke taboos concerning film gore (along with a moment involving the head and a hungry crab), and likely shocked the busy-with-other-things drive in patrons back in the 50s.  But even after the authorities know about the monster, the film runs another 18 minutes before the monster’s full revel, and it’s just in time for the projectionist to start up the final reel.  It’s just not enough creature time for a movie with the word “Monster” in the title.

The script, written by H. Haile Chace, pads out the film with too much dialog and director Irvin Berwick slows things down even further by elongating too many scenes.  One prime example is of a young boy who is written into the script to find a victim of the monster.  But the build up to that moment involves him being allowed to skip walking to the cemetery for a funeral.  He leans on a post for a bit, then pulls out a knife and whittles on a stick.  He puts his knife away as an adult approaches (the shot is only of their feet, but come on, the audience isn’t falling for that bit of misdirection), then looks at the sidewalk, finds a coin and picks it up before finally entering the store and finding the shopkeeper’s corpse.  Yes, it’s as long and boring as it sounds and should have been trimmed to only a few seconds, rather than minutes.  But the film is filled with similar sequences and trimming every one would have cut the running time of this feature to a short.

The script falters further when it delves into monster movie clich├ęs.  The endless discussion about the mysterious scale is one of the worst scientist-explains-it-to-the-audience moments ever filmed.  Even more egregious is the lover’s spat late in the film, which is so forced, it risks invoking chuckle from the audience.

Even those old science films from high school didn't last THIS long.

But despite the script’s problems, the cast delivers solid performance, making the film more watchable than expected.  And the climax at the lighthouse is a lot of fun, though one wishes the action was spread though out the film, rather than delivered in one concentrated dose. 

The pace of the film’s climax is so quick, it turns Lucille into an Olympic sprinter, as she appears to cover a couple of miles (while wearing a nightgown and slippers) when she runs out of the lighthouse to get help after the monster attacks her father. 

And she's not even winded when she runs back up the stairs.  She'd get the gold!

Berwick and Jack Kevan, both laid off from Universal Studio at the time, acted as producers on the film.  Berwick had worked for Jack Arnold and William Castle, among others, as an unbilled dialog director, while Kevan had labored in obscurity in the studio’s makeup department on films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (Bud Westmore, the department head, was notorious for denying his employees any publicity or credit).  Forming Vanwick Productions, the pair took advantage of deals offered by the studio to former employees on production vehicles and equipment, which explains why the film looks so good despite the low budget. 

As for the Monster, Kevan was able to use casts from earlier Universal monsters to create his creature, reducing effects costs.  But its Frankenstein-like creation doesn’t explain why director Berwick decided to keep the monster hidden for so much of the film’s running time.  The suit looks great (given the film’s budget) and Pete Dunn delivers a fine performance as the Monster.  And the filmmakers needn’t worrying about drive in audiences trying to figure out what parts belong to other monsters (they’d leave that task to nerds of the future). 

With more appearance of the titular creature and a tighter pace, The Monster of Piedras Blancas would have been a solid little B-picture.  The cast is terrific, the monster costume is great and the overall production looks wonderful, despite the rather grainy quality of version I watched.  But, despite the flaws, monster kids will continue to seek this film out, as I did, based on that awesome publicity still.  Just be aware, the movie you imagined for this monster is probably better than the one that ended up on drive in screens back in 1959.

But she does deliver a classic scream when the monster finally appears, just as I imagined.