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Béla Tarr versus Dr. Phibes in a duel of gothic eccentricities

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Image: Screengrab)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

I’ll keep it brief this week, as I’m in the middle of a quick drip down to southern Missouri to pick up my kids from their grandparents. (Currently, my son is shouting, “I’m not bothering you, I’m not bothering!”) I haven’t really watched anything substantial since the weekend, when I sat down with a couple of movies I’ve been itching to revisit for years. Both are eccentric exercises in horror atmosphere (was I mentally prepping myself to write on the new M. Night Shyamalan film?), though they couldn’t be more different. The first was the eerie, experimental adaptation of Macbeth that the Hungarian director Béla Tarr made for TV in 1982. It’s Shakespeare’s play reduced to the bare necessities; it runs just over an hour long and, somewhat famously, features just one cut (around the 5 minute mark), with the bulk of the compressed text playing out in a single handheld take, mostly in close-ups.

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It’s got a serious look to it: staged in a real castle somewhere outside of Budapest and shot on analog video that makes the torchlight ghost across the frame, the camera tube perpetually haunted by afterimages. Of course, the complete opposite would be English production-designer-turned-director Robert Fuest’s two insane Dr. Phibes movies. The second one, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), opens with one of the great voice-over plot recaps in film history (“…the destruction of his own face, making it necessary to talk through an ingenious mechanism—in his neck!”) and ends with Vincent Price singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” I’ve been meaning to get to know Fuest’s work outside of Phibes better, progress on which will inevitably be noted here. (I’ve got a copy of his debut, Just Like A Woman, waiting for me in Chicago.) Suffice it to say that the Phibes movies are ludicrous, imaginative, and just pleasurable in a way that I wish more movies were; they certainly have the resources.

Also, I know the still up top is from the original. I just like it.

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