Vincent Price astounds as the weird, wonderful, absolutely abominable Dr. Phibes
The Abominable Dr Phibes is one of the weirdest horror movies of the 1970s, and probably one of the weirdest horror films that Vincent Price played the lead in. And that’s saying something, because Price starred in some way out-there efforts, like Scream and Scream Again and Theatre of Blood. But what makes The Abominable Dr Phibes so bizarre, is not actually its central premise, although that is pretty odd, but the manner in which it is executed.
But before we get to that, let’s look at what the film is actually about. Medical doctors seem to be dying in rather strange ways, and it’s up to Detective Inspector Trout (played by Peter Jeffrey) and his partner Sgt. Tom Schenley (played by Norman Jones), to figure out why that is. Eventually, thanks to retired surgeon Dr Vesalius (played by Joseph Cotten), they come to learn that the murders are all part of an elaborate revenge scheme by the long-thought dead Dr Anton Phibes, who has spent years crafting events because of the unfortunate death of his young wife.
Phibes believes that all the doctors involved in her radical resection were responsible for her death on the operating table. Why he thinks this is never fully established, but the fact that he was in a major car accident and thought to have burnt to death (it’s later stated that this was actually his chauffeur) may have been the catalyst for his mental breakdown. The dramatic revelation of his severe disfigurement is very cleverly done through make up, and Price both skilfully and dramatically shows that Phibes cannot speak without the help of apparatus that he has invented himself. This leads to some comic scenes where he drinks champagne through the hole in his neck and tastes a Brussel sprout concoction in the same way.
The manner in which the doctors (and one nurse) die, are really rather original, and further the films brand of macabre bizarreness. Trout eventually figures out that Phibes is murdering his victims according to the Ten Plagues of Egypt found in the Old Testament, which according to the film are: bats, frogs, blood, rats, livestock, hail, boils, locusts, death of the firstborn and darkness. Phibes carries out each death with his own brand of peculiarity and genius, and after each victim is dispatched of, he burns their wax effigy and places a medallion with a certain symbol around the effigies neck. Him losing one such medallion at the death of the rather perverted Dr Longstreet (played by Terry Thomas), leads to Trout’s plague discovery and one of the best scenes of the film involving him speaking to the man who made the medallions, played to comic perfection by Aubrey Woods.
Goldsmith: It’s one of very unusual set, this.
Trout: A set, sir?
Trout: There’s more than one?
Goldsmith: Of course there’s more than one. It’s a set.
Although the film has its camp factor turned up to eleven most of the time, the deaths of the doctors are rather gruesome and sick making. This is especially true of Dr Whitcombe, whose head is crushed in an ornate frog mask at a costume party, and Dr Longstreet, who is slowly and carefully made to exsanguinate by Phibes and his mute assistant, Vulnavia (played by Virginia North). Although comic scenes take place at the discovery of each victim’s fate, this doesn’t undermine the elaborate and off-putting ways that they are dispatched. The bizarre quality of these murders are once again heightened by Phibes and Vulnavia, who often plays the violin during the murders. One scene involves death by rats in an airplane (you need to see it to appreciate its true strangeness), and Phibes sits picking daisies in a field before watching the entire affair through a large telescope.
The sets and costumes add to the dreamlike, excessive quality of proceedings. We are first introduced to Phibes as he is playing his large organ, which connects the film far more with the Universal horror films of the 1930s than with its proto-slasher and psychological horror contemporaries. Phibes and Vulnavia dance together in several scenes in some kind of art deco ballroom, complete with an animatronic band that is clearly actors dressed up in strange, rather uncomfortable looking doll attire. Vulnavia increases the disconnect from normal human interaction and appearance with her pale, perfect appearance, and as mentioned before, lack of speech. She appears in a series of ornate costumes that seem impractical, but also heighten the theatre of the proceedings, with yards of flowing fabric and ornate headdresses. As my mother quite rightly pointed out, she obviously has to be as deranged as Phibes to assist him in his “work”, and her attire reinforces this fact. In the medallion scene, the goldsmith refers to her as fashionable. In this case, fashion is truly deadly.
It is thanks to Phibes and Vulnavia’s odd interactions that breaks in the murders are provided, aside from the comic work of Peter Jeffrey and John Cater, who plays the bumbling Superintendent Waverley. One such scene features them in a faux restaurant, dancing to the anachronistic “You Stepped Out of A Dream”, with a screen of painted people behind them. Vulnavia acts as a sort of surrogate to Phibes’ fantasies about his dead wife, who he raises to goddess status, speaking to her portrait, and later it is revealed, removing her body from the cemetery and perfectly preserving it in an art deco coffin which he is to join her in. Victoria is played by an uncredited Caroline Munro, and she is like the ghostly object of fixation in gothic novels such as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Dr Vesalius describes her as having a strange presence, even in death.
It’s really the performances in the film that bring everything together. Peter Jeffrey as the put upon Detective Inspector Trout is a treat. His facial expressions upon the discovery of each murder is comic genius, especially in the scene where one victim is impaled with a unicorn cast in bronze. Yes, well, I did say this film was bizarre central. He also works incredibly well with the more serious Norman Jones, who perfects his puzzled face every time the murders become more surreal. And do they become surreal.
Dr. Phibes: I will have killed nine times in my life, Dr. Vesalius. How many murders can be attributed to you?
Dr. Vesalius: None! I did not kill your wife!
Dr. Phibes: No?
Dr. Vesalius: I tried to save her.
Dr. Phibes: With a knife in your hands? Doctor, I have no faith in your profession! I was told, after my crash, that I would never speak again. The doctors were, of course, wrong, for as you see and can hear, I have used my knowledge of music and acoustics to re-create my voice!
Dr. Vesalius: You don’t have to remind me of your ingenuity, Dr. Phibes. WHERE… WHERE IS MY SON?
It’s a delight to see Joseph Cotten, the star of so many of my favourite classic films, play the incredibly intelligent and likeable hero of the piece, Dr Vesalius. It’s largely thanks to Cotten and Price that the end of the film is as successful as it is, because it may have all devolved into downright ridiculousness if Cotten and Price weren’t so determined to give the audience their money’s worth. It’s a pity the pair don’t share very many scenes in the film, but that ending really does make up for things.
The script cleverly reserves Dr Vesalius for perhaps the worst plague of them all: the death of the firstborn. Whilst his son is rather unbelievable as, well, his son, due to both the disparity in age and the lack of charisma portrayed by the clearly dubbed child actor who plays him; because you come to root for the clever Dr Vesalius, you want things to turn out right in the end. But because Phibes has crafted everything so carefully, and also made everything so elaborate, the death of the first born cannot be straightforward. To Dr Vesalius’s horror, Phibes forces him to recreate the surgical environment that supposedly killed Victoria. Phibes has placed the key to a head lock inside of Vesalius’s son’s ribcage, which he has to extract through surgery in six minutes, or the poor young lad will have a face full of acid from a device that looks like its been made of whirly straws. It’s perhaps the best known scene of the movie because it’s when Phibes rips off his mask face and reveals the truly grotesque one beneath. It’s a moment that is still rather shocking, even when you know it’s coming, and while the make up may look rather OTT now, it is delightfully excessive in line with the rest of the film.
What makes The Abominable Dr Phibes one of my favourite horror films of the 70s is its keen sense of nasty fun. Phibes kills in ways that make you cringe, but also make you maybe want to applaud, because of their macabre creativity, as well as the intense camp. The focus on the theatrical is perfected in the murder scenes, where Vulnavia’s costumes are elaborate and largely ridiculous, and the manner in which the victims die are both strange and brilliant. Not for one moment are you bored or able to exactly predict how Phibes is going to realise his next plague, and that’s the fun of it all. It’s a film lacking in the rather recycled slasher formula that would glut the 1980s, and it also has the sensibilities and presence of the classic period of horror that was so popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The presence of some wonderful British character actors as well as two heavyweights of the Golden Era make this the perfect film for Halloween. Just make sure you don’t let any strange, beautiful women into your house after watching it.