on June 29, 2006
Billed as Vincent Price's 100th feature film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) is one of my more favored Price features, right up there with House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), and House on Haunted Hill (1959). Directed by Robert Fuest ("The Avengers", Dr. Phibes Rises Again), the film stars, as I've mentioned, Merchant of Menace himself Vincent Price. Also appearing is Virginia North (Deadlier Than the Male, On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Joseph Cotten (Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Soylent Green), Terry-Thomas (It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines), Peter Jeffrey (Countess Dracula, The Odessa File), and Caroline Munro (At the Earth's Core, The Spy Who Loved Me), in an uncredited, but pivotal role.
Price plays Dr. Anton Phibes, a man of many talents (music, theology, engineering, etc.), and one believed to be dead. Official reports claim he perished in a fiery car crash while rushing to his wife Victoria's side while she was undergoing an operation in which she subsequently died. Well, turns out Phibes didn't cash out (he was merely disfigured), and during the years after his wife's passing he's been in hiding, using his wealth and genius to plot revenge on those he deemed responsible for his wife's death, specifically the medical staff who were involved in her operation (there were nine...seems like an awful lot of people to be involved in a medical procedure at the same time but whatever...hey, at least it provides for a decent body count). With the help of his always fashionably dressed (and silent) assistant Vulnavia (North), Phibes sets into motion a series of methodical and diabolical murders, each one more cunning than the last, all based the ten curses visited upon the pharaohs during exodus, as detailed in the old testament. I won't divulge the specifics of each murder as not to spoil the fun here, but they all of a seriously gruesome and macabre nature (here's a few hints...boils, hail, blood, locusts, rats, frogs, and so on). After the first few deaths the police, specifically Inspector Trout (Jeffrey), begin to suspect the same individual is responsible, and their investigative efforts lead them to Dr. Vesalius (Cotten), who happened to be the lead surgeon during Victoria's operation. Trout and Vesalius eventually discern the possible identity of the madman (a search of Phibes' crypt raises more questions than it answers), but that doesn't stop the deceased from accumulating in one fantastic death sequence after another. As Inspector Trout suffers the indignities of his supervisors for his inability to not only catch the killer but also in protecting the potential victims (a few get it while under police guard), the cunning and elusive Phibes seems to be saving the best for last in terms of Vesalius, given the fact he views Vesalius as the person most responsible for Victoria's demise.
This is one of those films I watch about once a year as I really enjoy it, specifically the seemingly lavish production values, ornate costumes, macabre nature of the story, along with all the subtle comic touches, many of them provided by Price himself. During one death sequence involving Terry-Thomas' character, we see the victim at home, enjoying some libations while watching an arousing feature on an old timey projector (a scantily clad woman dancing around with a snake...apparently that was pretty risqué for the mid to late 1920s, the time which the story place). After Phibes dispatches Thomas' character in typically horrific fashion, he takes his leave but not before stopping to view a large picture on the wall, one featuring some Rubenesque, half nekkid individuals cavorting in the foreground and one that elicits as distasteful expression from Phibes, apparently finding the aesthetics objectionable. I've always been partial to Vincent Price's films, as he's entertaining to watch, especially when he `camps' it up, as is the case here (he seemed to never have any illusions about the movies he appeared in, only an inherent desire to entertain and give audiences their money's worth). His character here suffered great disfigurement, forcing him to don obvious facial prosthetics throughout nearly the entire film (we get a couple of great shots near the end of Phibes without, and he's truly scary looking). Another aspect of his past injury is he can't speak in normal fashion, having to utilize a plug in the side of his neck that attached to various speaker devices, allowing him to express himself verbally...somewhat. He's a very hands on type of individual, and while there are certain aspects where he requires assistance, he seems to prefer to handle the brunt of his dirty work on his own. Despite his penchant for morbid activity, it's hard not to like the character given his positive qualities (he's meticulous, detail oriented, intelligent, has an eye for fashion, charming when he wants to be, a devoted husband, and so on). Sure he likes to kill the occasion individual in a particular horrific manner, but he does it with flair and a real sense of showmanship and ingenuity, and he only takes the lives of those he sees as truly deserving. As far as the rest of the cast I thought they all did very well, especially Peter Jeffrey who played the beleaguered Inspector Trout (his superiors often mistakenly referred to him as Pike, as if they had enough to deal with without having to remember such a triviality as his name...get it? Trout, Pike...whatever). His character was obviously intended as a sort of comic foil, but he didn't come off as a bumbling, incompetent fool to me (the brass unicorn bit was a beaut), just someone trying to play catch up with a villain who was out of his league (remember, Phibes had years to plan his revenge). As far as I can tell, Cotten was the only one playing it serious throughout the movie, almost as if someone forgot to let him in on the gag. Ah well, there's usually a requirement for a straight man with material like this, and he fits the bill well. Another aspect I really liked was the ending, capped off by an oddly appropriate instrumental version of `Over the Rainbow'.
The picture quality, presented in widescreen (1.85:1), enhanced for 16 X 9 TVs, looks very clean and clear, and the Dolby Digital mono audio, available in English, Spanish, and French, comes through very well. The only extra included is an original theatrical trailer. Price would reprise the role of Phibes again a year later in Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). While an entertaining sequel, it's not as good as the original most likely due to speed in which the second feature was cranked out, most likely the intent being to capitalize as quickly as possible on the enormous popularity of the first...the result akin to something not cooked all the way through (i.e. half baked), but it's still entertaining and worthwhile if you enjoyed the first film.
A note for those interesting in picking up this film up on DVD...both The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again were originally released onto DVD individually, but then later re-released paired together as a DVD double feature, so if you're interested in owning both, try to locate the dual release, as it might be a better value (depending on availability, or course).