Vincent Price - Dr. Anton Phibes
Peter Jeffrey - Inspector Trout
Joseph Cotton - Dr. Versalius
Virginia North - Vulnavia
Norman Jones - Sergeant Tom Schencley
John Cater - Waverly
Terry Thomas - Dr. Longstreet
Caroline Munro - Victoria Regina Phibes
Genre - Horror/Mystery
Running Time - 95 Minutes
When it comes to October, and Halloween season, I always manage to sneak in at least a Vincent Price film in my viewing rotation. I mean, how can it be Halloween without one of the most iconic horror actors of all time? I grew up watching Vincent Price movies, marveling at the man's talent in becoming weird, eccentric characters that left a lasting imprint on my young mind. The man was class all the way, which I feel modern horror is sadly lacking today.
I've never hidden that my personal favorite Vincent Price film is 1959's THE TINGLER. Something about that William Castle production just puts a genuine smile on my face. In fact, I watched that again this year when Turner Classic Movies [who are doing a bang up job with the classic horror this season] showed it a few days ago. But as much as I love Vincent Price in THE TINGLER, it's not his finest performance. No, Price's masterpiece came later in his career in 1971's THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES - a film so magnificent, so elegant, and so ahead of its time. In fact, it most likely inspired the most successful horror franchise of the 2000's - SAW. And even after 42 years, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES still resonates and entertains as it probably did all those years ago.
Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price) is a lot of things. He's an expert in the medical field. He's an accomplished organist. He's also a cunning serial killer bent on revenge over the murder of his wife (Caroline Munro in an uncredited role) at the hands of a shaky handed surgeon, after a terrible car accident that left him scarred both physically and mentally. Unable to cope, Phibes decided to bury himself with his wife. But feeling she didn't get the justice she earned, Phibes decided that vengeance was in order.
Following the Pharoah's Curse of the Old Testament as his method of revenge, Phibes and his lovely assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), decide to hunt down the nine doctors responsible for Mrs. Phibes' death. One is stung by bees. Another gets bitten to death by bats. There's even locusts, rats, and a frog mask that crushes a doctor's skull. Phibes saves Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton), the man who performed the botched surgery, for last. As Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is on to Phibes after realizing he's still alive, Phibes puts Vesalius through the ultimate test before casting darkness on those who have wronged him.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is a vicious, vengeful tale that's quite beautiful to look at and admire. With colorful sets, souring orchestral music, and energetic and campy performances that bring humor to the tale, the film still manages to be menacing and dark. While 1960's PSYCHO changed the rules in horror, I think THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES really set the tone for the rest of the genre in later years, especially in terms of the presentation of the death sequences. While the movie may look a bit dated, I think its narrative is still contemporary, which I think would allow modern horror fans to enjoy it and respect it.
The story of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES plays out pretty straight-forwardly. It's a revenge tale about a man who seeks sick vengeance for his wife's death through the use of a popular series of curses from the Holy Bible. For modern audiences, it's sort of like what Jigsaw was doing in those early SAW films - using elaborate traps as revenge on those he felt didn't appreciate life. And in both cases, the acts of murder are there not only to develop the villain's character somewhat, but as way to stylize the film and shock audiences.
However unlike SAW, which makes the victims sympathetic until the truth is learned about them, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES doesn't have real victims at all. Some of them don't even realize they're being murdered until their final minutes, taking away any sort of empathy we may have for these one-note characters. We only know them through Dr. Phibes reasoning of hate towards them, which makes us side with the film's villain. This type of storytelling makes Phibes an anti-hero - a man who does wrong things that we feel are justified in some way. These doctors had a hand in taking away the love of his life, regardless if it may have been accidental or not. Any person could understand that feeling of loss, and wanting to use some sort of vengeance to fill up that hole. The other characters in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES are nothing but pawns in Phibes' game of Chess.
The use of the 10 Plagues of Egypt from Exodus is a great tool to showcase how these people will eventually die. Watching characters succumb to bats, rats, locusts, and other curses is pretty clever, and a lot of fun to watch. Plus, most people have heard of these plagues, making the guessing game as to how these doctors will die somewhat entertaining. It also makes Dr. Phibes act like he's God in a way, controlling the fates of those who have sinned against him and his family. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES isn't a religious film, but the implications are there. I think it's a smart plot device that's easy to understand. Plus, it makes our villain pretty clever in how he takes down his victims one by one. The fact that he has a symbol written in Hebrew is a nice reference to the Old Testament as well. The writing and thought behind the murder methods is very smart, yet simple.
I also like that THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES plays as a murder-mystery. We know that Phibes and Vulnavia are behind the murders, and we see how they commit each act. But the supporting scenes with the inspectors, mainly Inspector Trout, are quite good as well. I like how Trout and his colleagues figure out what's going on. Is Phibes alive? If he is, how did he survive his accident? What do the 10 Plagues represent for Phibes? Who are the next victim and why is he saving a certain doctor for last? So many questions get answered, giving us a backstory to why Phibes is doing what he's doing without using expository language to tell us. The more we learn, the more we care and want to know more. We think we know the answers, because we see a lot of things visually. But as the protagonists investigate further, we realize there's much more to Phibes' story than we had believed. It's an intelligent script.
Plus, I can appreciate that the film uses a bit of camp and black comedy in the narrative. While the murders are terrible, you can't help but sort of laugh at their methods. The frog mask, in particular, is pretty humorous - even though a man's skull is getting crushed while wearing it. We never feel unsettled by these sequences, instead enjoying them as a visual spectacle and wanting to see more. Plus, you gotta love when people call Inspector Trout, "Pike". It wouldn't be funny if just one character made that reference. But several do, which makes the mistake funnier. There's a sense of humor that counters how bleak the story really is, making the viewing experience an interesting one, but in a good way.
The death sequences in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES aren't gory [this is 1971, after all]. But they are quite cool to watch. We don't see the bee death, but we get bats, and rats, and a crushing frog mask in a funny scene. There's also the complete draining of blood in multiple jars. We get locusts. Someone gets frozen to death. I love the unicorn statue death, which becomes the butt of jokes within the film. And probably the most influential one is the death of the first born, where Dr. Vesalius must save his son by getting him out of chains. How does he do that? By cutting open his body to take out a key placed inside his ribcage. Sound familiar? They're pretty memorable moments, showing how far ahead of itself this movie really was for the genre.
The direction by Robert Fuest is fantastic. I love everything about the visuals in this film. The opening sequence is just Dr. Phibes, in an extreme wide shot with his back towards the camera, playing the organ. The sets are colorful and vibrant, creating this happy look on film that hides the darkness of the actual tale. In fact, it's a more colorful and dramatic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with Phibes wearing a mask over his deformed face for much of the film. It's grandiose and quite wonderful to watch. In fact, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is a Technicolor dream - with vivid hues of green, red, and gold that are disconnect to the pale look of Dr. Phibes himself.
Fuest also handles the death sequences well, given them tension and suspense, even though we know what the end result will be. The frog mask scene is wonderful through its quick editing, as well as the POV of the victim slowly turning red as blood fills inside the mask. The scene with the key inside the ribcage is pretty nail-biting for its time, definitely inspiring James Wan and Leigh Whannell for SAW. And the acid drip death trap is elaborately shot. It's a visual wonderland of horror that feels surreal and magical, teasing you with vibrant colors and spectacle that hide a mean streak. I don't think Fuest has made a better film than THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. It's a beautifully shot movie.
As for the acting, it's wonderful as well. While the supporting actors, like Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, and Virginia North, are all great in their respective roles, the driving force of the film is the awesome Vincent Price as the dangerous Dr. Phibes [in his 100th film, no less!]. It's a legendary performance by a horror icon who barely says a word in the entire film. Price's body language and serious facial expressions really capture the character's personality and motivation towards his victims. You'd think with a limited performance due to wearing crusting make up on his face [which had to be reapplied countless times due to Price always laughing between takes] would hinder Price's acting. But it just makes Price more interesting to watch, and helps make Phibes more compelling as a character. Price creates a man of mystery, who plays music and dances with his assistant as some sort of spectre that shadows the entire film. It's a brilliant performance and one that makes Price one of the greatest in the history of cinema.
I also must make mention to the score of the film. It's really fantastic, setting the tone and mood right away. The ending credits that play a strange rendition of "Over the Rainbow" puts a smile on my face because it fits the movie so well in an oddball way. Basil Kirchin and James Nathan do a wonderful job crafting a memorable score for an amazing film.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE CLAIMING "NINE SHALL DIE" ON MY PHONOGRAPH
- Dr. Phibes is an accomplished organist. With that face, he probably had a ton of practice playing with his instrument.
- Dr. Phibes placed a group of deadly bats in the bedroom of one of his sleeping victims. Those trolling about Ben Affleck's next career move better watch out!
- A psychiatrist had his head crushed by wearing a frog mask. Conal Cochran is applauding this next to his slab of Stonehenge.
- Dr. Phibes drained a doctor of his entire blood supply. Man, the local hospital must have desperately needed more Type O!
- Phibes is killing the 9 doctors involved in his wife's death. He's wasting his time. Joe Spinnell was probably behind it. He's usually stalking and tormenting Mrs. Phibes in other films.
- Another doctor was stabbed to death by the horn of a unicorn statue. He must've been a member of the Westboro Baptist Church.
- Dr. Versalius had to save his first born son by getting a key out of his ribcage that would unlock his son's chains. Dr. Phibes came, SAW, and conquered with this trap.
THE FINAL HOWL
Nothing short of a horror masterpiece, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is a must see for any cinema fan - whether you enjoy horror or not. The beautiful visuals, the camp factor, the colorful murder sequences, and the intelligent and clever script deserve anyone's attention, respect, and appreciation for this work of art caught on film. But it's Vincent Price's performance as the title character that give this classic life. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is probably one of my favorite horror films, and definitely one of my favorite Vincent Price performances. Many say this was Price's finest hour, and it's really hard to disagree with them. An amazing film from beginning to end.