Spring is here, Drive-In Fiends!

It’s almost quite literally Drive-In season but we run it all year long ’round these parts and this month we’re focusing on what most of us look forward to after a long, cold winter; a break! Be it college break, a mental break or broken bones….we don’t judge. This month, both films represent one aspect or another of that particular theme. One part Spring Break and one part mental breakdown with The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Two Thousand Maniacs!

 

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The story of a man driven to madness, murder and revenge at the loss of his wife is told in 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Starring the always devilishly decadent Vincent Price (The Fly) in the lead role as vengeful Dr. Phibes, this classic 70’s film is bright and loud and horrifying and over-the-top and still iconic even now, 50 years after its release.

It’s a fairly simple story, and shares a lot of parallels between the story of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) but is maybe more in-line with the equally outrageous Phantom of the Paradise (1974) that was still a few years away. The antagonist, or protagonist depending on your point-of-view, Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) seeks revenge for the death of his wife on the operating table years ago. While rushing back to his home in 1921 at the news of his beloved’s untimely demise, Phibes is tragically involved in a horrid car wreck and is presumed dead. Although he survived even though he probably wishes he hadn’t, he was not left without injury. Horribly scarred and now unable to speak, his murderous insanity fills him with evil purpose.

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Revenge!

 

“Starring the always devilishly decadent Vincent Price, [The Abominable Dr. Phibes] is bright and loud and horrifying and over-the-top and still iconic even now, 50 years after its release.”

 

For an undisclosed reason, Phibes and silent accomplice Vulnavia (Virginia North) model his murders after the fabled Ten Plagues of Egypt. Using bats, locusts and other more intricate devices he ticks off the people who failed his late wife years ago. For instance, Anton attends a party and fits his victim with a bejeweled frog mask that slowly constricts, crushing the man’s skull as he dies in front of everyone. In another, a machine that produces hail is placed in the back of a vehicle that freezes and pelts a man to death. Pretty dang cool if you ask me. Each elaborate death is followed-up by our mad doctor burning a wax effigy of the now deceased victim which seems a little over-dramatic but hey, no judgment here.

Vincent Price’s performance in this film is one of his best, in my opinion. Although his voice is heard, albeit through an implant in his neck so his lips are never moving, Price conveys his calculating madness through his physical performance and more importantly through his eyes alone. You never see anger or fear from him, only relentless determination. Right up to the point where he rips of his facial prosthetics and the real creature is seen. Which was wonderfully alluded to throughout most of the movie in the care he took in making sure his mask was on straight. Combined with his menacing muteness through most of the film, just a stunning job. I would’ve expected no less from this legend of horror.

 

 

While the story does take place in the early 20’s, it looks very, VERY 70’s. This is not a bad thing; in fact, it lends itself well to the trippy nature of the film. The aesthetic has moments of darker, subdued color but are interrupted with pinks and purple’s, Phibes’ hidden lair is an amazing set to look at with its bright draperies, lit organ backdrop and an always fashion forward Vulnavia dancing within the madness. Even the bright green of a tastefully used Brussels Sprout reduction to attract locusts is sickeningly beautiful and adds a violent contrast.

In addition to the dreamlike visuals, the ears are not treated too shabby with a haunting orchestral score that also includes some organ work from the mad doctor and violin from his lovely assistant that occasionally plays over the grotesque murders. There’s also accompaniment from the eerie “Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards” that is just plain unsettling. The dark humor in the movie is crafted so that while hilarious at moments it never takes away from the horror as a whole. Like the scene where after a man has been impaled with a bronze-cast unicorn head, tossed by catapult, he is removed by unscrewing him rather than pulling the head out. Even the detectives are forced to admire the genius of the madman.

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This film did receive a sequel only a year later, again featuring Price, and although several more sequels/remakes have been talked about over the following decades, none have materialized leaving this franchise still begging for more.

Phibes Lives!

 

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

The South rises again?

The original King of Gore, director Herschell Gordon Lewis, follows up the previous years’ Blood Feast with a scenic grindhouse tour of the deep south and “southern hospitality” in 1964’s Two Thousand Maniacs.

In this gory gem, several couples take an unplanned detour to the small Georgia town of Pleasant Valley where the local residents are planning their very first Centennial. And these Northerners are to be the guests of honor! Seems odd that these Southerners would be welcoming the Yankees into their gracious homes like this but all becomes apparent real, real soon. Everyone they meet is over-the-top cheerful and charming especially the obnoxious Mayor Buckman (Jeffrey Allen) who INSISTS that they postpone their plans and stay a few days. It’s their first Centennial after all. After the townsfolk do all they can to split up the couples, the pairs all start to be offed in gruesome fashion. It’s incredible to watch. Dismemberment, smashed by a giant boulder, rolled in a barrel full of nails….

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It’s stunning and hilarious.

 

“The original King of Gore, director Herschell Gordon Lewis, follows up the previous years’ Blood Feast with a scenic grindhouse tour of the deep south and “southern hospitality” in 1964’s Two Thousand Maniacs.”

 

The local “yokels” Harper, Rufus and Lester are wonderfully portrayed as psychotic murderers all too happy to carry out their work. The whole town seems excited to welcome and then ritualistically kill these innocent tourists and it really is an off-putting feeling, knowing the entire town is chomping at the bit for blood. There’s no escape at all.

You see, the town of Pleasant Valley was burned to the ground 100 years ago. Just at the tail end of the Civil War a band of Union troops terrorized this small community, massacring all 2,000 residents in just two days. Now every century they have vowed to return to exact their righteous vengeance in a sadistic “blood centennial.” It’s a turn that is unexpected, especially in this subgenre of overly violent exploitation flicks, and is done very well. But most of all Two Thousand Maniacs is what you would expect from Lewis’ resume of red-tinged cinema; flamboyantly bloody and all the better for it.

The film also sums up the sentiment at the time that was directed at the southern states and southerners in general, where southern hospitality was a negative connotation and stood for something else entirely. It’s a stigma that remains today. But at the time, the constant visual barrage of Confederate flags and songs with lyrics like “The South Will Rise Again” and “Rebel Yell” were intended open the wound of America’s not too distant past. Films like this can still entertain while reminding us of important yet tragic moments in our history. The abundance of severed limbs doesn’t hurt, either.

 

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