Note, September 18 2013
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a clever late career entry by Vincent Price, in which he plays a German organist come to England, who then takes revenge on the nine doctors who participated in a failed surgery to save the life of his wife. He lives in a classic cult situation, with regard to the wife. He has a shrine to her, in her picture, and also has her entombed, and plans to join her there. But he too is partly art because, having lost his voice, he must speak through a tube in his neck, and had to, much like Price in House of Wax, stop playing organ, and opened an automaton jazz band which then also failed. He kills, but he must kill with class. He does this by, in a style set down by psychos, ordering his murders in a ritualistic way. For him, he chooses the ten blood curses of the Hebrews upon the pharaohs as his guide. They help him with the sequence and content of his murders, all of which are equally mechanically devious and ingenious. All horror movies need to establish their legitimacy by a visit to old books. Phibes has one of the best old books in all of modern horror. The investigator visits Hugh Griffith as a rabbi. He explains that the amulets Phibes has been leaving as his calling card at the murder sites is the blood curse of the Hebrews. He then brings out a manuscript/scroll depicting the curses. It’s a strange object.
And he points out the curses, including that of blood
And the death of the first born.
These are “works of art,” but they illustrate the words, and the words are curses. These are negative works of art, drawings with a negative power. It would seem that the amulets are the same sort of thing, they are marked in Hebrew script, but as if scrawled in blood, they are pretty terrific properties.
This would be the opposite of a protective amulet, but a destructive amulet. This is
his process. He has two amulets for each victim. He commits the murder, then
leaves on amulet at the site, like a calling card, and, on another level, to
complete the curse. Then, he has the other back in his lair, and there he has,
in a separate rotunda, a circle of wax busts in a circle facing out, and when
one is killed, he hangs the amulet around their neck, as if the mark it as
caught, a check, done with that, then he blowtorches the bust so that the wax
drips down on the amulet, completing the transaction. It’s a very curious
ritual, but, because of its methodicalness, quite thrilling. The really
interesting thing about the movie is how the concept of negative artworks, or
curse works, translates to his victims. Early on, one doctor is eaent by bats in
his bed at night. He first senses the presence of this indeterminable intruder
by shadows on his paintings. This suggests that the pictures represent shadows,
and the threat of evil exerted through them
Then in another murder, a festive object, a mask, to be worn to disguise the self, to give one license to party, is reversed, so that it crushes the head within, another negation of the artwork
But by far the most interesting is the death by blood. Terry Thomas plays a doctor
who is given to watching stag films. They are old fashioned, set up on a
screen. In this, he degrades the media of film, uses it for exploitation and
prurient interest, it is therefore a negation of film. He is also guilty in his
watch, as, at one point, real feet appear below the screen, and it is his
housekeeper come to scold him, he thinks, for this, but it is for not eating
his dinner. He explains the screen as a new sort of draught blocker. But she
makes the media real, his worry of what she will think, haunts his viewing. And
then he resumes watching,
It is old, black and white, but kind of grey, filmy, grainy. In watching it, he
has relinquished his honor, revealed his low down self. And so, at one point,
the screen folds up, and the film breaks, and then Vulnavia appears. She is an
interesting angel of doom. She carries the screen, drooping in her hands, like
a shroud, and she, as if materializing out of film, is all in white fur, an
ethereal thing, that he might for a moment think has in fact stepped out of the
film. As such, she is a variant on Samara, the girl in The Ring novies, the prototype behind the film, which would be a real woman, with real attractions, she steps out to mock and mortify him in his private vice.
A few things about this image and idea. She wears white fox fur, all over, including on the head. White fox fur was a convention of modern horror films, and what it meant was that women were smooth silky-to-the-touch creatures, who, because the quality of their skin was not conveyed by film, had to be figured out in their softness by something the viewer could imagine more fully.
Second, white fox fur made women ethereal, somewhat spiritualized, much in the manner of birch trees in woods.
Finally, she stands there with that emblematic robe on her, and a headdress, and an emblem, in her hand, a spent screen (I do not know if I have ever seen this image before, a person holding a drape of spent screen). In this, she reminds me of a functional goddess like Nemesis,
Only she carries a screen destroyed, not an hour glass (same thing). In so far as Thomas spent himself on it, at least with his prurient eyes, it reminds me of a portrait-on-skin by Michelangelo
And as such it too, abstracted, acts like sheets draped over furniture in haunted houses, to communicate of ghosts
Oddly enough, after Patricia Morrison, in the above white fox fur attack, for it was always also associated with the femme fatale, kills Stinky for a music box, in the 1940s Sherlock Holmes picture, Dressed to Kill, a nice shot, she pulls the tail of her stole from under his fallen body, a reminder that, after all, it too is skin (the implication that the skin of the exploited woman is in the spent screen still).
And then the space of their meeting is also rendered partly unreal by the backdrop of one of his large action paintings. She touches him, realizing his fantasies
A bit of a detour here: oddly enough, screening this scene, I also watched
another movie from the 70s where in older times the agency of film was
activated to enact an embodiment, in Belting’s sense of the word. In the very
poor remake of The Cat and the Canary (1978), the will of Cyrus West is read by way of a personal appearance on a screen
I suppose this device was constructed to carry over from the original the fact that an image of West shows his displeasure at the reading. In the silent original, this is communicated by the fact that the great portrait (copied in the 1999 The Haunting, ridiculously), which is already a great apparatus, made worse by his aggressive evil eye
At one point it tumbles off the wall,
And then out of its frame
Radley Metzger, whom I have noted as a considerable fetishist when making use of the
scrollwork and wainscots of mansions to express sexual pleasure (best in The Alley
Cats), decided to activate this idea in modern media, and so the film is stored
in a kind of cryogenic chamber, a retrieval that emphasizes the fact that West
is embodied in the film
And then not only does he sit at the head of the table, through film, across a span
of 20 years, he has prearranged the menu, the serving of the wine (the wine
being better now), and reads the will this way. All involved think this is very
controlling, and a bit crazy, to be sitting at a table with a ghost. He does
not manifest, but his scripted intrusion is a variant of the aggressive
picture, or the picture that commands attention, and directs action, that reads
will. His faithful house servant elides the difference between film and life by
passing from in and out of frame, to serve the wine, aging 20 years in the step,
but also by touching the screen, as if it was him
Finally, one aspect of that odd makeshift setup for dinner is that it is lorded over by old fashioned lamps, and one of them is striped, an artifact in British horror which signifies hypnosis, so the purpose of the film is to hypnotize, the reduce the viewers’ ability to tell media from real, to make the two come together, to make a stepping in, and then a stepping out, in the most classic definition of a cult image, but, here, malevolently, possible.
But back to Phibes. Once Vulnavia (and this wonderful name suggests she is a functional goddess) has seduced him to sit, Phibes comes in, Thomas asks, who’s this? And all this happens as if staged before an action painting from the 17th century, which acts like another screen.
There is a suggestion that Thomas is not quite alive anymore, he is flesh and blood, but not so much as other human beings might be. All one need do is remove his blood, and he will revert into a work of art too. And that is his punishment, the torture of his death. Phibes inserts catheters, and the blood is extracted until he is dead (a device also used in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon). If ancient Egyptians made corpses seem alive by covering them in resin and cloth, and Belting calls this strategy embodiment, this represents a disembodiment—the reduction of a person to an image or work of art, which is the equivalent to death. Then the jars of his blood are placed up by his art décor table sculpture, a work of art (in fact, a very early Kiki Smith; note: see entry on Michael Day Jackson)
Phibes menaces him, as if a figure in the painting behind
And then something very odd happens. Phibes steps off camera, but then comes back. He glances with a tsk tsk appraisal at the nudity in the painting, and seems to scold Thomas one last time for reducing even classic 17th century paintings of Leda and the Swan into prurient displays of flesh. It is almost as if he is saying, well your flesh now too is less than paint on canvas, and your blood, like the red of that robe, is an artifact on a table.
This is a bit odd, as the picture is classic, and in no way prurient. It is, I believe, Leda and the Swan, however, possibly suggesting an interest in rape pictures. Phibes means to imply that it is the sort of thing a dirty old man might collect (and a similar use is made of one’s art in Death at a Funeral, British version, when the son, told his father was gay, looks about at the hunky classic art and gets it).
In any case, this strange sequence demonstrates that for Thomas media was cursed,
and made evil, and made the instrument of his execution, because he had
degraded it, and given too much of himself to it, and therefore deserved to
die. It is a high brow variant on the old convention of the slasher movie, to
punish victims for sex. There is also a whisper of activist critique of
masturbation or other forms of consumption of sex, when anything less than
full-on intercourse, in the modern era, was viewed almost as a perversion (far
different now in the Age of Onan). Elsewhere, another victim is killed between
a work of sculpture, of a unicorn, and a canvas, with the horn going through
him and then through the canvas, this is a negative, cursing, murdering work of
And like all the others, it merits another work back at his place, being defaced and vandalized as a kind of voodoo confirmation of his extermination, and the deed being done. All in all, then, Dr. Phibes is distinguished for the interesting nexus it sets up in a man reduced to a state of artfulness between art and life, or, more accurately, art and death. It is no surprise that the screenwriter detected as kind of Egyptian flavor to this voodoo of embodiment, and the sequel therefore was to be set in Egypt. But in that movie, he veers somewhat away from art, to direct torture instruments linked to the lore of the tomb traps of ancient Egypt. So we have a mechanical snake, which is not, strictly speaking, a work of art
A rigged up phone (also used in Horrors of the Black Museum, only there is was binoculars),
A triggered coffin
And a classic torture-device-cum-tomb trap of lowering spiked snake heads
In addition to a sleeping cot that accordions shut, a golden scorpion that grabs, and, as in the original, a device that sandblasts the person seated in the back street of a car to a skeletal state. But it has to be conceded, none of these explicit instruments of torture are as interesting as devices devised for killing derived from the dictates of a pattern of curses, discovered in the private vices of individuals, often doubly cursed, therefore, through works of art. More to come.