The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Gasser

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes can only receive this mediocre rating if you conclude that you are meant to be laughing at certain points. Like Phantom of the Paradise, it blurs the line between horror and comedy. Although it is about grotesque murders, it also is full of humorous dialogue that one cannot help but conclude is meant to make us laugh. Other instances of absurd plot points and bad acting make us laugh for unintentional reasons.

Vincent Price stars as Dr. Phibes, a man who is thought to have died in a car accident following his wife’s death on the operating table. The man is very much alive, however, though horribly disfigured. He pastes on a false face to hide his scars and is able to talk only via a cord attaching his neck to a speaker. When it comes to eating/drinking, he seems to do that via a hole in the back of his neck (cue laughter).

Dr. Phibes lives in an old mansion with a beautiful young woman  (Virginia North) who also fails to utter a word and whose relationship with the doctor is never explained. The man plays an organ and directs a “mechanical” orchestra while also taking time out to waltz with the woman. It all seems to be part of a ritual that leads up to the duo hitting the road and murdering surgeons.

Investigating the crimes is Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is assisted by the head doctor on Mrs. Phibes operation, Dr. Vesalius, played by an older Joseph Cotton. The two discover in their inquiries that the murders –via means such as bats, rats, and bees– are all related to the 10 plagues that preyed upon the Pharaoh of Egypt. The crime-fighters fail to avert any of the deaths, however, until we reach the final plague: death of the first-born. Dr. Vesalius, with a teenage son, is the recipient of that torment. He is forced to operate on the boy to save his life and in a manner that could have inspired the modern Saw movies.

Even the brutal deaths in The Abominable Dr. Phibes seem to employ a degree of comic timing. Having just located one doctor, the authorities lead him out of a building only to have a brass unicorn head catapult through the open door and impale the victim. A concentrated brussel sprout syrup entirely coats the head of a sleeping nurse, whose sleeping pills keep her unconscious during the eating of her face.

Jeffrey, whom I remember as being equally comical in The Return of the Pink Panther, certainly lightens the mood throughout by being fairly incompetent –leaving the critical thinking to Dr. Vesalius– and prattling off humorous lines here and there. Cotton, meanwhile, gives a superbly appropriate performance. A reader commented last week on the post about Cotton’s Walk Softly, Stranger that he has never seen the man give a bad performance. I cannot agree more. Like Bette Davis, Cotton was not immune to appearing in a bad movie, but he always gave a great show, here avoiding the melodrama Price tends to bring to his parts. I think it’s safe to say we expect a certain degree of camp from Price, however, and he certainly delivers that here.

Laura

Wowza!

Laura (1944)

     For me, Laura is the quintessential film noir. In reality, however, it is quite different from the standard flick of that genre. Whereas most noirs dealt with seedy underworld types and a blonde vixen,Laura’s setting is high society and focuses on a pretty brunette out to destroy no one.

     The title character, played by Gene Tierney, is absent for the majority of the flick, shown primarily in flashbacks as the movie paints a picture of her rise to professional wealth and of those around her who are now suspects in her murder. Dana Andrews plays Detective McPherson who seeks to unravel who unloaded a barrel of buckshot in the woman’s face in her own doorway one night.

     He starts his sleuthing with snide newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who accepts McPherson’s visit while he is at his typewriter … in the bath. Waldo is an absolutely unkind man who defends against an accusation of callousness with the response: “I would be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves.” He, who was responsible for launching Laura’s career and courted her platonically, glimpses no sign of guilt. Fascinated with the psyche of a murderer, however, he insists on joining the cool McPherson in his interviews.

     Next up are Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and Laura’s fiance Shelby, played by a young and handsome Vincent Price. Shelby has been distraught, unable to sleep (is that a sign of grief or guilt, Waldo inquires), but his alibi of attending the symphony is shoddy as he inaccurately reports the program, defending himself by saying he fell asleep. Ann, meanwhile, is looking shady because she has been withdrawing large sums of money that appear to be resurfacing in Shelby’s coffers, and we learn the two were having an affair.

     It is impossible to go further into the plot without giving away a fantastic twist that transpires about two-thirds in. The change throws all theories out the window as McPherson considers a different suspect and a different body. Director Otto Preminger gives us a masterpiece in Laura. It seems impossible to determine a true motive for the murder and we and McPherson have a difficult time knowing who to trust.

      The dialogue is intelligent, witty and sharp, especially that coming from the literary Waldo. Webb fantastically plays the acerbic writer whose insults flow so gracefully off his tongue. The story, however, is not just a mystery; it also has shades of romance. As McPherson learns all about Laura and we view her through flash backs, the man gradually falls in love with her ghost and her portrait that hangs above the woman’s mantle. Andrews gives a wonderfully controlled performance. He never raises his voice and his demeanor of near disinterest has the suspects overly willing to offer up information or point out where they have been dishonest and why. He lets Waldo rile up accusations and spark arguments while he bows his head to play with a handheld puzzle game.

     Tierney, meanwhile, paints Laura as a woman we cannot help but admire and ourselves fall in love with –reserved, gentle, elegant, forthright– while Andrews portrays his detective as a perfect mate. Anderson gives her typically perfect performance, and Price is fascinating to see in his charming youth before becoming a master of horror flicks.

     Laura won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and the black and white picture really is a work of art, full of creative shadowing that instills the sexy, mysterious mood. This movie is yet another example of how Otto Preminger never disappoints.Laura is not as long as his other lengthy but worthwhile mysteries, but it packs the same wallop. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Pit and the Pendulum

Dullsville

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

     I think I’m safe in saying that no actor was more familiar with the work –or the loosely interpreted work– of Edgar Allen Poe than Vincent Price. The man made nearly a dozen movies based on this master author’s works. This saddens me, however, because as much as I adore Poe, I detest such period-piece horror movies made in the 60s and 70s.

     The only plot element Price’s movie borrows from Poe’s short story is the actual title device and void. Whereas Poe wrote of a man sentenced to death during the Inquisition and his time in a cell containing a pit and his escape from a swinging blade also therein, the movie waits until the end to even introduce the titular scene.

     Francis Barnard (John Kerr) travels to the eerie castle of Don Nicholas Medina (Price) to learn more about they mysterious death of his sister Elizabeth, the Don’s wife. It takes a while staying with Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders) and houseguest Dr. Leon (Antony Carbone) to discover what truly happened. The story told by Nicholas is that Elizabeth became haunted by the torture chamber in the castle basement that was his father’s pride and joy. She eventually killed herself or was possessed into shutting herself in an iron maiden. She was interred in the cellar walls as is tradition for the family. What follows, however, are a series of strange events that seem to suggest Elizabeth is either still alive, a ghost or Nicholas is staging these two options.

     SPOILER In truth, Elizabeth only faked her death with the help of her lover, Dr. Leon. They endeavored to drive Nicholas mad and to his death so they could be together, but when he discovers what is happening, the master of the castle takes his revenge. Brother Francis is then seized by Nicholas, now possessed by his father, and is strapped to a stone island surrounded by a pit. Above him swings the scythe-like blade that inches toward his stomach within Nicholas’ control. Luckily, Catherine and the butler come to the victim’s rescue and plunge the mad Nicholas to his death. END SPOILER

     The Pit and the Pendulum is rife with laughable absurdity. The performances are a bit melodramatic or just bad and if you read too deeply into the doctor’s actions, he comes off as trying to get everyone in bed. The back story on Nicholas’ parents is twisted and gory, but nothing in this movie is particularly frightening. Although the pendulum makes for a certain amount of suspense, the happy ending for all innocent characters is too nice.

  • The Pit and the Pendulum is set for 1:45 a.m. ET Oct. 24 on TCM.

Feature: Stomaching Horror Movies

With the arrival of October just on the other side of the sunrise, so begins Ryan and my month of horror movies. We endeavor each year to devote the month to jointly enjoying scary movies, which happen to be his milieu more so than mine. We also have ourselves booked for a horror movie marathon in two weeks, which will offer some contemporary, one classic and surely a few older flicks that will turn my stomach.

It is not outright gore that disgusts me but the style of those grotesque images used primarily in the 1970s (I think the style spilled over into the preceding and subsequent decades as well). Blood during that era was quite orange and for some reason that shade makes me lose my appetite. The 60s and 70s also was marked by a seeming obsession with period pieces, that is horror movies primarily set in medieval or Renaissance time frames. Vincent Price is particularly guilty of appearing in an abundance of such films and his 1961 Pit and the Pendulum, based of the Edgar Allan Poe story is one I do not revel seeing again at this marathon.

I understand the appeal an era of castles must have had for fright filmmakers back then in addition to the archaic forms of torture, but there is something about the color scheme generally used in the color films of the 1960s and then the 1970s and into the early 1980s that grosses me out. The movie does not need to be a horror flick to turn me away, just have that certain look. I cannot explain this aversion, but perhaps I merely link the style to the revolting scary movies I have seen from these decades.

The irony is, despite being particularly disgusting to me, I find these films otherwise unscary (outside, for instance, the dread one feels in watching that swinging blade inch closer to the victim’s stomach). Because the time period I describe is teetering on the edge of what I consider classic films, perhaps I can write off my uninterest as a need to stick to the classics. Give me a good Frankenstein or comically bad monster movie instead, please.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Ring a Ding Ding

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

     Although made in 1982, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid could be claimed as 50% classic film. The Steve Martin spoof on old detective dramas uses footage from about a dozen black-and-white movies spliced in with new footage. I first saw this movie in an Intro to Film course and fell in love. It’s full of Martin’s early stupid humor while also showing a real appreciation for old Hollywood.

     Martin is Detective Rigby Reardon, who is approached by Rachel Ward‘s Juliet Forrest to investigate the murder of her father, a scientist and cheese enthusiast. The plot that follows is inconsequential as it is as complex as The Big Sleep –clips of which are used throughout– and is neatly summed up by both the villain and Reardon at the end of the picture, ala The Thin Man and other mysteries.

     Rigby’s mentor is Marlowe, with whom the protagonist consults primarily via telephone, and who is played by Humphrey Bogart in segments from three of his films. The detective also pays visits to several familiar faces, such as Ray Milland in a snippet from The Lost Weekend, Bette Davis in Deception, Cary Grant in Suspicion, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Joan Crawford in Humoresque, among others. Martin also dresses in drag to attract the attention of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. The unsettling part is, from behind, there is little difference between Martin and Barbara Stanwyck from the original clips. Martin again dons a dress to masquerade as James Cagney’s mother from White Heat.

     Writers on the movie George Gipe, Director Carl Reiner and Martin developed the story based on the classic clips. The idea came from one designed by Martin that proposed the use of a classic movie clip. That concept transformed into doing an entire movie using such pieces. After watching old films and pulling particular over-the-shoulder shots and appealing dialogue, the writers then merely juxtaposed the dialogue until they came up with a suitable story. Some clips were clearly used just as an excuse to insert them and do not actually further the plot, but are funny nonetheless.

     Although the cinematographer consulted the filming styles from the old flicks, Martin avoided them altogether. He said he did not want to give a performance reflective of Bogart but something of his own. The result was great as I do not think Martin would have been as funny if he had taken himself more seriously.

     As someone who enjoys both Steve Martin humor and classic films, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is just the epitome of fun for me. I was not familiar with all of the movies featured therein, but I certainly enjoyed figuring out the ones I did know. Thankfully the end credits spell it out for the viewer.

Source: Universal Studios

While the City Sleeps

Dullsville

While the City Sleeps (1956)

     I suppose I recorded While the City Sleeps because it has Ida Lupino in it. I discovered that little dynamo in They Drive by Night with Humphrey Bogart, but I nearly did not recognize her in this film. What I remembered and so identified with in my first Lupino viewing was a scrawny, dark-featured woman with a certain uniqueness to her speech,  but what I found in While the City Sleeps was a curvy vixen with a lightness to her look and what seemed to be a completely different voice and persona, but maybe that’s acting.
     I must say although Lupino gave a great performance in While the City Sleeps I preferred the look I had come to know opposite Bogart and in some crummy musical TCM must have mislabeled as three-star quality.

Lupino in "They Drive by Night"

     Putting those feelings aside, I was incorrectly delighted with While the City Sleeps when the opening credits revealed not only was Dana Andrews also in the cast, but so was George Sanders and Vincent Price. Jackpot! Battle of the Talls, I thought (Price takes the prize, by the way).

Ida Lupino in "While the City Sleeps"

     Unfortunately, this film, although having the backing of  fantastic director Fritz Lang, was a bit sloppy in its plot. Not only does the narrative cover the search for the “Lipstick Killer” by one reporter, but also details a battle between three newspaper bigwigs as they seek to impress the new boss (Price) who recently inherited the firm and is dangling an “executive director” position before their noses. Add into that some complex romances among married but mostly unmarried individuals, and one is not sure to what exactly he is supposed to pay attention.

     Being a reporter, While the City Sleeps affords me the opportunity to whine about how important, impressive, and all around cool reporters used to be. Today one is lucky to find a job in print journalism let alone see a movie with a plot strictly centered on a gent in the field. Journalists played central roles in so many films from the bygone era to the point I will not bother to list those that come to mind, for there are too many. In While the City Sleeps, Andrews’ character is such a well-reputed reporter that he is granted access to witness interrogation, confessions etc. In this flick it is Andrews’ reporter who chases down the murderer and captures him. Fat chance of that happening today (or probably in real life at any point). I can only imagine what it must be like to work in a well reputed field. A gal can dream.

     TCM gave this movie a 4.5 star rating leaving me to wonder what I am missing. Perhaps it is the performances that make this movie great, but the plot offers too great a stumbling block for me. Divide this into two or three films and I could stomach it, but as is, my mind is wandering…

House on Haunted Hill

Yipes!

House on Haunted Hill (1958)

     It has happened at last: I have issued the dreaded Yipes! rating to a movie. Ryan and I had planned to see a showing of House on Haunted Hill Saturday at Columbus, Ohio’s historic venue (that started as a movie house), the Ohio Theatre. We got a bit bogged down with dinner and were not going to make it on time so we watched the film at home instead. Ryan warned me the movie would be bad, but golly it is a disaster.

     Aside from poor acting on the parts of everyone except maybe Vincent Price, House on Haunted Hill has more plot holes than anything I have ever seen. As I rambled the next day to the tune of “…and what about when…” Ryan responded with, “Don’t try to analyze it.” And perhaps that is the only way to take House on Haunted Hill — with a grain of salt knowing the picture is an absolute wreck.

     Instead of engendering fright, this flick only induces laughter. Possibly the only moment a viewer might find frightening is the sudden appearance of an elderly, crazy-haired woman with milky eyes who stands with claw like hands raised before one of the characters. If only the woman had not stayed in that unmoving position long enough for the viewer to conclude how absurd she is. Then one might be scared. My favorite bit of dialogue comes from Richard Long. Upon being informed by the young woman that she is the sole breadwinner for the family because they were all in a horrible accident, Long opens a door. “It’s a closet,” he says before opening another door, “Bottles.”

     Ryan informs me that to his knowledge House on Haunted Hill was the first picture to use the plot scenario of “if you can stay all night in this haunted house I will give you X dollars.” Possibly everyone has seen some movie or show using that plot basis (I seem to recall a cartoon episode of some sort. Scooby Doo maybe?) and, coincidentally it was even part of the story for the TV special “Scared Shrekless” that aired last week. So if nothing else, the movie world would be deprived of ripping off that theme if House on Haunted Hill had not been made.

     House on Haunted Hill is not worthless. It is great for a laugh, but do not attempt to analyze it, as Ryan advised, because you will only end up frustrated.

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