BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Fuest

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

PLOT:  Dr. Phibes, a mysterious, organ playing supervillain, kills off doctors in bizarre and ritualistic ways as Scotland Yard races to find the pattern to the crimes and the identity of the killer.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Dr. Phibes, the supervillain, is pretty damn weird, from his obsession with acting out 1920s torch songs to the audio jack in his neck that he connects to a phonograph when he wants to speak.  Dr. Phibes, the movie, is somewhat weird, though less so than its central character. Doubtlessly, the proper but incompetent Brits who are perpetually one step behind the bad doctor would term the goings-on here “decidedly odd.”  We’re not sold that Dr. Phibes is weird enough to make the List on a first pass, but we’re not comfortable writing it off, either, so it will sit in the Borderline category.

COMMENTS: The first scene of Dr. Phibes wisely spotlights the film’s keynote set and admirably sets a tone of ghoulish whimsy.  Organ music swells as the camera travels up a marble staircase until it reaches an odd atrium.  In the center sits an organ with a fan of pipes glowing with subtly garish yellows, pinks and reds.  Flanking this centerpiece are trees with stuffed birds of prey perched on their dead limbs.  At the organ sits the hunched, hooded figure of a man, who sways as if possessed and theatrically throws up his arms during  random passages as he plays.  After the opening credits fade a longshot reveals there is more to this room: there’s a clockwork band of automatons in tuxedos.  The hooded figure finishes his dirge, steps away, winds a crank and begins conducting the stiff figures as they belt out an impossibly lush big band ballad.  On a balcony above a door opens and out steps a beautiful brunette, dressed in an elegant white, fur-lined gown and wearing a gold wire headdress on loan from the Folies Bergère.  She walks down to meet the man and briefly waltzes across the marble floor with him.  She then takes her leave, as the man lowers a velvet lined birdcage hanging from the ceiling by a gold chain through a hole in the floor.

The hooded man is, of course, Dr. Phibes.  The woman is the silent Vulnavia, his lovely accomplice.  And the birdcage contains—what else?—a flock of bats who are off to eat off the face of Phibes’ first victim.  The opening sequences leave lots of questions unanswered: Who is Phibes? Why does he need to kill? Why does he need to kill in such a bizarre fashion?  Who is the woman, and why does she serve Phibes?  Why does the doctor stage elaborate, ritualistic musical production numbers before he kills?  Some of these questions will be answered in the course of the movie, and some won’t be.  But the opening does set our expectation for the movie: style will aggressively trample sense.  Realism is an unwelcome intruder in Phibes’ domain.

Dr. Phibes is a bizarre creation.  Vincent Price’s oversized personality dominates the character, but I’m not in the camp that believes Price makes the movie.  Phibes, as a creation, is a strong enough presence that another actor (say, Christopher Lee, or even an unknown) could have pulled off the role.  What’s fascinating about the doctor isn’t Price’s arching eyebrows or his delivery of lines such as “Within twenty-four hours, my work will be finished, and then, my precious jewel, I will join you in your setting. We shall be reunited forever in a secluded corner of the great Elysian field of the beautiful beyond!”  It’s not even the way he sips champagne through the hole in his neck.  What draws us in is his obsessiveness, his mystery, and the elaborate, almost fetishistic rituals he constructs.  In between murders, he puts on big production numbers (co-staring the lovely Vulnavia) that look like what Busby Berkeley might come up to amuse himself as he slowly went insane while locked up alone inside an underground mansion.  The purpose behind these musical performances is never explained, but they have an intense emotional resonance to the doctor and seem to relate to a life before he became a reclusive homicidal maniac.

The murders in Dr. Phibes were mildly shocking in the early 1970s, as much for their black comedy as for their gruesomeness.  I would not think of spoiling the surprises for the virgin viewer, but the mad organist seems to always find a way to top himself with inventive and improbable offings.  Everyone will have their own favorite; mine is a dispatch involving a thick green syrup from a batch of boiled vegetables, a stencil of a nude woman, and tube full of locusts.  The final scheme, where Phibes gives his last victim a fighting chance to escape, is one of the most fiendish traps ever devised (and quite possibly the inspiration for the Saw series).

Bumbling Peter Jeffrey, with his bulbous nose and jutting chin, tries in vain to track down Phibes, but is always one step behind (behind both the doctor, and the audience).  His main investigatory function is to uselessly muse, “it’s a damn strange business, Tom” and to sound incredulous as each new plot detail is revealed (“You heard a what?  At half past two in the morning, woman?  In the street?”)  Along with his Scotland Yard cronies, Jeffrey provides a straight-faced comic relief.  Some of the comedy is quite dark, including a crime scene cleanup that presents an unusual challenge to the detectives.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes nails a note of deliberate camp, which is a difficult tone to achieve.  Go too far, and the movie devolves into insultingly obvious parody; don’t go far enough, and you have something just as dull as the material you’re supposedly satirizing.  Director Robert Fuest, who otherwise had an undistinguished directing career, was well equipped to tackle this task, having been a production designer on British television’s subtly campy “The Avengers” and directing several episodes of the sequel, “The New Avengers.”  Fuest’s background in art design is also a huge boost to the production.  Phibes’ lair, with its dumbwaiter organ and art deco design, is the strangest, most elegant, and coolest hideout from which any supervillain ever had the privilege of contriving a dastardly schemes.   Match those qualities to talents like Price and Cotten, and place them inside an odd and obsessive B-movie script that moves according to comic book logic, and you end up with an entertaining and hard to forget classic of its kind.

DVD NOTE: The Abominable Dr. Phibes is available on its own, or bundled together in several alternate packages. 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), or as part of MGM’s “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).

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)

“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)

4 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)”

  1. Correction to your comments section: Peter Jeffrey plays the bumbling, bulbous nosed and jutting chin detective, not Joseph Cotten. Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte) plays Dr. Vesalius. Peter Jeffrey is the low-point to an otherwise excellent film. The art deco sets and Vulnavia (Virginia North) are stunning. The film is also very creative and one can see where modern garbage like Saw took its cues. Absolutely love every scene Phibes is in. I hope it does get re-considered for the list again down the line. I refuse to see the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again for fear that it will diminish the original for me.

    1. Oops! Thanks Eric; the Cotten/Jeffrey switcheroo has been corrected. I actually like Jeffrey’s performance; he strikes just the right note of near-competence. You’re not missing too much with Rises Again; it has its moments, mainly in the art design department, but it’s an inessential retread.

  2. Dang, I was going to cover this one. Just caught it the other night. I’d recommend it for the List, based on being a defiant marcher-to-its-own-drummer, being such a surreal supervillain study in a universe without superheroes, and for the silly, campy deaths.

  3. This is another film (along with the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup”) that is a bit too dear to me to objectively evaluate it in terms of its weirdness. I suppose it seems damnably strange if you come to it unprepared, but for me it’s been a favorite since I was a kid and its weirdness has been a bit blunted by familiarity. My gut tells me it should probably make the List, but I would have to recuse myself were I on the panel making that decision!

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