The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

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Director: Robert Fuest

It’s the first night of the series that blog friend Mike’s Take on the Movies and I are doing to lead up to Halloween: theme #1 is Vincent Price. Out of the many possible choices from the career of one of my favourite actors, I picked the one that made a huge impression on me as a youngster with its unusual blend of horror and comedy– the campy, colourful, dark Deco comedy revenge mad scientist story, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).

When several London doctors are murdered in bizarre ways, Scotland Yard connects all the victims to one Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), who helps Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) find the single case they had in common. Years ago, Dr. Anton Phibes’ (Price) wife died while she was in these doctors’ care, he was disfigured in a car crash on his way to her side, and now it seems he’s the one carrying out this elaborate revenge spree. Phibes has been believed dead for years, but while lawmen assemble the clues, we’ve been watching Phibes living in his glorious mansion, putting his “face” on, enjoying his music, and speaking to his late wife’s portrait through a microphone and gramophone attached to his neck. Phibes promises her she will be avenged by the suffering and deaths of all 10 doctors, and then the couple will be free to reunite in the “beautiful beyond.”

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Phibes is a legendary organist, a brilliant scientist and theologist, but even with his brains and perfect planning, he leaves an amulet at one crime scene that reveals the inspiration for his methods: ancient Biblical plagues and curses. A Rabbi (Hugh Griffith) explains the meaning of the animals and insects used in each killing so far, predicts the order to come and tells them the last curse will be the vague but terrifying “darkness.” Trout and Vesalius may have that road map but no luck staying ahead of Phibes; he evades and outsmarts them, murdering the people on his list even when Scotland Yard has prospective victims in protective custody. Phibes gets his last target Vesalius to follow orders by taking his son hostage, but Phibes then gives the expert surgeon the chance to save the boy from a complicated trap involving a surgically implanted key, a neck shackle and a timed acid bath.

Phibes’ methods of murder and torture are most diabolical. Much more is suggested than shown, but with swarms of bats and bees, rats in a plane and locusts on a face, imagination will conjure up greater horrors than any amount of CGI or graphic gore ever could. Phibes takes advantage of a costume party to give one victim a hard-shell toad mask with bejeweled gear that tightens slowly to pulverizing strength. He bleeds one victim dry while alive, freezes another solid by activating a hail machine inside a car and impales yet another on a golden unicorn head. Add to this the corkscrew drill and body diagram he uses to determine where to make a hole to reach the nurse sleeping one floor below, and you have creatively cartoonish and morbidly hilarious demises the likes of which Wile E. Coyote might order in blueprint form from ACME murder company.

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Keeping to his ritual, after every successful murder Phibes returns home to torch the face of the wax statues representing each victim, and then takes a well-deserved music break. Music plays a big part in the film, from the doctor’s organ on a hydraulic elevator platform, his basement ballroom automaton band, “Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards,” the generous use of standard tunes, and right up to Phibes’ final voyage to the beyond as “Over the Rainbow” plays in the background. The bright familiar songs, the first 10 minutes of the film that have no dialogue, the “fashionable” assistant who plays violin while Phibes kills, are unexpected uses of sound that add to the film’s weird beauty and dreamlike unpredictability. Phibes’ car has his silhouette painted on all the windows, he speaks in ventriloquist style without moving the lips of his mask, his voice halting as he reads his wife a John Donne love poem, and he glides about in a long flowing black hooded cape. The wrinkled, pale “mask” he wears to seem normal is anything but, and looks just as interesting and creepy as the big reveal of his grotesquely deformed skull.

All this horror is well-balanced with comedy, thanks to the deadpan acting and tongue-in-cheek tone. Cotten is introduced sitting on the floor playing with his train set. Terry-Thomas, as the blood-drained Longstreet, is thoroughly engrossed by the naughty film Phibes sends him. Inspector Trout is repeatedly called “Pike.” His colleague Tom (Norman Jones) borrows a car from a superior and ruins it, but he makes good tea and is the only one willing to hear out Trout’s crazy (accurate) theories. There’s a hard-of-hearing music store owner (John Laurie). The officers must unscrew one of the bodies–literally whirl him fully round a few times–to loosen the spiralled unicorn horn weapon from the men’s club wall, in a sight gag fit for Monty Python. Phibes has a brussel sprout moonshine still in his mansion and drinks through the hole in his neck. Much of this is awesomely ridiculous but it all works and Price considered both the movie and the role a personal favourite. In these fabulous Art Deco sets, Phibes treats his murders like works of art–carefully planned, lovingly executed compositions accompanied by just the right music and leaving one last mystery for the sequel.

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Now head over to Mike’s Take on the Movies to see the wonderful Vincent Price get all Shakespearean.  

As a big Jack Kirby fan I have to include his Phibes art:

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12 thoughts on “The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)”

  1. What’s not to love in this totally insane flick. It’s really unlike any other and captured a wonderful camp style of it’s own. Makes me want to get at the blu ray edition i haven’t opened yet! Nice shot of good old Terry-Thomas there. Never fails to elicit a smile from me.
    In a way both this and Theater of Blood are similar in the revenge points of the plot.

    1. That’s right, we have similar taste on this theme! It was funny because Terry-Thomas kept blinking in his dead scene which explains why they used a freeze frame of him in one part. I think it’s in my top 2-3 fave Vincent roles and the first comedy/horror mix I remember impressing me this much. The deadpan and bizarre murders and the jazz just made it such weird fun and I’ve always loved it. Vincent was the best 🙂

  2. Vincent Price is also one of my favorite actors and very underrated. He had a wonderful attitude towards his later career. He was never like some big actors who panic at the thought of doing cheesy horror films. He took it with good humor and saw it simply as a way to keep working and do what he loved best (which was collecting art). His last film was a touching drama in 1987 called The Whales Of August (with other greats like Bette Davis and Lillian Gish) and he was excellent.

    Tam

    1. Exactly, I really love actors who commit to these kinds of roles and never look like they don’t want to be there. Those kinds of performances add so much and make even a lesser movie a lot more fun to watch. He was a very classy, cultured man, make sure to read his daughter’s biography of him which focuses more on his life than movies.

  3. A perfect summation of its genre, Phibes has echoes of The Opera Phantom, Dracula, Frankenstein, House of Wax, etc. Plus pointed references to Price as gourmet and art critic. If you want to go sub-subtext, Price is practically “coming out” in this, both in dress and gesture, topped by Over The Rainbow. Its themed killings would find its way into Seven, and its meta humor into Scream.

    1. Fantastic comment and connections. There’s so much going on in this to appreciate beyond just the fun weirdness. I read that Mel Brooks was inspired to do Young Frankenstein from this too. Thanks!

  4. This is one of my favourite Vincent Price films of all time. I first saw it when I was young and since the last Nineties it has become part of my Halloween viewing!

    1. Same here, he’s perfect in it and played a variation in a other films, but this one stuck in my head as a kid. Always loved him more than was ever scared of him, he’s too likeable and fun, even in the weirdest roles. Thanks and best.

  5. Excellent review! I first caught this on CBS as a kid when they ran it I think as either a prime-time or late night movie and I was half under the bed and half cracking up. The sequel is also great (minus one or two bits) and call me crazy, but I think Tim Burton can have somewhat of a horror comeback if he were to remake them in the same vein and mayyyybe get Mr.Depp to play the good Dr. (because Johnny needs a decent film after some duds).

    Also, I hadn’t seen that Kirby art before so you made my day twice!

    1. Oh wow, that would be something! Talk about fantasy project, they can take my money for that. Same here, I saw it as a young one, probably too young to even get it all, but the mix of scares and laughs just hooked me and probably formed my horror tastes too. No wonder Price loved it, he really set the standard for actors doing these with their A-game and full commitment.
      There’s a version of that Kirby art that some artist coloured too, so have a google if you’re curious.

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