307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, thumping out Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests.” It turns out he amuses himself thusly in his underground orchestra chamber by conducting “Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards,” a band of wind-up musicians, and frolicking in a dance with his mute girl Friday, Vulnavia (Virginia North). So how do you spend your free time, playing Candy Crush? How unoriginal. Dr. Phibes does things only one way: OVER THE TOP!!! He’s so enamored with his own magnificence that he includes his own face as a logo on various parts of his mansion’s facade and on the windows of his car. It isn’t all fun and games in Phibes’ life, however. His wife tragically died on the operating table, and he’s out for revenge against the doctors who were present. So what, he lawyers up and sues for malpractice? How unoriginal. Dr. Phibes has contrived a series of overly-complicated deaths themed loosely after the ten plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament and Quran, to serve as the devices of demise for each of the unwitting medical professionals.

Thus, our whole story is a series of increasingly bizarre murders which start with a cage full of bats loosed in the first victim’s bedroom, while Scotland Yard struggles to keep up with him. “It’s a damn strange business!” we first hear from Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey). “Jolly fine party, what?” comments Dr. Hargraves right before he’s strapped into his frog’s head mask of death. The whole supporting cast are such caricatures of stuffy London culture that the movie might as well be a British minstrel show. Of course, Phibes himself is missing and presumed dead from an auto accident incurred as he raced to his wife’s side, so it’s not entirely the police’s fault that they’re slow to piece things together. Phibes, it turns out, was only horribly disfigured in the car crash. He lost his voice, too, so he has to speak by wiring himself into a giant Victrola, and he wears a mask and a wig that only manages to make him look hung-over.

And so we go on through the various victims of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, from bee stings to the draining of blood to impalement by unicorn horn. After each victim, Phibes, in his fetishistic passion, adorns a wax figure of the victim’s head with a Hebrew amulet and blowtorches its features away. He inadvertently drops one of these trinkets at the scene of one murder, which becomes the police’s first clue. They confer with a rabbi and confirm the “plagues of Egypt” pattern. Vulnavia, whose wardrobe changes with every shot, assists Phibes in most scenes; when she’s not needed, she provides atmosphere playing a spanking-white violin. The doctor victims have their own eccentricities, such as viewing stag films of exotic snake-dancing girls, or playing with model trains. This is all pulled off with the perfect deadpan delivery that only the pulp horror universe can deliver.

We do not hear a single utterance of Dr. Phibes until more than half an hour in, when he plugs himself into his audio system to address the photo of his departed wife at the shrine he’s built for her. It’s as bizarre a scene as we’ve come to expect by then, with Price miming to his own voiceover dialog, just adding yet another surreal layer to this funhouse of whimsy. And that dark whimsy keeps right up until the final showdown, an elaborate trap involving a doctor’s son. This boy has had a key surgically implanted near his heart, and his father is challenged with retrieving it as his son is strapped to a gurney under a timer mechanism that will release an acid spray on his face—disfiguring him as Dr. Phibes himself is disfigured.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one movie where nobody cares beans about plot logic or suspension of disbelief, as long as it keeps delivering one outlandish scene after another. We usually see only the setup and then the aftermath of each killing, spared the gore and conveniently sidestepping some of the logic. We’re left to assume that the doctor frozen alive in his car was too intrigued by the accompanying musical box to simply do something so un-British as jump out of his car and run away without being excused. Never mind the murders involving animals; locusts and bats obey Dr. Phibes’ whim because his force of personality is just that strong.

Many reviewers have noticed the obvious influence this film has on later works in the slasher/serial killer genre, especially the kind devoted to one larger-than-life villain protagonist. Dr. Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, John Doe from Se7en, and especially Jigsaw from the Saw franchise all owe a debt to Phibes: stylish, flamboyant villains with their own blue-to-orange scale of morality that drives them to commit gruesome murders in the name of avenging exaggerated slights. But Dr. Phibes definitely did it with a style and sense of humor all its own, and comes into its weirdness without straining in the slightest, thanks to its abundant and unfettered imagination. Afterwards, we are not enriched or enlightened, not beholden to any moral. But have we ever been magnificently entertained by this feast of ham!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anachronistic period horror musical camp fantasy is a fair description, loaded with comedic gore of the type that packs theatres and drives child psychologists up the walls.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“A delightfully goofy horror film… Kept at a snappy pace by ‘Avengers’ director Robert Fuest and given a bizarre art deco look by art director Bernard Reeves and set designer Brian Eatwell…”–TV Guide

“This odd film is almost goofy enough to be laughable, but not quite. The murder mystery part isn’t quite compelling enough to hold our interest, and Phibes’ wacky, but painfully slow-moving scenes are just a bit too dull to maximize the camp factor…”–Brian Webster, The Apollo Movie Guide (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) – Overview – TCM – Turner Classic Movies’ Phibes page hosts four film clips and an essay by Eric Weber

19 things you never knew about The Abominable Dr Phibes – Trivia items from a Price scholar

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Film) – The campy, artificial Phibes offers the TV Tropes a wealth of conceits to explore

The Abominable Dr. Phibes & Cinematic Influence | Film Analysis – YouTuber Nyx Fears’ video review highlights Phibes‘ influences on later horror films like Se7en, Phantom of the Paradise, and the Saw franchise.

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) – This site’s initial review of Phibes

PETE TRBOVICH’S BONUS VINCENT PRICE TRIVIA SECTION:

  • Price also played the villain Egghead in the original ‘60s Batman TV series. The fact that Dr. Phibes manages to out-ham a villain created for the notoriously hammy “Batman” TV universe is a feat in itself.
  • A master of macabre humor, Vincent Price once gave a recipe for “How To Cook A Small Boy.”
  • Vincent Price wrote a book about his dog Joe.
  • Vincent Price was also quite the art curator; so much so that Sears department stores commissioned him to become their oil painting expert. And then they made a sales video with Price himself introducing the art, which leads us to this treasure. See, in an alternate universe, he could have been their Mr. Rogers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Dr. Phibes” – Novelization of the film by William Goldstein, the screenwriter

DVD INFO: For some reason, MGM thinks no one in North America wants to own a copy of The Abominable Dr. Phibes by itself. You can get it together with the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again! in a two disc set (buy); partnered with the similarly themed Price vehicle Theater of Blood in a “Midnite Madness” double feature (buy); in another double feature with Scream and Scream Again (buy); or even with Price’s even-less-serious mad doctor role in Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (buy). Most notably, it’s offered as part of MGM’s Vincent Price “Scream Legend” collection (which includes Phibes and its sequel, a Price documentary, Theater of Blood, the anthology features Twice Told Tales and Tales of Terror, Madhouse, and the excellent [if not weird] historical horror The Witchfinder General) (buy). Search long and hard and you can find the original Dr. Phibes on a solo disc (buy), but without any extra features you might as well pay a buck or two more and get the bonus movie(s) of your choice.

Even odder is Phibes‘ absence from the Blu-ray ranks—in the USA. Brits (and those with Region B players) may avail themselves of Arrow Video’s Blu (buy). We don’t have a copy of that release to confirm, but it should have multiple extras, including at the very least audio commentaries from director Fuest, creator Goldstein, and critic Tim Lucas. These all appear on Arrow’s “Complete Dr. Phibes” Blu-ray set (link unavailable at the time of writing), which includes the sequel and a host of extra features.

Phibes is not currently available on video-on-demand (although strangely enough the sequel, Rises Again, is). Some kind of weird rights thing is clearly going on here.

2 thoughts on “307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)”

  1. This is one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid and one of the few I saw at that time that completely holds up to repeated viewings as an adult. This is the role Vincent Price was born to play, which may help explain why repeated attempts at a remake have gone nowhere. Director Robert Fuest had worked on The Avengers (the 60’s spy show) and brought that series’ colorful aestetic to the project. Sadly it was also Fuest’s decision to scrap William Goldstien’s sequel screenplay in favor of a trite and forgettable story of his own. Like many sequels “Doctor Phibes Rises Again” focuses too much on the superficial elements of the original. It also completely misrepresents the beloved lead character, making him a much-too-chatty, fundamentally shallow killer, stripping him of any audience sympathy. Thankfully we can always go back and watch the delightfully warped original as we dream of the franchise that might have been.

  2. A bit of further Vincent Price trivia: among a number of cooking / cookbook related projects, he wrote the introductions to the five-volume set, “A National Treasury of Cooking.” Covering a sampling of traditional American recipes from pre-Revolutionary War up through the Gilded Age, the anthology was edited by his (then) wife, Mary.

    I highly recommend the Gingerbread Cookie recipe from the second volume.

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