Thursday, November 29, 2007

so precious, suspicious, and charming and vicious

Frau Lowey makes an excellent point in a comment to a previous entry, and having scanned Steampunkopedia's list of Steampunk media, I do not find mention of a notable Steampunk work--The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

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Dr. Anton Phibes. Mechanical genius (as evidence throughout the movies attests--no useless gears here!), prosperous sophisticate, chef, appreciator of life's finer details. Musician.

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And obsessively devoted husband. And being also a doctor of theology, he managed the appropriately precise--and darkly perverse--touch to deal with his wife's death.

See, Dr. Phibes had a beautiful wife and a prospering career, until his wife fell ill. It took seven doctors to decide how best to screw things up, and then they did it in grand style, and she died.

Unfortunately, Dr. Phibes wasn't at the hospital--he was busy being mangled horribly in an accident. By the time he managed to drag his broken body to the hospital? She'd died.

And he swore VENGEANCE!

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The mysteriously silent Vulnavia (played by Virginia North, seen above in a publicity shot for the film, and below in a still from it) is his only assistant, and for a completely silent role, she has incredible stage presence. Between the two of them, they arrange for the demise of all seven doctors--and the nurse, just for completion's sake, I suppose. Boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, rats, beasts, locusts, even an attempt at the death of the first born, followed by darkness--all of the Egyptian plagues are presented in lush detail.

"But a fair portion of the appeal of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is its very stylishness", so says The Bad Movie Report, and I'd tend to agree with them. It is a very stylish film, and, even though most of the decor of his underground lair is closer to Art Deco than Victorian, the sentiment is surely Steampunk--the principles of invention, mad genius, the sheer preponderance of mysterious tubes and equipment, plus a certain 'air of the day', the overlay of polite culture over everything, including grisly demise. And the scientist's lair, replete with all scientifica of the time.

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Yes, it's essentially a fluff piece, no argument. But because it stars Vincent Price--who has marvelous fun with this film and its sequel--it elevates a bit, to darkly period camp.

"Adding to both Phibes' calculating dementia and to Price's performance is the fact that Phibes was horribly disfigured in the car wreck. So like Darth Vader with a better sense of interior decor, Phibes has augmented himself with period mechanical devices. Unable to speak due to destroyed vocal cords, he communicates by mechanically connecting his larynx to a Victrola gramophone-like device. (How he drinks wine is something you just have to see for yourself.) This meant that before the cameras rolled Price had to record Phibes' soliloquies, rants, and Mad Doctor monologues to his dead wife, then physically play to the recordings without actually speaking. Expressing everything facially through heavy makeup (of two radically different types), Price manages to imbue Phibes with a sympathetic nature and macabre charm, even as we're watching him perform grotesquely diabolical acts."

This, as Lon Chaney discovered before him, is anything but easy, and the fact that he carries it off with such completely assured aplomb is evidence of what a fantastic actor he really was. He brought his total focus to every role he ever took, no matter the duration or intent--he's as good in briefly glimpsed music videos as he is in The Masque of the Red Death. And he still has cookbooks roaming in the wild.

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All in all, unlike The Fearless Vampire Hunters, it's a horror film worthy of joining the ranks of Steampunk media.


Frau Lowey said...

If there is ever a Caledon Belgravia, I know I shall try to recreate the organ, and perhaps the Clockwork Orchestra.

I shudder to think my brother would attempt the Phibes AVs.

And Mr. Price was just so dreamy in the cinemas....

Emilly Orr said...

You know, I don't doubt this in the least?

The first 'playable' organ--though now, there are others--I ever saw was Relic's, which at 98 prims clocks in rather heavy for the everyday consumer. On occasion I still go over and play, though, because it's sweepingly gorgeous. Unfortunately, I no longer have my piano, but the inventory bug did not take away the music, and at times it's been fun--albeit a bit surreal--to flip out one of the pieces of organ music, over straight piano.

I wonder if anyone's done anything along the lines of Phantom of the Opera on the grid?

Frau Lowey said...

Well, the costuming has been started by Skye Qi - I do believe this is the first time I have seen her do menswear.

Emilly Orr said...

Interesting. I'll have to check that out.