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The Abominable Dr. Phibes

MGM Home Video

Starring Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten

Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein
Directed by Robert Fuest

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Review by Mark Bourne                   

"I won't do another Phibes film unless Robert Fuest directs it. He's the only person in the world who is mad enough to direct the Dr. Phibes films. He's a genuine, registered nut! He even looks like a madman. He's all over the place, like an unmade bed. What imagination he has. They were all his ideas.... Bob has never done anything that was nearly as good as the Dr. Phibes films."

— Vincent Price, 1979

"Easy does it. I think it's a left-handed thread."

— Policeman unscrewing a victim impaled by a
unicorn horn,
The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Did you think the movie Hannibal was a joyless mess, so now you need a palate-cleanser in the form of a droll, tongue-in-cheek little chiller about another cleverly successful serial murderer with sophisticated tastes in art, music, and dining? Do you dig that colorful hip style of the '60s TV series The Avengers? Do you get why Tim Burton considered Vincent Price so cool that the young director was directly inspired by his movies? Do you not have to look up the word "camp" as used in the phrase "campy classic"? If so, then The Abominable Dr. Phibes may be your cup of imported ale (very dark, extra foamy).

This 1971 British comedy-horror hybrid unfolds as an old-fashioned Scotland Yard police procedural dolled up in the tradition of the French Grand Guignol: a blend of horrific tale, sentimental tragedy, and farcical comedy. Before the story begins, Doctor (of Theology) Anton Phibes and his wife were victims of dual tragedies — she of fatal illness; he, rushing to be at his beloved's hospital bedside, of a terrible automobile accident. The beautiful Mrs. Phibes died on the operating table. The good doctor perished in the accident. Or did he? [cue organ music] And if he didn't die, what's left of him? [cue scream sound fx].

In one of his last and best films for American International Pictures, Vincent Price plays Dr. Anton Phibes — musician, genius inventor, wealthy sophisticate, and obsessively devoted husband who takes "till death do us part" rather seriously indeed. Seeking revenge against the hospital team he blames for his wife's death, Phibes sets out to murder each of them one by one. The modus operandi behind his vengeance? The Old Testament curses visited upon Pharaoh's Egypt.

So you can think of this witty piffle as Se7en done up by Matt Groening.

A great deal of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is spent watching the Yard trying to track down the fiend behind a series of grisly murders. (Chief of Police: "A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.") Evidence ultimately points to Anton Phibes, but that's impossible. Meanwhile, the good doctor dispatches his victims with modern variations of boils, bats, locusts, hail, frogs and the rest, accessorized with imaginative mechanical contrivances. How he manages to devise each murder according to his rigidly defined motif is part of our pleasure here. How do you kill someone with a "frog" theme? Let's just say there's a costume ball that would do Poe or Ken Russell proud. And the locusts scene — oh my God! It all looks like such jolly fun that you may find yourself rooting for Phibes, who, like Hannibal Lecter, really is smarter, more clever, and more engaging than anyone else on the screen.

Adding to both Phibes' calculating dementia and to Price's performance is the fact that Phibes was horribly disfigured in the car wreck. So like Darth Vader with a better sense of interior decor, Phibes has augmented himself with period mechanical devices. Unable to speak due to destroyed vocal cords, he communicates by mechanically connecting his larynx to a Victrola gramophone-like device. (How he drinks wine is something you just have to see for yourself.) This meant that before the cameras rolled Price had to record Phibes' soliloquies, rants, and Mad Doctor monologues to his dead wife, then physically play to the recordings without actually speaking. Expressing everything facially through heavy makeup (of two radically different types), Price manages to imbue Phibes with a sympathetic nature and macabre charm, even as we're watching him perform grotesquely diabolical acts.

Along for the ride are some fine supporting players. Every grandiose archfiend needs an assistant up to his level. Here that duty is performed by Virginia North as Phibes' mute, mysterious, and murderous companion and ballroom dance partner, Vulnavia. She never says a word and we never learn who she is or where she comes from. Is Phibes' aide-de-camp one of his creations, or a Muse of Vengeance who showed up at his mansion when he most needed her? Who/whatever she is, her beautiful yet surreal presence adds a kinky flair to the melodrama without ever degenerating into a standard issue sidekick.

Familiar gap-toothed "upper class twit" character actor Terry-Thomas makes a memorable appearance. Peter Jeffrey hits the right notes as the hot-on-the-trail Inspector Trout. And that really is Joseph (Citizen Kane, The Third Man) Cotten as chief surgeon Vesalius, the final intended victim, whose Phibesian comeuppance is particularly nasty. (Photos of Phibes' dead wife are uncredited but were played by eye-appealing B-movie queen Caroline Munro.)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was directed by Robert Fuest, who gave the early Avengers TV series its stylish panache. The film is set in an eclectic 1920s, so Fuest — a former art director — went all out to give Phibes its Art Nouveau production design, from sets to adornments to Vulnavia's extravagant costumes. Phibes surrounds himself with the grandly kitschy lair and gothic bric-a-brac of a Batman super-villain. He emotes dramatically on an enormous pipe organ à la the Phantom of the Opera. Also notable is Phibes' personal orchestra, "peopled" by disturbing clockwork mannequins, which musically punctuates the ingenious murders. (The music in Phibes deserves attention: where else are you going to find such ghastly machinations happening to the bouncy strains of "One for My Baby and One More for the Road" or "Darktown Strutters Ball"?)

There's a comic-book cool and cheeky sense of humor that raise The Abominable Dr. Phibes above so many other horror films that play it straight. Other than a quick view of the string holding up a flying bat, there's little to nitpick about. The Brits have always been masters at making a small production budget go a long way, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes is perhaps the high-water mark of the English Mad Doctor's Gruesome Retribution genre. Enjoyable in the "that's not funny that's sick, no it's funny and sick" sort of way, it's one of the best horror films from the '70s and easily one of Price's most memorable serio-comic outings, arguably second only to 1973's Theater of Blood (which resembles Phibes in its plot). Who else could deliver a line like "Nine killed her, nine shall die, nine eternities in doom!" and make it work exactly right? While artfully directing his killings one by one, Phibes is clearly having a grand good time. Likewise, one of the things that distinguished Price was that he so often enjoyed what he was doing, and that's evident in this, his 100th film. (In the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Price makes his exit sailing down the River Styx while singing "Over the Rainbow." How cool is that?)

If Se7en and Hannibal are grand opera, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is Gilbert & Sullivan. This is the kind of perverse humor that Stephen King pulls off in his more jocular moments. It's the best movie Tales from the Crypt never did. Given what became of Dr. Hannibal Lecter after Silence of the Lambs, we can wish that Dr. Anton Phibes would bump into him at the London Art Museum and slap him with a black leather glove. Even Lecter would have to bow to his superior.

*          *          *

As one of MGM's "Midnite Movies" DVD releases, this is one you rent or buy for the movie, not for oodles of supplements. There's only the theatrical trailer, which I remember seeing in the musty ol' Ritz Theater when I was ten years old, and it was so freakin' effective it probably contributed to who I am today.

The print transfer is surprisingly fine for an edition that likely didn't receive much overtime attention. It's a little spotty in a few places, but it's still a good clean print (desirable) with bright colors (essential) in anamorphic 1.85:1.

Noteworthy is the Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio track, which is not only similarly clean but also restores the original organ music that had been replaced with inferior material for a 1980s Vestron VHS release, an Orion Home Video Image Entertainment Laserdisc, and late-night cable TV versions. This DVD is the real deal.

—Mark Bourne

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