Film Review: The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)


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Vincent Price goes Abominable in "Phibes."

Several years ago, Dr. Anton Phibes raced to the hospital after learning his wife had died on the operating table.  His car crashed off a cliff and he was burned alive.  Or was he?  After a series of elaborate murders rob London of its top doctors, Scotland Yard is on the case, barely able to keep ahead of the eccentric doctor as he exacts vengeance on the nine doctors and nurses who let Mrs. Phibes die.  “Nine killed her.  Nine shall die.  Nine eternities in doom!” he proclaims, able to speak only with the assistance of a gramophone connected to his throat.  In accordance with Biblical scripture, Phibes reenacts the plagues on the unsuspecting doctors, executing intricate plans and unleashing all variety of vermin to avenge his beloved wife.  While it may sound like just another revenge story, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is actually a beautifully well-made film that turns a well-trodden formula into a cinematic feast of style.

The film opens with Phibes (Vincent Price) at a pipe organ, rising from the floor.  We see him, covered entirely in black, wind up his peculiar animatronic band, the Clockwork Wizards, and dance with a fashionable young woman named Vulnavia (Virginia North).  There are no words spoken by Phibes until much later in the film, and the young woman, while always at his side, never utters a single word.  This lack of dialogue sets the tone for the film, one that elevates its simple plot by setting it against an elegant backdrop of malevolent innovation and high `60s fashion.  The film is eye candy, but the visuals also work to create intrigue.  Without ever explaining his actions, Phibes’ grace and ritual become curious and suspenseful.  At one point, Phibes is scrutinizing heads of cabbage.  We later see him boiling the cabbage down to a paste.  We’re never explained his intentions with the cabbage until we see him pouring the green paste over a sleeping nurse, just before he unleashes the locusts on her.  There is a dark beauty in Phibes’ murders, both in their conception and cinematic presentation.  One man is exsanguinated alive by Phibes.  Bottle after bottle of his blood is placed neatly in a line on the mantle over the fireplace.  Another man is killed during a masquerade ball, after he puts on Phibes’ ornate but lethal frog mask.  As the mask tightens around his neck, the camera’s point-of-view shot is bathed in red before he falls down the stairs.  Murder is seldom so beautifully performed.

Vulnavia (Virginia North) assists the good doctor.

While a beautiful horror film may already seem an oxymoron, The Abominable Dr. Phibes also manages to be a dark comedy.  Most of the humor stems from Scotland Yard’s inability to capture Phibes and stop the string of murders.  Usually arriving after the crime has been committed, the police finally reach one of the doctors before he is attacked.  As three cops open the door for him, the doctor claims, “I must say, I feel rather like a head of state.”  He smiles and takes a step forward, only to be impaled on a brass unicorn catapulted from across the street.  The confidence of the police and the suddenness of the action make it a humorous moment, enhanced by the cops’ attempt to dislodge the unicorn from the victim’s chest without alerting others to the crime.  Phibes is not without his own sense of humor, either.  After exsanguinating his third victim and setting the last bottle of blood on the mantle, he steps out of frame.  A second later, he reappears to examine the bawdy painting over the mantle.  He turns to his victim and shakes his head in disapproval.

Vincent Price, in his 100th film performance, plays Phibes with just the right combination of remorse and determination.  Price doesn’t emphasize the eccentric nature of the character – his actions do well enough on their own.  It’s a delicious role for Price, performed partially behind masks or makeup, and without ever opening his mouth.  Virginia North, as the beautiful screen nymph Vulnavia, may have no dialogue, but still manages to convey a screen presence.  There are moments in the film where we’d really like to know more about her.  In one scene without Phibes, she sits listening to the Clockwork Wizards while smoking a cigarette.  The scene doesn’t move the plot forward, but does make us wonder what on earth she’s thinking, and how she came to be involved with Phibes.  Her affiliation and loyalty to the mad doctor are never explained.

What a mad doctor won't do for love...

Director Robert Fuest, a veteran of the long-running British TV series The Avengers, demonstrates a keen eye for exquisite composition and cinematic staging with The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  Fuest’s scenes often convey great depth of action, sometimes plot-driven, sometimes not.  In one scene, two doctors are talking in an elevator, concerned that Phibes has infiltrated the hospital.  As they leave, we see Vincent Price in the background.  Other shots of multi-layered action are more aesthetically driven.  When Price is at the masquerade ball watching the doctor in the frog mask, his close-up reaction contains a chandelier in the extreme foreground.  And when Vulnavia stands in a field watching a plane crash, there are flowers in the extreme foreground.  This is just one way Fuest brings elegance to the macabre subject matter.  Another is in his use of clean, symmetrical compositions.  Generally rare in film, symmetrical framing usually infers a psychological interpretation, here reflecting Phibes’ neatness, order, and precision.

The soundtrack is another powerful element at play in the film.  Basil Kirchin’s original score stems organically from the Phibes character.  Since Phibes was a concert organist before his untimely demise, an organ features prominently in the film.  The Clockwork Wizards play an eclectic array of tunes, from moody blues to soaring romantic band music, but always with an otherworldly twist.  Kirchin also uses electronic sounds, music boxes, and operatic vocals.  The cumulative effect of this potpourri approach is a musical representation of Phibes himself – classically trained, passionate, and dangerous.

A man's key to survival lies inside the chest cavity of his own son, courtesy of Phibes.

The film’s conclusion embodies its unique tone and sensibilities.  In a symmetrically-designed shot, Vulnavia appears with her arms spread wide, as the organ rises into the background behind her.  She descends the steps in a sun-patterned gown and red headdress as Phibes plays the organ.  As the last doctor enters and begs for the life of his first-born son (the ninth plague), Phibes shouts at him through the gramophone.  The ornate floor begins to glow, revealing that it is actually made of glass.  Beneath them is an operating room where the doctor’s son is strapped to a gurney.  Vulnavia leads the doctor down to his son where Phibes presents him with an X-ray.  There’s a key lodged close to the boy’s heart.  Phibes points above, to a spiraling plastic tube, and tells the doctor he has six minutes – the amount of time Phibes’ wife survived on the operating table – to cut the boy open, retrieve the key, and unlock the gurney from its position before acid falls from the tube and disfigures the boy’s face.  Before leaving, Phibes shows the doctor what his son will look like by pulling the prosthetics from his own face, revealing for the first time the ghastly burns he endured from the car crash years ago.

As the doctor works to save his son, Phibes returns to his organ.  Vulnavia takes a golden axe and begins destroying Phibes’ home, slashing at the painted backdrops, hacking into the ritualistic wax busts of his victims, and slaughtering the animatronic band.  The doctor saves his son as the cops arrive, and Vulnavia tries to stop them, unwittingly stepping into the path of the falling acid.  Beneath the organ, in his private chambers, Phibes lies down in a luxurious entombment with the body of his dead wife and sticks a hose into his arm.  Above him, empty bottles fill with blood and bottles of embalming fluid begin to drain.  The lid closes over him just as the police descend with the organ.

Unable to find Phibes, the cops wonder about the tenth and final curse, the plague of darkness.  Peter Jeffrey, as the lead detective, proclaims, “He’ll be working on it.  Wherever he is.”  The movie then fades to black, suggesting that the audience is Dr. Phibes’ final victim, put to rest by a Clockwork Wizards’ rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that accompanies the closing credits.

Well, if we have to go, at least we go in style.

Scott’s Rating:

Rating: 4.5/5 ★★★★½ 

"Love means never having to say your ugly."

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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