Older horror films are interesting animals in the zoo where horror movies are kept in this analogy. They come from a land where the movie’s full credits could be played over the film’s opening without disturbing the audience or taking too long. Since effects were limited, they couldn’t rely on all of the trickery used in today’s horror films. Their effects seem hokey and lame now that we can do such amazing things with decades of practical effect experience and cutting edge computer effects. It was a simpler time to be sure but it also caused horror movies to be more psychological. Sure, they had their gimmicks back then too but more often than not they relied more on what you couldn’t see then what you could.
Today’s film was made 44 years ago and it was operating with a much smaller toolbox than filmmakers have available today. It’s not a straight horror film as it has a lot of comedy elements to it as well without being a straight parody. Of course, it has two things that just aren’t used as much in today’s horror that serve it very well. The first is that it is very bizarre. It spends a lot of time (especially in the early parts) being strange without explaining itself. I like that. I want to be confused sometimes. It teaches me to sit back and not try so hard and let a movie just take me to the destination it means to take me to. The other thing that this movie has that can’t ever be used today is Vincent Price. Vincent Price was a horror legend, seemingly born with the voice and mannerisms to be creepy but strangely loveable.
The movie follows a bunch of detectives trying to solve the murders of several doctors. The murders were all done in inventive and outlandish ways by the title character for reasons that are not explained at first. The title character is weirdly amazing because Phibes is an amazing killer who is easily twenty steps ahead of the police. He’s also way smarter than his bumbling victims who fall easily to his strangely elaborate traps. There’s no explanation on why the deaths are elaborate but they are based on the ten plagues that Moses brought upon Egypt. I personally love horror stories with themed deaths though usually they’re deaths based on the victim and not on a set mythology. Strangely, despite having a rabbi character in the movie, it changes two of the plagues and their order.
The movie gets a lot of use out of art deco design which, I’m pretty sure, you don’t see in a lot of horror films. The colors all seem a little more vivid than they should be and a lot of scenes feel more like a stage play than a movie. It gives the movie an otherworldly feel that is a little unnerving but also strangely pleasing. The villain is mostly silent and lets the police following him deliver the exposition. The camera work is excellent as they used every trick in the book to tell a very interesting story. In fact, the scene of the second kill wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without the amazing camera tricks they used. Every shot is framed expertly and not a second is wasted in the editing. Beyond that, the sound really does a lot of the heavy lifting as the music and sound effects sometimes give way to perfect, uncomfortable silence. They did a lot of brilliant painting with sound that worked incredibly well.
Sometimes I’m a sucker for these old, simple movies from a long gone era. This one is a mystery that the audience knows the answer to within fifteen minutes while it takes the police the rest of the movie to figure out. It’s a somewhat campy but interesting take on horror movies that’s hard not to like. Parts of it might seem a little dated but I maintain that most of it is as timeless as Hitchcock. It’s actually a little bit poetic and strangely sweet in its own way. It should also make people who are not fans of gore happy as it is mostly bloodless and relies instead on creepier deaths that are a bit more psychological. I suggest this (and the sequel) to any horror fan who hasn’t seen it yet. You have to respect your horror ancestors.