The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

A review of my favorite horror film for Halloween

The classic Universal creature features of the 1930s and 40s served as my entry point into horror cinema.  Filmed in black and white, the films oozed atmosphere, but they never featured anything truly terrifying that my six year-old self couldn’t handle.  The monsters were slow-witted and lumbering, but even when they did manage to kill someone, the carnage was off screen and you never felt that the leads were in any real danger.  Then, somewhere around second grade, I saw something that completely blew my mind — a stylish, colorful horror featuring a quick-witted monster-man who enacted devious theme murders and was always a step ahead of the “so called” heroes.  I immediately knew I was watching something special, and it has been my favorite horror film ever since.

Set amidst the art deco beauty of 1925, The Abominable Dr. Phibes stars Vincent Price as Dr. Anton Phibes, a disfigured concert organist and theologian who seeks revenge on the medical team that failed to save his wife (Caroline Munro) on the operating table.  With the help of an unexplained, beautiful, mute companion, Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes knocks off the physicians one by one using the Biblical plagues from Exodus (boils, blood, frogs, death of the first born, etc.) as a running theme.  On the trail of the revenge mad murderer is Detective Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard (Peter Jeffrey), aided in part by Phibes’ ultimate target, lead surgeon Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), but the wily Phibes proves a formidable advisory.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a rare film in which all the elements come together to form something truly special.  This is due in large part to the guiding hand of director Robert Fuest.  Having directed several episodes of ITV’s The Avengers, he saw the seeds of a deviously good idea in an overlong and over-serious script about obsessive love, grief, and murder.  Fuest rewrote the script (uncredited), reshaping it into a horror-comedy hybrid.  Whether intentional or subliminal, the revised script is basically an episode of The Avengers from the villain’s point of view, including the camp humor, bizarre puzzle-like murders, and heightened atmosphere that made the TV show so popular.  And just like on The Avengers, the authorities constantly arrive just after the nick of time.

The final script is actually one of the best structured and elegant screenplays ever produced for a horror film.  It begins with ten minutes of visual storytelling that sets up the premise without a single line spoken.  Price, known for his distinctive, purring line readings, continues in pantomime mode for the first third of the movie.  However, though set in the Twenties, this is no silent film.  When the dialogue comes, it is witty, filled with double-meanings, with beautiful transitions between scenes, in which the ending line of one scene provides the perfect entrée into the next.

Vincent Price is at his campy best as Dr. Phibes, and the role gives him ample opportunity to display his mastery of both flowery, romantic dialogue and comic pantomime.  His joy in performance is evident throughout.  He’s having the time of his life; and you can help but root for him, even if he is murdering innocents, whose only crime was failing in the effort to save a dying woman.

Finally, I must praise the work of the set designer Brian Eatwell, art director Bernard Reeves, and costumer Elsa Fennell.  The gorgeous, vibrantly-colored art deco sets and costumes are the icing atop this delicacy.

My life has been richer due to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and the film is my annual Halloween ritual.  It receives my very highest recommendation.

 

UK-USA/C-94m./Dir: Robert Fuest/Wr: James Whiton and William Goldstein (rewritten by Robert Fuest, uncredited)/Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, Norman Jones, Terry-Thomas, Hugh Griffith, Aubrey Woods, Derek Godfrey, John Cater, Sean Bury

If You Like: Fans of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) should check out the granddaddy of the “theme murder” serial killer movies.

Video: The Abominable Dr. Phibes was released on Blu-ray as part of Shout! Factory’s 6-film The Vincent Price Collection [Blu-ray] box set. Unfortunately, that set went out of print, so the only domestic option (if you don’t want to pay premium “secondary market” prices) is on DVD.  That disc is currently available within Vincent Price: MGM Scream Legends Collection (The Abominable Dr. Phibes / Tales of Terror / Theater of Blood / Madhouse / Witchfinder General / Dr. Phibes Rises Again / Twice Told Tales).

If you have a region-free player (or live in Great Britain), Arrow Video released The Abominable Dr Phibes [Blu-ray] with a beautiful HD print of the film and a nice collection of extras.

Special features include:

  • An audio commentary by director Robert Fuest
  • Another audio commentary by the creator of Dr. Phibes, William Goldstein
  • Dr. Phibes and the Gentlemen: The League of Gentlemen fondly recall a British horror classic
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • A reversible sleeve featuring alternate original artworks
  • A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Julian Upton and the on-set reminiscences of Caroline Munro, illustrated with original archive posters and stills

Streaming: The Abominable Dr. Phibes can be streamed online (including the YouTube video embedded above).

More to Explore: The 1971 film was followed by a direct sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, the following year.  There were discussions of other sequels with titles such as Phibes Resurrectus and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes, but they never materialized.

Trivia: Who Vulvania is and why she assists Dr. Phibes in his murder spree is never explained in the film.  In earlier drafts of the script, she was planned as a clockwork robot created by Phibes — basically a more advanced version of the automatons that appear in the film as the band Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards.

For More Info: Issue #29 of Little Shoppe of Horrors magazine dedicated 81 pages to an appreciation and behind-the-scenes details on the two Phibes philms.

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