It’s been a few years now since Torture Porn as a genre more or less faded from the scene. In the end, it only really amounted to the Saw Series, the Hostel series, and a few copycats, not unlike the torrent of imitation J-Horror that flooded the States for a few years after the release of The Ring.
What always struck me as a bit funny about the whole thing was all the fuss. How many articles did we see about how torture porn was yet another sign of the decay of Western Civilization, the final nadir of horror as it descended into pointless depravity?
The underlying assumption to those articles, of course, was that torture porn is something new. It’s not. It’s actually very, very old. Another name for the genre is Grand Guignol, but of course, it’s much older even than the 19th-century theatre that gave it that name. Of course, for much of history, people would make entertainment out of actual torture and executions.
Neither is the idea of evildoers being punished in ironic or “appropriate” ways a new one. The peak of the form is probably Dante’s Inferno (which is masturbatory torture porn, if you consider how many of Dante’s personal enemies are depicted in Hell), but the idea goes back at least to ancient Greece, where Tantalus’s food-based crimes are punished with endless hunger and thirst, and the trickster Sisyphus is the eternal victim of a prank by Zeus.
More recently, you have 1995’s Seven (indeed, I firmly believe that if there had never been a Seven, there would never have been a Saw), and just a little further back, in a time period that the torture porn doomsayers would probably consider to be a more genteel era of horror, you have The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an American International Picture from 1971, starring the Grand Old Ham of horror himself, Vincent Price. The plot is familiar: a man who feels he’s been wronged murders the people he feels have wronged him in a series of horrific and thematically connected ways. The police struggle to catch up, but he’s too brilliant, and has planned too carefully for them. The movie is set in 1925 for some reason, I have no idea why. There’s nothing about 1925 that’s instrumental to the plot. American International just doesn’t seem to want to set its horror movies with Vincent Price in the present day for some reason.
There aren’t really many spoilers – or indeed, much plot – beyond that. But if you want to go into this movie completely fresh, you should stop here. I do recommend that you see it. If there are times when it’s goofy instead of horrific, it’s still Vincent Price at his best.
The movie begins with a figure in a black cloak playing an Orchestration For Operatic Doom on a pipe organ as it slowly rises from the floor (no, seriously, he uses it for an elevator). He then descends a grand staircase and activates a band of clockwork musicians, who play some light ballroom.
The man is Dr. Anton Phibes (Price, of course), and he is a man with a grudge. Four years ago, his beloved wife Victoria died on the operating table, and while the movie never gives any indication that the doctors were incompetent, or committed negligence of malpractice of any kind, Phibes doesn’t believe that. The most important person in his life died that day, and he needs someone to punish. Since he himself supposedly died in a car crash at the same time, he has quite a bit of freedom to move around. Obviously, he’s the last person that anyone will suspect when the bodies start piling up.
The light ballroom summons Phibes’s assistant Vulnavia.
Vulnavia is a beautiful, mysterious woman who never speaks, and who seems to be at least semi-aware that she has an audience, as she has a tendency to strike poses for aesthetic effect.
There’s much debate in the fandom as to just what Vulnavia might be. The script says that she’s a clockwork creation of Phibes’s, but that’s actually the least popular theory. Much more popular is the idea that she’s some sort of demon (after all, one of Phibes’s doctorates is in Theology). And of course, it’s entirely possible that Vulnavia is nothing more than what she seems, but that creates more questions than it answers: who is she? Why doesn’t she speak? What does she get out of her association with Phibes?
No time to worry about any of that. Phibes and Vulnavia set to work. They leave Phibes’s house in a fashionable London neighborhood and drive to that of their first (onscreen) victim, one Dr. Dunwoody. There, they climb to his roof, open the skylight, and lower in a cage of…
Oh, they’re adorable! Look at them! They’re a big bunch of fruit bats! Flying foxes! They look like puppies with wings!
Okay, look. I know there’s a cinematic tradition of replacing dangerous animals with harmless stand-ins, such as when a movie uses a colorful, too-small-to-hurt-a-human boa constrictor in place of something venomous. But the fact is, absent rabies, there simply are no bats that are dangerous to humans. These flying foxes have no interest in attacking anything made of meat (they look more like they’re snuggling up to their human co-actor for warmth than anything), and the bats that do eat bugs. Even vampire bats are too tiny to do any significant damage to a grown man unless there were far more than would fit in that cage.
All things that could be put aside in the name of suspension of disbelief, but they’re just so cute! You just want to scratch them under the chin! Who could be scared of such adorable winged fuzzies?
(Okay, Mom, I know you could. But who else?)
That’s something you’ll notice again and again as you watch this movie, especially if you watch it repeatedly: each method of murder is complex, poetic, and torturous. And each, with one or two exceptions, requires that the victim not fight back or try to escape at all. This turns the movie into more of a black comedy than the Saw-type horror film it would otherwise be.
The next day, Scotland Yard is investigating the scene, and we meet our heroic antagonist (since I would argue that our villain, Phibes, is also our protagonist), Inspector Trout.
Trout is a dedicated, caring, and reasonably competent police officer. Unfortunately for him, he’s also the comic relief, so he has terrible luck, no support from the higher-ups (all of whom want this case to go away yesterday, are worried more about the press than anything else, and seem to have some problem with the idea of a serial killer targeting doctors), and neither cooperation nor respect from the public.
Even so, Trout is able to figure out that Phibes is alive, and (after a visit to a rabbi whose office looks like some kind of wizard’s sanctum) that he’s murdering the doctors who failed to save his wife using methods based on the Ten Plagues that were inflicted on Egypt in the book of Exodus:
1) Professor Thornton – stung to death by bees before the movie begins, to approximate the plague of boils.
2) Dr. Dunwoody – shredded by bats. Bats aren’t actually a Biblical plague, but there are several plagues that involve vermin (Lice and Flies), so maybe it can be slipped into that slot.
3) Dr. Hargreaves – head crushed in a constricting frog mask. Plague of frogs. Hargreaves is a psychiatrist, who of course would have no reason to be involved in surgery. They just made him one so they could include that “head-shrinker” pun.
4) Dr. Longstreet – body completely drained of blood. Plague of Blood, of course. This one is hilarious. Longstreet is relaxing at home with some 1920’s-era porn when Vulnavia enters, and shows no resistance whatsoever as she ties him to a chair, nor after when Phibes enters, sticks a needle in his arm and pumps all his blood out. To add insult to injury, Phibes notices a picture on Longstreet’s wall on the way out and gives the dead man a look that speaks volumes about Phibes’s opinion of his taste.
5) Dr. Hedgepath – frozen to death by some sort of portable snowmaker to approximate the plague of hail. The editing tries to make you forget that he would have had to sit still while Phibes and Vulnavia were setting the machine up. And what’s that Phibes is doing to the driver? Is that the Vulcan nerve pinch?
6) Dr. Kitaj – a young, athletic sort, Kitaj isn’t going to be an easy mark. So Phibes releases (adorable, fluffy, pet-store) rats into the cockpit of Kitaj’s plane, causing him to crash. Again, there is no actual plague of rats, so they’re going to have to take the place of one of the plagues of smaller vermin.
7) Dr. Whitcombe – impaled by a flying unicorn head to represent the plague of beasts (is this how they’re wedging in the death of the livestock?). This is why the bodyguards for actual heads of state walk in front of them, gentlemen.
8) Nurse Allen – This murder, more than any other, illustrates that Phibes is really just out to punish someone, anyone, for his wife’s death. After all, how could the nurse be blamed for a patient’s death during surgery? Handing over the scalpel too slowly? It also illustrates that our heroes are idiots. You know that Phibes is coming, and soon. Why not have her awake and participating in her own defense? By having her take a sleeping pill, they set up the only way Phibes’s plan – coating her with a Brussels sprouts-based concoction to attract the Plague of Locusts to eat her flesh (though I don’t know why the locusts wouldn’t just eat the stuff off her; they’re just big grasshoppers, after all) – would have worked.
9) Dr. Vesalius, head of the surgical team that failed to save Victoria Phibes – death of the first born. His son is kidnapped and locked into a device worthy of Jigsaw himself. The key is implanted in the boy’s chest, and Dr. Vesalius must extract it in six minutes, or the acid above will drip onto the boy, and “Your son will have a face…like mine!”.
Phibes pulls off his mask in what’s supposed to be a shocking reveal, but said reveal has been ruined by the stinking movie poster, as seen above. And again, Dr. Vesalius has several opportunities to kill Phibes and/or throw something protective over his son’s face, but instead plays Phibes’s game to the letter.
10) Plague of Darkness – Phibes reserves this one for himself.
In between murders, Phibes hooks himself into his sound system (his voice was destroyed in the car accident that burned his face, but he’s devised a mad-science method of speaking; this made for quite an acting challenge as Price had to act in pantomime and the other actors had to guess when to respond, as his lines were added later) and recites long, rambling declarations of love and vengeance to his dead wife.
That’s…that’s about it.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a completely different experience than modern torture porn (to say nothing of the grindhouse brutality that was starting to take over as the face of horror in the Seventies), but it’s impossible not to see the influence it has had. There’s no question in my mind that several of Jigsaw’s traps were directly inspired by some of Phibes’s plagues. Don’t see The Abominable Dr. Phibes for a harrowing horror experience; as I mentioned before, it’s a black comedy with Vincent Price in full late-career ham. See it because it’s a black comedy with Vincent Price in full late-career ham. And see it because, if you’re a horror hound, it’s an ancestor of movies you love today. I first read H.P. Lovecraft because Stephen King pointed the way; this is the same thing. Digging in the roots can reveal treasures.