There are horror icons, and then there’s Vincent Price. Beginning his career in the Universal Monster Era, Price would find his calling playing the bad guy with his piercing stare, infectious voice, and arguably the best villain laugh. From William Castle to Roger Corman, Price could add class to even the schlockiest of cheese. Even through all the schlock, he does retain a few uncut gems, including one of his unique roles that came right at the tail end of his golden age, and has fallen under the radar: his 100th film, 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
The film opens with a brooding Dr. Anton Phibes playing an organ, while surrounded by an animatronic house band. An homage to Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, Phibes is a “presumed dead” doctor of theology and music, with a thirst for revenge. His wife died on the operating table, and while driving back to their estate in Switzerland, Phibes’ car goes off a cliff, leaving him burned beyond recognition and damaging his vocal cords. Over a five year span, Phibes relocates to London and plots an elaborate vendetta against the doctors and nurses he believes are responsible for the death of his wife. Assisted by his mute servant, Vulnavia, who may have been the nurse who rehabilitated him post car wreck, Phibes rebuilds his appearance with prosthetics and develops a phonograph device to regain his speech. What can really be said is that this man is a genius.
Phibes begins the film proper, traveling to the home of one of the doctors in the middle of the night and floods his bedroom with rabid bats. Other murders include strangulation by a mechanical frog mask at a costume party, and later leaving a body drained of blood. Inspector Harry Trout, a bumbling Scotland Yard detective, believes these seemingly unrelated deaths are connected. With the help of a clue accidentally left at one of the murder scenes, Trout links the deaths to the plagues of Egypt. With the aid of head surgeon, Dr. Vesalius, he learns that all of the victims, so far, were present for the failed surgery of Phibes’ wife, Virginia. Yet even with the police on to him, Phibes shows no sign of backing down from his elaborate plot.
There’s a lot to unpack from Dr. Phibes, but clocking in at 94 minutes, this film is paced pretty well. Two stories play out here; Phibes on his Exodus revenge quest, and the police trying and failing to stop him. The police storyline with Trout is a straight up, dark comedy, with rapid fire dialogue between the incompetent officers as well as witnesses they encounter. This was filmed during the heyday of Monty Python, so British humor was at a high. It’s surprising that the comedy both works, and has aged well, after almost 50 years, still getting a macabre smile out of the viewer even when murder is involved. The humor is balanced well and the film knows when to be serious when the time comes. Contrast that with Phibes’ story, which plays out with very little dialogue. Price’s Phibes only interacts with his mute servant, Vulnavia, leading to a good level of visual storytelling. We don’t get our first lines until about ten minutes into the film, and we don’t hear Phibes voice for the first time until a third of the way in. Price only speaks 32 lines throughout the film, the majority of which doesn’t appear until then. With that, a good portion of the film is carried through visuals alone.
Though downplayed, The Abominable Dr. Phibes has some pretty amazing sets. Phibes’ lair is a sight to behold: a low-lit Gothic chamber complete with pipe organ at the top of a stone staircase as established in the opening scene. Also, with the opening scene, the film establishes the victims before we even pick up on the theme, by showing a series of wax busts. Phibes ritually torches a corresponding bust after each successful murder. There’s a lot of detail in these chamber scenes that encourage re-watching. With plenty of in camera practicality to marvel at, it puts the film higher above the usual AIP fair. Outside of those segments, the film’s production design is classic but downplayed, taking a backseat to the performances. Not necessarily scenery chewing, but an interesting distraction from the obvious. This is a period film set in the late 1920's. A concrete date is never spoon-fed to the audience, and it isn’t until the halfway point that we get a clue via the Phibes mausoleum.
Acting wise, Price gives a career worthy performance as Anton Phibes, primarily having to carry the film with his eyes alone. His lines are post dubbed, but he still goes the extra mile to make the effort to speak without moving his lips. Price basically acts like his face is completely immobilized under the make-up, making him look cold and ghoulish, yet still conveying that classic monster sense of agony. His existence is pain and he must redistribute it before he can rest peacefully. As much as we want to see him get caught, there’s enough complexity and humanity to him, that the audience does root for him up to a point.
On the opposite end is head surgeon, Dr. Vesalius, played by Joseph Cotton. That’s right, the co-star of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons is hero/foil to this film. For another actor in the later years of his career, Cotton still delivers a solid performance. He gives that old Hollywood charm that makes you immediately like the guy. Through interactions, Vesalius is cooperative and helpful to the police, and we get a pretty intimate look at his home life. He seems to have no other family but his son, to whom he treats as an equal. The scenes of them together shows that he never raises his voice or belittles him, the two just bond over chess and conversation. It’s short but meaningful because when the climax hits, you feel all the more for Vesalius as his situation grows dire.
Finally. rounding out the leads is Peter Jeffrey, as Inspector Trout, our primary source of comedic relief through the runtime. Though initially he seems to be just as incompetent as the rest of the police, Trout believably grows, gradually putting all the pieces together with the assistance of Vesalius. And by the third act, it’s Trout who is able to figure out how the last “curse” will unfold, solidifying sound character development. Completing the cast, secondary characters include the likes of Hugh Griffith, Terry Thomas, Derek Godfrey, Virginia North and Caroline Munro, among others. It’s amazing to see so many classically trained and Shakespearian actors lending their talents to a small film that would have otherwise been seen as a B-movie.
Returning to the plot, after Phibes has committed eight of his nine acts of vengeance, all that leaves is Dr. Vesalius. Initially believing he’ll be held to the “curse of darkness,” Trout has a gut feeling that Vesalius’ son, Lem, is the one in danger of the plague “death of the first born.” His hunch is correct as Lem has been kidnapped and is held at Phibes’ lair. Once learning the location of the lair, Vesalius knocks Trout out, and arrives alone for the final confrontation. Gone is the humor and music as Vesalius pleads with Phibes to let Lem go. But Phibes, ever ready to prove his point, reveals Lem sedated on an operating table, and locked in place, with the key to free him surgically placed under his ribs. Phibes has also rigged a slowly descending container of acid that will reach Lem in six minutes, the same amount of time that Virginia Phibes' life was in Vesalius’ hands. Throughout the real time sequence, Phibes taunts the doctor for his believed misdeeds, finally revealing the true extent of his burns under the make-up and what awaits Lem. It’s a brutally tense climax where the tables are turned. We want Vesalius to succeed, and we both literally and figuratively see Phibes for the monster he has become. By the time it’s over, we all breathe a sigh of relief at Lem’s rescue.
Believing he’s won, Phibes retreats before he can confirm Lem’s death, and heads to his chamber below the organ. There we find he has a casket big enough for two people, that contains the embalmed body of Virginia. Phibes enters the casket, and triggers a device that slowly drains his blood, shutting the coffin. Despite all that he’s done, you want to be happy that Phibes is able to reunite with his wife, and believe that the two can rest in peace. The casket closes, just as Trout and Vesalius enter the chamber. With no sign of Phibes, the two leave. It’s a fittingly satisfying ending that leaves little left to explore...except they made a sequel.
The film was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in 1972, with Price, as well as writer/director, Robert Fuest, returning. There was talk of the series continuing, but plans fell into limbo with the increasing financial strain of American International Pictures, as well as Fuest’s directorial career hitting a slump after a disastrous follow-up film, The Devil’s Rain, in 1975.
You can probably gather from reading this that The Abominable Dr. Phibes has had its hand in shaping the horror landscape. The climax alone definitely influenced the Saw franchise, with its time sensitive traps and self-righteous villain who sees himself as a moral crusader. The need to remove a key from a body is the very proof of concept that Saw came from. The influence of Phibes can also be seen in another acclaimed film, David Fincher’s Se7en, where we follow a serial killer whose prey fall victim to elaborate scenarios based on another religious passage, the Seven Deadly Sins. Fincher’s Se7en even became influential in spawning a wave of smaller films capitalizing on killers with Old Testament ideologies, and also recently in the fifth season of American Horror Story. Dr. Phibes is the godfather of the “killer who thinks he kills with a moral compass” and who may have his place among the horror die-hards, but is still not the household name he deserves. It’s never too late though, and with the 50th anniversary coming up next year, the film may finally get its return to glory.
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