Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Abominable Doctor Phibes

"The Abominable Dr Phibes" is a 1971 horror/dark comedy starring Vincent Price as the apparently revenge-mad Anton Phibes. Thought to be dead, he begins to systematically murder the surgeons who failed to save his wife's life. What makes this fun is that his innovative murders are based on the Ten Plagues in Exodus. Long before the serial murders based on the seven deadly sins in "Seven," there was Dr Phibes!
Naturally, when Hollywood tries to do Bible, they tend to mess it up, which just adds to the entertainment value--catching the mistakes.
One that you may not catch is the use of a word "G'tach" (or so it is spelled in the captions) to mean "The Ten Plagues." As far as I can tell, this is a made-up word, only used in this movie. If you can set me straight on that, you are welcome to do so.
Then there is the order of the plagues. For the record, the original order of the plagues in Exodus is:
blood, frogs, gnats, swarms/flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, & death of the firstborn.

The rabbi in "Phibes" claims that "Talmudic scholars have debated the question" of the order of the plagues "for centuries." This I seriously doubt, since the text of Scripture is pretty clear, and I have yet to find references to alternate list orders--even in the most liberal Jewish texts! However, the rabbi continues, the traditional order is... At this point he pulls out an authentic-looking chart with the names of the plagues in Hebrew and illustrations of the plague underneath each word.
The chart produced by the rabbi in the movie has them listed in 2 columns, thusly:
"Boils" ---- "Bats"
"Frogs" ---- "Blood"
"Rats" ---- "Hail"
"Beasts" ----"Locusts"
"Firstborn" - "Darkness"
Even this doesn't quite work, though. One might expect, since the titles are in Hebrew, that they would read right-to-left, as is fitting in the 1st, 2nd, and 5th pair of plagues. However, the rabbi points to them left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Not only that, he swirls them around, as if he had never sat at a Passover meal and listed them in Biblical order! Instead, he reads them as:
Boils, Bats, Frogs, Blood, (then shifts into Hebrew mode, I guess) Hail, Rats, (and switches again) Beasts, Locusts, Death of the Firstborn, and Darkness ("The final plague upon the land," he intones seriously.)

Just in case a few of these plagues don't sound familiar to you--good! Because some of them are just plain screwy!
The Hebrew word "dever" which is normally translated "plague, pestilence," (and in the Exodus context is a plague upon the livestock) is inexplicably translated "bats"! If that's not bad enough, when you zoom in on the rabbi's chart, you see a picture of dying livestock--most-recognizably, a pig!
The Hebrew word "kiniym" is usually translated "lice" or "gnats," though it may possibly refer to other swarming bug-like critters, such as scarab beetles. How they get rats out of that, I'll never know! Maybe the writers just misread "gnats" as "rats," somehow. The picture on the chart under "kiniym" shows flying insects like flies or wasps--but no rats as far as I could tell.
"Beasts" is the rendering of the Hebrew "arov," indicating swarms, and usually transalated "flies" in our English Bibles. However, it is not uncommon for Jewish Passover seders (books that contain the Passover meal order of service) to render this term as "wild beasts." The illusration accompanying "arov" appears to be wild beasts. I can make out a body and a lion-esqe tail, but that's about it. Even when zoomed in on, the picture is difficult to make out.
Since the movie takes place in the 1920s, there are plenty of great examples of Art Deco in all its tacky glory. The blood is strawberry soda red and a bit translucent. Apparently it's the old corn syrup & food coloring recipe, often used in older horror films. However, it fits in with the surreal nature of the whole film. Phibes is "one of the great old organists" and often pauses in his mad scientist ravings to play rousing classical pieces on his showy theatrical pipe organ. At other times, there are quiet moments in which he waltzes around his large drawing room with his female mute partner-in-crime, Vulnavia, to recorded music played by a clockwork robotic orchestra. Naturally, since it's Vincent Price, there's plenty of hammy, over-the-top acting, though he delivers his lines in a deliberate William Shatner-esque staccatto. This, however, serves to underscore the crazed passion with which his weakened body is spewing these rants.
Anyway, great fun--and bears repeated viewings. Maybe you can watch it as a double feature with the Ten Commandments next Passover/Easter.
There was a sequel to "The Abominable Dr Phibes," "Dr Phibes Rises Again," Which wasn't as good. It lacked the cohesive structure of a pattern to the murders (like the 10 plagues,) but some of the murders are quite clever in a Rube Goldberg fashion. Much closer to the pattern of Phibes, are two other Price films: "Theater of Blood"--in which he is a Shakespearian actor who murders his critics in tableaus mimicking the death scenes in the bard's plays, and "Madhouse,"--in which Price is a retired horror star making his debut on television who finds people around him being murdered in reflections of the deaths in his old movies!
Halloween's a month away, and Passover is even farther, but these are fun classics worth checking out any time of year!


Famous Monster of Mpls said...

Thanks for pointing these artistic inaccuracies Allen! It's always amusing to see Hollywood's interpretation of scripture. But what the heck, what's a few bats and rats when your already suffering from plaques of frogs and gnats? Wait a minute! It's not just a few bats and rats we're talking about now is it? It's a plaque of millions! Never mind. Thank God for our Savior!

Yours in Him, Terry.

Allen said...

Amen to that, Terry!
Thanks for gracing my blog with your presence & comment!

Readers here need to check out your blog!