The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 10, 2009  | 
DVD
MGM (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD Mono, Castellano DD Mono, French DD Mono, German DD Mono, Italian DD Mono. English (FHI), German (FHI), Castellano, Dutch, French, Italian Subtitles. 91 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Robert Fuest
Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North
Screenplay: James Whiton, William Goldstein
Country: UK
External Links
IMDB Rotten YouTube
Nine killed her, nine shall die, nine eternities in doom!"

Few horror stars are as iconic as Vincent Price. That velvet voice, that piercing glare, and depending on which film you're watching, that playful sadism or that balls-out nastiness. When Vincent Price died, the world of Horror lost one of its greatest actors, raconteurs and authors of cookbooks. Feeble jokes aside (although he did inded write cookbooks – quite good ones, too), when Vincent was on, he was really ON, and The Abominable Dr Phibes is one of those moments when you know you're in the presence of greatness, despite a few of its shortcomings.

Right from the get-go you know you aren't in for one of Vincent's more serious forays into horror, in this, his 100th film, what with his rather flailing, robed, Phantom Of The Opera-style performance at the keyboard and wind-up doll's orchestra ("Dr Phibes' Clockwork Wizards") playing over the credits, but it's that kind of knowingness that actually helps to enjoy some of the Maestro's more blackly comedic ventures into the genre. That playfulness is kind of accentuated by the direction of Robert Fuest, better known for having directed episodes of the tongue-in-cheek TV spy show, The Avengers.

Basically, the plot for the film is this: Dr Phibes (Price) has recently lost his wife, and he wants the surgeons who in his eyes murdered her to pay, and pay they shall, dying by the plagues Moses laid upon the Egyptians in the Old Testament. He begins with sending the first of his victims a horde of vampire bats (well, we can all see they're flying foxes, but what the hell, huh?) to drain him of blood and shred his face. Phibes has wax busts of his victims, and when they die he hangs a medallion around their neck inscribed with a hebraic ideogram and sets fire to them. This is the second surgeon to die in a strange way recently, another was stung to death in his library by bees, his face left a mass of boils. The police begin to wonder if the two are linked. Are they fuck?!

Phibes wastes no time in taking out bad guy number three at a masquerade party, Doctor Hargreaves, this time, using a frog mask that covers the entire head. The only catch being, once it's put in place and closed, it closes even tighter, completely crushing the neck of the victim. Victim number four, Doctor Longstreet, is on the way – this manky pervert likes to watch stag films on a hand-cranked projector (I'll bet they are...), in this instance a scantily clad lady dancing unconvincingly with a large rubber snake. All of a sudden, a beautiful and silent girl appears in his room and ties the rather befuddled and randy surgeon to a chair – but don't think you're going to see any naughtiness kids, as Phibes turns up as well – talk about a passion killer! Phibes hooks the good doctor up to a tube, a pump and an empty bottle, and I guess the rest writes itself.

The police have started to work out that there is a common link between the victims – at one point or another, they all worked for a Doctor Veselius. While the police are checking this lead, Doctor Longstreet is feeling a little drained by his meeting with Phibes, and the police are soon on the scene, one step behind the killer as per usual. Mind you, our killer has made a mistake – in his homicidal zeal, he's left behind one of his medallions, which the cops are quite quick on checking up – although the annoying manufacturer is a little short on detail, like providing the name of the silent young woman he made a set of ten rather distinctive amulets for – but he identifies the insignia on the amulet as hebrew, which sends our Inspector Trout off to the local rabbi for help. Here, he quickly learns that our nutty doctor killer is working after the plan of the curses of the Jews upon the Pharoah (it's in Exodus, people!), and gets to further learn the order in which the next few murders will occur.

Meanwhile, the audience are treated to a quiet night in at the Phibes place, and notice something rather odd – Phibes can only speak when he has a wire running from his throat to a gramophone (this is a bit of an own goal on the part of the director in my mind; when you've got that distinctive Price drawl at you fingertips, why limit its use?) - he makes it obvious that he is pining over his dead wife, but then the question must be asked: who is the mysterious silent woman who looks disturbingly like the woman in Phibes' shrine?

Veselius, in that irritating, know-it-all manner coomon to doctors, has prepared a list and a series of case files of all the instances where the dead doctors worked together with him – and guess which is the only case in five years when that happened? Now backstory can be an annoying thing, but it's dealt with pretty neatly here, switching in between Dr Veselius' factual, pragmatic recount, and Phibes' over-the-top emotional ravings – no-one quite did melodrama like Vincent Price, and while from some actors you'd just be rolling your eyes at the delivery, from Uncle Vincent, you kind of buy it – sure it's hammy, but deliberately so, and given the blck humour and tongue-in-cheek nature of the film, it's definitely appropriate.

It's right here that Veselius drops a bombshell – Phibes was burned to death in an automobile accident racing back to London at the time of his wife's illness, both bodies interred in the same vault at the same time! Now, for a first time audience (I've seen this film a bunch of times), that's a dilly of a pickle of a plot device. So how the fuck is Phibes exacting revenge from beyond the grave? The police are one step behind that, wondering who is doing the murders, having rather naturally discounted Phibes as a suspect.

That, of course, doesn't stop the murders from occurring. Our lovely, silent Mrs Phibes look-a-like (we can only gather from Phibes' previous ranting that the real Mrs Phibes is indeed dead – proper dead) has staged a breakdown in a country lane to lure in a gentleman rescuer. It works, and our next medico is off to that great practice in the sky (via the curse of hail), while the police slowly come to work out who the beneficiary of the Phibes estate must be.

The police are delving into the Phibes history – they're delving into the Phibes family vault, too – and they're starting to slowly put some pieces together, but with greater speed once they work out that inside the Phibes coffin is an urn of ashes, no body there at all. Meaning that maybe the good doctor is still alive; lord knows many folks apart from them seem to think so, too. Mind you, Mrs Phibes' coffin is completely empty, so the plot thickens...

Inspector Trout is doing his damnedest to stop the killings, but he's not really being helped by some of the doctors, who are trying to assert their autonomy at the cost of their lives... Cue: the plague of rats in a way you're probably not expecting – I'll guarantee that the victim wasn't. And if the audience can spot the next death (which happens very soon after), I'll eat my boots – that was totally out of left field and in gloriously bad taste.

As we get down to the wire, Trout and his men are starting to place the few remaining victims...I mean, targets, in close protective custody, but you know, somehow it just doesn't seem to be enough. As Dr Veselius points out, Phibes has had years to plan this thing out with total precision, the police have had fourteen days to respond, and all either party has to show for it is seven dead bodies – that all working in Phibes' favour. Any confidence the police might be displaying could be seen to be a little unfounded.

I've seen some circuituous revenge plans in my time, but Phibes' take on the curse of locusts surely has to take the cake. My hat's off to him, is all that I can say. And as for the police – they're actually present while the gruesomeness happens. Veselius' son has been taken by Phibes' confederates – one of the curses is the curse of the firstborn sons being slaughtered, remember. And after that, there's the curse of darkness, whatever that may mean. It ain't gonna mean anything good, that's for sure.

Phibes calls Veselius and wants him to come to his lair alone to administer the final curse, and then...and then you'll just have to watch the film to see what happens, won't you? The sheer bizarre nature of the climax is worth your price of admission alone. I hope I've piqued your curiosity, because you won't be disappointed – it's a ball-tearer.

For some of the most outrageous methods of dispatch you'll see from a film of this age, The Abominable Dr Phibes is for you. Some of them are just balls-out bizarre, some so intricate it beggars the imagination, and regardless of whether or not you dig the rather dated vibe of the film (I do), you've got to applaud its sheer unbridled lunacy. Films like this just aren't made any more, and I think that the world is a poorer place for it.

Oh, that Dr Phibes...he so crazy!
Video
A beautiful, lush picture with vibrant colours and no artefacts whatsoever. Whoever was behind the remastering of this film really kicked a goal – one of the best transfers for a movie older than me that I've seen in a long time.
Audio

Well, it's a mono track, but it does what it has to. The Abominable Dr Phibes is no all-guns-blazing action-soundfest, so this is an adequate track with no surprises.

Extra Features
None, besides the original theatrical trailer, which is rather disappointing, given that this is one of Vincent Price's more iconic films – you'd think there'd be something out there to include.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A farcical bit of black comedy with a neat and pleasingly original line in vengeance, The Abominable Dr Phibes is a charming throwback to the days when horror didn't need to contain buckets of blood being hurled at the screen, or a load of shrieking sex-mad teens. Think of it, with it's ornate set-pieces as being kind of like an early 70s Saw, or more accurately Final Destination, just with a brain, and a more direct line in revenge – and of course, Vincent Price, which immediately adds class to any film. This might be a bit too lightweight for the younger, modern audience expecting splatter, but for an older and more discriminating audience who grew up on Hammer and Amicus flicks, as well as the whole range of AIP flicks Price made for Roger Corman in the 60s, this really hits the spot. Let The Abominable Dr Phibes into your life and become a better person.

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