The Abominable Dr. Phibes

08/13/2015 19:17

Film: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Year: 1971

Director: Robert Fuest

Writer: James Whiton and William Goldstein

Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton and Hugh Griffith



This film is one that I’ll be honest, I didn’t hear about until I started working my way through the Fangoria Top 300 horror movies. I was stoked to see that Vincent Price starred in this as I’m a fan of him. I’ve now given this movie a third watch, this time with a bit more refined taste. The synopsis is a doctor, scientist, organist and biblical scholar, Anton Phibes (Price), seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death.

We kick this off with a hooded man playing an organ. He is very good at it and the melody is haunting. From there he cranks up a group of mechanical, clockwork band players that play a song as well. This man is then joined by his assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North). They load a covered birdcage into a car and leave the place. Something funny here is as the windows of the car roll up, there’s an image of a man that is sitting in the back. That image is Price and this is our title character.

We go to a man’s room as he gets ready for bed. A skylight opens and the covered bird cage is lowered in. The sheet is removed and both are raised back up. It turns out there were a bunch of bats inside it. They wake the man up and kill him. The police arrive the next day and the lead detective is Trout (Peter Jeffrey). He is told about a coincidence in another case where a doctor who died earlier in the week with bees in his study.

We go back to Dr. Phibes’ place and see him remove a necklace with a weird medallion on it. He places around the neck of a wax mannequin that looks like the man he just killed and then burns its face with a candle. We also get the idea that Dr. Phibes is deformed as he has to place on a fake nose and ears. Later we will learn that is because he was in a car crash that burned him severely.

There are quite a few more deaths that follow the plagues of ancient Egypt. This includes a frog mask, draining of blood, extreme cold, a bronze unicorn and rats to name a few. Will Dr. Phibes get his revenge on the doctors that were led Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) as they were unable to save his wife? Or will the police pick up his trail before he can?

That is where I’m going to leave my recap. Where I want to start here is that we have an interesting concept we are playing with. This feels like an early Saw film and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this as an inspiration. Dr. Phibes is intelligent, much like Jigsaw. What I like here is that he always seems two steps ahead of the police and even when they get on to his trail, it doesn’t stop him. They are also quite bumbling though.

How Dr. Phibes is killing his victims is where I want to go. Now we know the reason is that his wife died on the operating table. It should be pointed out that Victoria Regina Phibes is an uncredited role of Caroline Munro. Dr. Phibes is a genius. He is able to make different contraptions to ensure that he kills his victims in the order of the Egyptian plagues and I love this idea. We have a killer frog mask, bats and even a machine that can create extreme cold. The movie reveals that Dr. Phibes’ doctorate is in theology so that makes sense. How he learned to make his machines is a bit of a mystery. The religious based stuff works for me though.

That is where I want to go next as I do have some issues with this movie. It is part comedy and I think it hurts the tone of the movie. The comedy mostly comes from the police officers. It almost feels like they’re borrowing from gialli by making them as bumbling as they are. For me, I would have preferred to see this played a bit straighter and lean more into the horror. We get to see the deaths, but it does cut away giving us more of the aftermaths. I also don’t know if some of the kills are that plausible. How did he get the bats to attack the first victim or catapult a bronze unicorn across a street? These are things that I don’t know if the movie thought out, but it does hurt the product for me.

Where I’ll go next is the acting. Price is great here and he’s just enjoying himself. He plays a villain so well, especially this one. I thought that Cotton was fine as Dr. Vesalius. There isn’t much to his role, but he’s a solid actor. North is good as Vulnavia. She isn’t given a lot of lines, but her look fits the part. I’d say that all of the doctors are solid. My issue with the acting though comes from the police. I’d say it is more with the writing as they’re a comedy routine. Jeffrey though does work as Trout. I did like seeing Munro. I have such a crush on her.

I would then say next I’ll take this to the effects, cinematography and soundtrack. For the effects, they’re good for the most part. I think the aftereffects of the deaths aren’t over the top and look solid enough for me. There is a bit of comedy here that didn’t work though. I did have an issue with the mask used for Dr. Phibes when showing what he looks like after his car accident. It didn’t seem much care was taken there. Other than that, I’d say the cinematography worked. The soundtrack was solid as well. The organ being played by Dr. Phibes is great. His first degree was in music so I’m glad they focused on it. Vulnavia also plays the violin, which was haunting. I even like the Dr. Phibes’ clockwork band as well.

So then in conclusion here, I’m glad that I gave this another watch. I probably appreciated it the most after this last viewing. The concept and premise of this movie is great. I’d also go as far to say that it influenced things we see even today. I did have a problem with the comedy as hurts the tone for me. The acting though is good across the board. The effects aside from one bit were also solid and the cinematography worked. I would also give credit to the soundtrack. For me, this is an above average movie. What doesn’t work for me brings it down. If they play it straighter and focus more on the horror, I think we a good movie.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10