Of all the horror films celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2021 – and there are a quite a few that deserve a mention – The Abominable Dr. Phibes is arguably my favorite. The film, which debuted in American theaters on May 18, 1971, was heavily promoted by American International Pictures. The studio repeatedly billed it as the 100th feature film in the legendary career of Vincent Price. That number was not correct – in fact, it wasn’t even close – but given that IMDB did not exist at the time, there was no easy way for fans or critics to verify such a statistic.
Even with such promotion, The Abominable Dr. Phibes initially struggled at the box office. That may have been because Vincent Price movies were no longer being received with the same excitement as they once had during the 1960s, or perhaps American filmgoers regarded it as too British, especially in terms of its approach to humor. But eventually, through word of mouth, the film caught on with American viewers and ended up doing well during its theatrical run. Though not a blockbuster at the box office, it was a film that gained steam with its audience—and has continued to do so through syndicated showings on TV and through DVD sales. If it’s possible for a film to make money for its studio during its initial theatrical run and develop a strong cult following in the decades since, The Abominable Dr. Phibes seems to have accomplished both of those tasks.
There’s little question that Price is the star of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, even if he does not speak during the first half-hour of the movie. Price doesn’t look like himself either; he is especially pale and sickly looking, mostly because he is supposed to be wearing a pseudo-lifelike mask that is covering severe disfigurement. As the star of the movie, Price plays Anton Phibes, a brilliant doctor and acclaimed organist living in London during the 1920s. Phibes has lost his wife, Victoria, who died during a mysterious surgical procedure. Upon hearing of her death, Phibes rushed to the hospital, but in his haste, crashed his car and seemingly perished in the accident. In actuality, Phibes survived the crash, but it left him badly mangled, with horrible burns to his face and neck. The incident also damaged his vocal chords, preventing him from speaking in a normal and audible way.
None of these events are actually shown during the movie, but are explained through verbal references. The film begins with Phibes, wearing a bizarre, black leather cloak, playing the organ in his mansion, sometime after his wife’s passing. Though Phibes remains very much alive, the death of his wife has devastated him. It has also left him furious with the team of surgeons that operated on her. Although the nature and need for the surgery is never revealed to us, Phibes believes that the doctors botched the operation; he regards them as incompetent and completely to blame for her unnecessary death. As a reaction to the tragedy, Phibes decides to exact revenge against each doctor, one by one.
Having secretly returned to London, Dr. Phibes is now wearing the elaborate facial mask and a hideous-fitting wig, while using a bizarre speaking device that amplifies his damaged vocal abilities. Rather than simply killing the doctors by ordinary means, Phibes decides to draw from the Ten Curses of the Pharaoh as his elaborate plan of attack. His plotting of the various murders includes death by bats, locusts, rats, and other methods, all taken directly or indirectly from the biblical plagues contained within the Old Testament. Perhaps the strangest of the murders involves the use of what appear to be Brussel sprouts (not mentioned in The Bible)! Phibes and his beautiful assistant, Vulnavia, can be seen liquefying the vegetables into a boiling mass, which is then slowly dripped from an opening in the ceiling onto the face of one of his unsuspecting victims. And then on top of the liquefied mass, Phibes pours a group of hungry locusts. Yikes!
Price is clearly the star of the movie, but early on he establishes his presence solely though his physical appearance and movements; he does not voice his first words until more than 30 minutes have elapsed. And even then, his voice had to be dubbed after the actual filming. Director Robert Fuest was forced to make that adjustment to the filming process because Price’s makeup included a strange substance known as collodion, which immobilized his facial muscles and prevented him from moving his mouth. The early lack of dialogue only make Phibes more monstrous. The audience waits patiently for him to speak; when he finally does, we can hear the hesitancy and the pain in his voice. His words come slowly but sincerely, especially when he talks to his late wife. She is seen only through photographs, which actually showcase the stunning actress of the era, Caroline Munro.
Price is outstanding in the film, but so are most of the supporting players. One of them is the accomplished Joseph Cotton, a memorable actor who starred in the terrific Alfred Hitchcock films, Shadow of a Doubt. Cotton plays Dr. Vesalius, the respected physician who led the team of surgeons that operated on Mrs. Phibes. Cotton is very good, even though he was a last-minute addition to the cast and reportedly felt ill at ease during much of the filming. During off-camera moments, Price supposedly tried to lessen Cotton’s stress and strain by making facial contortions that could be seen by the veteran actor. None of that stress shows in Cotton’s performance, which shows him in his usual top-notch form.
Additionally, accomplished British actor Peter Jeffrey is very good as the sarcastic and oddly named Inspector Trout, the Scotland Yard policeman who heads up the investigation into Phibes’ array of serial killings. There is also a brief and effective appearance by Terry-Thomas as the nervous, bumbling Dr. Longstreet, one of Phibes’ early victims in the story.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes also featured a relatively inexperienced actress in a key role. Virginia North plays Phibes’ beautiful and mysterious assistant, Vulnavia. Even though North’s character does not speak a single word during the film, her chemistry with Phibes, along with her screen presence and looks, add nicely to the proceedings. (Sadly, North would die quite young, a victim of cancer at the age of 58.)
There is no doubt that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a horror film, but it is also very much a dark comedy. Some of the humor is supplied subtly by Price’s Phibes, particularly when he appears during strange musical interludes; Phibes can be seen playing the organ somewhere in the bowels of his mansion, while accompanied by a bizarre band (“Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards”) that appears to consist solely of automatons. But the majority of the comedy comes from the wisecracking Inspector Trout, who often loses patience with his officers as he frantically searches for the murderer.
Amidst the humor, there is plenty of tragedy—and also a degree of mystery. We never know whether Dr. Phibes is justified in placing the blame on the doctors, since the exact circumstances of his wife’s death are never revealed. What was her illness? What was the nature of the operation she underwent? Other than a brief mention of a “radical resection” taking place, we are never told. We don’t really know if the doctors actually did anything wrong. And perhaps that is why we don’t know whether to consider Phibes with some measure of sympathy, or simply regard him as a psychotic killer who is vindictive and violent.
Another real strength of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the quality of the sets, and the camerawork that captures the surroundings so vividly. “It’s a beautiful film,” says film historian and actress Genoveva Rossi, a longtime fan of Vincent Price’s work. “Not only the acting, but in terms of the art direction. The art deco that we have from scene to scene is really beautiful. It’s a very artful film on so many levels.” The extravagant scenery provides the perfect backdrop to the unconventional nature of the killings and the generally bizarre manner in which Phibes behaves. In a genre where mood and atmosphere matter so much, the film hits all of the proper visual notes.
It is not always easy to combine horror and humor, and find the right balance, but The Abominable Dr. Phibes does just that. It is one of Vincent Price’s best films, and quite possibly his best, though you’ll get an argument from fans of Witchfinder General, Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, and a few other selections. Beyond the realm of Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is good enough to make my personal list of the top 30 movies in horror history. It is that well done—and plenty worth watching a half-century later.
Be sure to check out more horror content from Bruce on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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