The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Director: Robert Fuest

Starring: Vincent Price,  Joseph Cotton,  Peter Jeffreys, Terry-Thomas

Written by: James Whiton and William Goldstein

Running time: 94 mins

Original UK Cert: X

Original US release: 18th May 1971

The 70s brought a host of campy, gothic and often grotesque horrors that had more invention than pure terror. They were often starring the master of the macabre,  Vincent Price and more often than not were produced by American International, Roger Corman’s company or the lesser known Amius or Tigon, British rivals to the great house that is Hammer. The Abominable Dr Phibes is the perfect example of this kind of film genre that has some of the most interesting deaths on-screen as well as sets and decor that would make an interior designer green with envy.

Doctor Anton Phibes is a scientist, renowned organist and biblical scholar with a taste for the dramatic. Still grieving for the death of his wife, he blames the nine doctors who were involved in her surgery that went tragically wrong. Filled with revenge, Phibes goes about his revenge using the biblical plague to slowly remove each of those involved. Inspector Trout, on the case of these bizarre murders, is desperate for a connection but with no leads and no help from his superiors, he turns to surgeon Dr. Vesalius to help solve the crimes.

While looking incredibly tame now compared to the grisly horror films that are produced in the 21st Century, what this film lacks in real shocks it certainly makes up in its creative ways of killing people. Using the nine plagues as a template, we get death by hale, locust, rats and even draining of blood. And as we see each of these murders committed, he can only applaud the writers for coming up with such imaginative deaths that rises this above the normal horror staple. This plays quite nicely as a companion piece to another Price horror, Theatre Of Blood, in which the protagonists are murdered in Shakespearean manners.

These film can sometimes be brushed aside as ridiculous nonsense and it is true they are often hammy and over the top but Dr Phibes is a curious creation. A man who wears a mask where the lips don’t move and that for him to be heard, he has to plug a lead into his neck and connect it to a megaphone. The setting and, more so, the time of the film is also questionable. Are we in the 1920s? Or is this a time and a place that doesn’t exist. The costumes and transportation are from an era at the turn of the 20th Century, yet the decor, which is similar to Art Decor, has a touch of late 60s/early 70s to it. It shouldn’t work but surprisingly, it does.

The film is littered with great British character actors allowed plenty of room to ham up their parts, so we get Hugh Griffith as a Rabbi, Terry-Thomas as one of the doctors and Peter Jeffrey as the inquisitive police Inspector. There’s even Orson Welles old partner, Joseph Cotton as Dr Vesalius.

At the end of the day, the film belongs to Vincent Price, who can play these theatrical monsters with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back (or in this case, without once opening his mouth but allowing his neck to do all the talking). Swanning around like a theatrical luvvie, he commands every scene he is in, sometimes doing very little at all. With his beautiful assistant by his side (played by Virginia North) he goes about his crimes with great flair and gusto. The only thing that upstages him are the sets and the strangely hypnotic clockwork band that play standards while he waltzes with his female companion.

The Abominable Dr Phibes is an odd film that doesn’t scare the wits out of you but amuses and definitely entertains. Most people, immune to horrors films, will probably laugh at the lack of any real horror but you cannot deny that this has more inventiveness than anything that has come out over the past five years and sometimes its nice to see a film that sets its stall out early and says, “this is nonsense, we all know it, just go with it!” I did and I enjoyed every last moment. A sequel, with Price returning as the doctor, was made a year later.


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