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The Abominable Influence of Dr. Phibes

By  · Published on November 11th, 2016

Vincent Price may have inspired some pretty killer genre flicks.

One of the greatest aspects of binging on genre films both classic and contemporary is the discovery of interconnected threads of influence. Sure, you could pick through the trivia on IMDB to find this info or take one of your leather-bound volumes of Wikipedia down from the shelf, but that is nowhere near as satisfying as stumbling across the wellspring of homage in the wild. Not only that, but some connective tissue goes unrecorded in the annals of internet movie databases.

This month on the Junkfood Cinema podcast, we continue our celebration of the release of Marvel’s Doctor Strange (co-written by our own co-host Cargill) with a series we have dubbed Mister Doctor; wherein a new doc-centered genre flick will be covered each week. After dabbling the sorcery of Dr. Mordrid, we now set out on the elaborate revenge plot of The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Dr. Phibes seeks to avenge his late wife, who died during an operation presided over by nine medical professionals. He himself was thought dead after a fiery car crash on the way to join his wife at the hospital. His wrath proves (almost literally) Biblical as he employs the plagues of Egypt to systematically dispatch the doctors and nurses he blames for his wife’s death.

What is striking about this film, which was produced by drive-in fodder machine American International Pictures, is that it is simultaneously dark and comedic. One moment we are watching a horribly disfigured man speak through a hole in his neck and dispassionately drain every last drop of blood from a victim before we then suddenly diverge into moments of pure screwball silliness with bungling police. Similarly striking are the indulgences of surreal, dream-like sequences that seem ripped from a Jodorowsky movie.

Then, we come to the final murderous installation, modeled after the plague of the taking of the first born. Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) is challenged to release his shackled son before corrosive acid drips through a filtering device and onto the boy’s head. The key to the shackle? Surgically implanted inside the young man. Vesalius must therefore preform surgery to remove it before time is up. Does this concept seem familiar to anyone else?

It should certainly ring a bell with Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. In the 2004 franchise originator, a woman named Amanda wakes up to find herself caught in a similarly devilish game. A device strapped to her head will tear her jaw apart unless she retrieves the key from the stomach of her cellmate. Perhaps in other circumstances, this would be dubious evidence of appropriation, but considering both Wan and Wanell have admitted to borrowing conceptually from another 70s genre film to build Saw’s DNA (Mad Max), one wonders if Phibes wasn’t another catalyst for the creation of their own nightmare.

Furthermore, the highly conceptual methodology of Dr. Phibes calls to mind a modern crime classic. The elaborate constructs of the traps, coupled with a powerful religious motivation is reminiscent of the kills in David Fincher’s Seven. It appears Phibes is merely culling his methods of murder from a few pages further into the Old Testament than was Kevin Spacey. Not only that but (spoiler alert) the fact that Phibes works into his grand design a finale in which he himself will also die is entirely similar to Kevin Spacey devising his own doom at the hands of Pitt’s wrathful downfall.

So similar, it’s downright eerie.

For more on these and other fascinating facets of Phibes, tune into the Junkfood Cinema Podcast below!

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.