As a youngster I quickly realized I wasn’t anything like the other children. Instead of playing outdoors with Barbie dolls, I preferred to sit inside a dark living room and watch the weekly “horror movie matinee” on channel 21. In my spare time I poured over books with crisp black and white photos of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Sr. & Jr. I even got my Dad’s flashlight and tried to do “monster lighting” on myself in the mirror. I put my cousin’s Cabbage Patch Kid in a wooden toy box and informed my cousins that we were going to play “funeral” and that we all had to file past the box for the viewing. Yes I was certainly different all right. Sufficed to say it was only a matter of time before I discovered the films of Vincent Price. He quickly joined my sacred pantheon of horror heroes. I have always found myself enthralled not only by his austere and elegant screen presence, but by THAT VOICE. You can literally close your eyes during his films and just hear him talk—and that alone is enough to send chills up the spine. He had such style, grace and menace all at the same time. That’s a rare thing. Even in films where that divine voice isn’t used very much, his body posture and movements alone do the trick.
I recently saw a double feature of THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) and THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971).
I grabbed some popcorn and settled in for an evening of sheer cinematic bliss!
Both films are “revenge films.” In both films there are several things that you can count on:
#1 Vincent Price’s character will fake his own death
#2 That Vincent Price WILL KILL you for your real or imagined sins against him
#3 He will have a beautiful woman (be it a daughter or girlfriend or assistant) helping him accomplish his evil deeds
#4 Not only will he kill you, but he will do it in the most grisly, creative and theatrical way possible (involving either Shakespeare or Biblical plagues)
#5 He will dwell in a lavish setting (either a glorious yet run down theatre or a art deco home/scientific lab)
#6 He will be chased by authorities
#7 He will escape the law by destroying himself in the end
On ALL of these things you may rely.
In THEATRE OF BLOOD he plays an actor who has been savaged in the press by every critic in London. When he is denied the celebrated Critic’s Award, he fakes his own death and vows to avenge those who robbed him of his glory. He uses his theatre company’s final season of Shakespeare plays as the template which he will use to orchestrate the killings. Each critic is killed in a re-created scene from one of the plays. It keeps getting better and more creative with each murder. The film also has this very dry dark humor running through that is really fun to watch. This may have been regarded at the time as a low budget horror film—but the sheer wit involved elevates it far beyond that! It is plain to see that Vincent Price is having a field day with the character. It shows!
I have seen THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES on VHS but it was a far different experience seeing it on the big screen. Vincent Price plays a famed organist whose wife is killed in a car accident. Once again he fakes his own death to seek revenge on the 8 doctors and one nurse who he is convinced failed to save her life. He kills them all with Biblical plagues in really innovative ways. For example he boils vegetables and pours the residue over the nurse’s head while she is sleeping then via a secret tube he unleashes a swarm of locusts that eat her flesh. The PHIBES character can’t speak much due to the accident which he used to fake his death, so he talks mainly through an artificial box routed through a phonograph. The effect is creepy and works well. The beautiful assistant “Vulnavia” drifts through the film like a zombie who never really springs to life. She bears a striking resemblance to the wife that Phibes lost. This adds yet another creepy dimension to the already creepy proceedings. In the end this time Vincent/Phibes inserts a tube that drains all his blood and replaces it with embalming fluid. Brilliant!
The screenwriter of Phibes was on hand to talk briefly before the film. He described it as a popcorn horror love story. I understood that. In a strange and weird way the best love stories are never the ones that are obvious. They are hiding out in other genres disguised as other films. Maybe they are better off that way….only waiting to be recognized as love stories by the people who seek out something well…different.