Format: Internet video on laptop.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film I know only by reputation. For whatever reason, this film is incredibly difficult to find, but the sequel is surprisingly easy to locate. Anyway, when I found this online, I knew it was one I would watch right away. Part of this was from fear of the film vanishing and part because this was a film I very much wanted to see. I tend to like Vincent Price. Even if the movie is crap, Price is always worth watching.
Like plenty of horror movies of the era, The Abominable Dr. Phibes doesn’t waste lot of precious time with a convoluted plot. No, this is as simple as they come. Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) was allegedly killed in a car accident. No such luck, as it turns out. Instead he’s just incredibly disfigured. Phibes is powered by revenge, not for himself but for his dead wife. He is convinced that his wife was taken from him too soon by the incompetence of a cadre of doctors and a nurse. Now, working in the shadows, Phibes plans to enact his revenge by killing each of the doctors in turn, each on killed by a murder themed as reminiscent of one of the plagues of Egypt. Sort of—there are a few that are more tangential to the actual plagues.
Anyway, the movie doesn’t skimp on the killing. By half an hour in, we’ve got three bodies, with a fourth that happened just before the film started. One man is mauled by bats (one of the murders not really connected to one of the plagues; another has his head crushed at a masquerade ball by a mask shaped like a frog. A third is (and you have no idea how much I will enjoy writing this word) exsanguinated. The first murder in the series was stung to death by bees, covering him in boils. Ah, those wacky plagues.
Naturally, Scotland Yard is on the case. Leading the way is Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who starts worrying about connected cases after two murders and definitely knows he’s got a problem on his hands when the bodies of doctors killed in bizarre ways keep lining up for him. The one discovered connection between the murdered men is that all of them were or are colleagues of a man named Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), who jumps in and helps the police out as much as he can.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is weirdly theatrical in that half-goth/half-camp way that only a Vincent Price movie from this era could be. Much of what we see is straight out of cliché central. Phibes plays the pipe organ, for instance, and has a penchant for capes and frequently wears billowy robes. His assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) never speaks but does the bad doctor’s bidding for reasons we can’t begin to fathom. It’s all so over the top and theatrical. Each time he completes a killing, Phibes drapes a wax bust of the victim with a special medallion bearing the Hebrew symbol for the plague in question. He then burns it with a blowtorch. Scotland Yard starts to catch up a little when Phibes drops one of his amulets at the scene of one of the murders.
The murders continue, of course. There are a bunch to get through, after all, and what kind of a horror movie would offer up three weird killings in the first half hour and then no more for the rest of the film? No, we’ll be getting weird murders through much of the rest of the running time. The best part of these is just how theatrical they are. These are all melodrama deaths, like James Bond villains.
Beyond this, there are parts of the film that are simply silly and gloriously fun. When one of the victims is impaled by a unicorn statue, Inspector Trout and his assistant Crow (Derek Godfrey) essentially unscrew him from the statue. There are these great shots of another room in the building with just a pair of legs spinning like a clock dial as they remove him from it. And then there’s just the stuff that’s inexplicably weird but adds to the overall tone of the film. We don’t see the true face of Dr. Phibes until near the end of the film, and it’s evident that he can’t talk except with a device he attaches to his throat. When he does, he waxes poetic about his dead wife.
And then there’s the relationship between Phibes and Vulnavia. There’s definitely a romantic vibe between them, but Phibes is hung up on his wife. Regardless, at random times, the two dance theatrically and drink champagne, which Phibes evidently pours down a hole in the back of his neck. It’s all so goofy and bizarre. He’s even got a mechanical band that he winds up and has play. Sometimes Vulnavia does weird little interpretive dances. Honestly, at one point I was sort of hoping that they’d find the bodies of the dead doctors inside the mechanical band dummies.
Anyway, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is also smart enough to move at a constant clip, giving us a murder almost every ten minutes up to the end. There’s not a line wasted on exposition; no, it just keeps up with the killing with all of the camp theatrics of a drag queen on absinthe. While it doesn’t do much in the scare department, it’s so gothic and camp that it would give Edgar Allen Poe a hard-on.
Movies like this is why I do this.
Why to watch The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Classic Vincent Price and bonus Joseph Cotten.
Why not to watch: Campy beyond all bounds of reason.