The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
“Dr. Phibes has great vibes!”
Director: Robert Fuest
Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith
Synopsis: A doctor, scientist, organist, and biblical scholar, Dr. Anton Phibes, seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the kind of deranged movie that has ‘cult classic’ written all over it from the moment of its release — even though it was actually a considerable box office success after American International Pictures replaced its misguided ‘Love means never having to say you’re ugly’ advertising campaign with one trumpeting (probably incorrectly) it as Vincent Price’s 100th movie. Its bizarre, twisted tone is established from the first scene, during which we see a cloaked figure manically banging away at the organ over the opening credits. This figure eventually abandons his efforts in order to briefly conduct the Clockwork Wizards, an orchestra of robot musicians. So right away you know that The Abominable Dr. Phibes isn’t going to be just another comedy horror.
The art-deco sets tell us that the events in The Abominable Dr. Phibes take place sometime in the 1920s, although the inclusion of such songs as One For My Baby, which was written in 1943, suggest that director Robert Fuest is more concerned with mood and atmosphere than establishing anything more than a passing semblance of reality. The cloaked figure we saw conducting that creepy orchestra is the eponymous Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price), a tragic figure whose face was burned off in a car crash which occurred when he was rushing to a hospital after learning that his wife was not expected to survive the operation she was undergoing. Now Phibes has to attach fake ears and nose to his face to appear even remotely normal, and he has a (ahem) burning desire to wreak revenge on the nine medical staff involved in that botched operation.
Phibes seeks no ordinary revenge, however. He is something of a biblical scholar, and sets himself the challenge of killing his victims in ways inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt. So it is that the hapless Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey — Midnight Express) and his sidekick Sgt. Shenley (Norman Jones) find themselves called to the home of Dr. Dunwoody (Edward Burnham — When Eight Bells Toll), who has been shredded to death by bats. Now, those amongst you who know a little about the ten plagues will be wondering just how bats fit into the plan seeing as how they don’t feature in any of the ten plagues. Well, they’re easier to film than flies or gnats, the two plagues which are missing from Phibes’ revenge kit, which also explains why Dr Kitaj (Peter Gilmore — Carry on Cabby, The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery) expires at the hands (or claws) of rats in the cockpit of his bi-plane.
To be honest, those two murders not inspired by the plagues are a far less impressive than the ingenious methods of murder dreamed up by writers James Whiton and William Goldstein. The most chilling of these is that suffered by dear old Terry-Thomas (Make Mine Mink), playing a rather lecherous doctor with a taste for early stag movies, who finds himself strapped to his chair by Phibes mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) so that her mentor can slowly drain his blood into eight pint bottles. The most ingenious is the murder of the sleeping Nurse Allen (Susan Travers — Peeping Tom) whose face Phibes, from his vantage point in the loft directly above her bed, patiently covers in a liquid specially concocted to appeal to hungry locusts. And the most humorous murder is that of Dr. Whitcombe (Maurice Kauffman — Beau Brummell, The Quatermass Xperiment) who is pinned to a wall by the brass spear of a unicorn. It’s not the method of murder that’s funny so much as the manner in which Trout and Shenley endeavour to remove his body. ‘It’s a left hand thread’ whispers Trout shortly before we see the dead doctor’s feet describing an anti-clockwise arc from behind the wall to which he’s pinned.
There’s little doubt that the hapless Trout and his equally incompetent sidekick are at least partly to blame for the success of Phibes’ campaign. Time and again the Inspector fails to ask even the most basic questions of witnesses whose evidence could have shortened his investigation by probably half-a-dozen murders, but the way in which he’s depicted as a shrewd and reasonably intelligent detective conspires to distract the viewer from the true scale of his ineptitude. But then, Trout is just a supporting player in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, whose purpose is to provide the filler between the scenes in which Phibes goes about his nefarious business. Perversely, the most famous voice in horror is rarely heard in what is arguably one of his greatest roles, and when it is it’s distorted through a metal tube attached to a Victrola. Despite this lack of dialogue, Price is masterful, playing his part with a deadpan seriousness that somehow both belies and complements the script’s dark and twisted humour.
(Reviewed 12th March 2014)