The Abominable Dr. Phibes Review (1971)

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The Abominable Dr. Phibes Review (1971)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on June 11th, 2018 | Movie Review | Vincent Price, Classic Horror, Thriller, Revenge

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It’s about the title doctor getting murderous revenge on medical doctors in early-20th-century Britain.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was directed by Robert Fuest  and stars Vincent Price (from Madhouse), Joseph Cotten (from The Devil's Daughter) and Virginia North .

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The Abominable Dr. Phibes Review

They just don’t make ‘em like The Abominable Dr. Phibes * anymore. In fact, they just don’t make ‘em like Vincent Price anymore, either. Dr. Phibes, first off, is the definitive role that Vincent Price was born to play, and second off, is firmly embedded in a different time. He belongs to the era of 1950s EC Comics horror titles such as "Tales from the Crypt,” “The Vault of Horror,” and “Weird Fantasy.”

Modern viewers’ most likely cultural connection to Dr. Phibes will be to think of this as a Batman villain without the Batman, in the vein of the original 1960s TV series. A series in which, take note, Vincent Price himself appeared as the villain Egghead - and holy scrambled puns, did he ever love it!

A Rampage Of Surreal Revenge

Dr. Phibes (his particular field is never given) is an underground aristocrat in early 20th-century London, who is bereaved of his late wife Victoria after a fatal car crash. Phibes himself is also presumed dead by the authorities, since his own car went off a cliff when he was en route to his wife. Victoria died on the operating table, the doctors unable to help her, and now Dr. Phibes has sworn vengeance against the doctors he blames for his wife’s death.

So what, he’s going to hire lawyers and sue for malpractice? Oh no, much too common. He’s going to kill them off one by one! To do so, he’s going to hatch contrived murder traps based (very loosely) upon the ten plagues of Egypt mentioned in both the Quran and the Bible. What, do you expect him to take a gun and shoot them, like a bourgeois commoner? Nope, his traps involve several species of animal, in between intricate mechanical devices that must have cost a fortune to research and manufacture for this single use. He also has a pendant necklace for each victim, which he will hang around a wax bust of its target after a successful kill and melt with a blowtorch.

The police, led by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), keep a stiff upper British lip as they scurry around England trying to put together clues to all the steampunk devices and menagerie of exotic creatures. They’re pretty far behind the mad Dr. Phibes and don’t catch up very quickly. The targeted doctors themselves aren’t exactly elusive prey either, as they’re all dupes who spend more time nurturing obsessions with stag movies or model trains than taking the police warnings seriously. When caught, they have a tendency to sit politely and accept their deaths rather than do something so un-British-like as get up and run away, because they haven’t been excused.

Did Somebody Order A Large Ham?

On team Phibes, we have his mute but fashionable assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North). When she isn’t running errands for Dr. Phibes transporting cages of deadly animals around London, she’s dancing up a storm with him in his underground ballroom or providing moral support playing a violin that’s color-coordinated to match her current outfit.

But we haven’t gotten around to Phibes himself yet! He’s disfigured from his own accident, so he wears a mask that bears a remarkable resemblance to Vincent Price, and he’s rendered unable to speak, so he has to plug a huge-horned Victrola into a cord on the side of his neck and mime along with his own dubbed dialogue. He completes this eccentric performance by being a fashionable man-about-town, and his disfigurement doesn’t stop him from having unbounded pride in his appearance, as his face is plastered as a logo on the walls of his mansion and even the tinted windows of his car.

He spends his free time playing an organ in his underground lair, accompanied by a whole orchestra of automatons dubbed "Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards.” His other pursuits include delivering rambling eulogies to his late wife, to whom he has built a shrine. In a career with some serious ham and cheese in it, Dr. Phibes is one of Vincent Price’s hammiest roles!

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a cult classic today, even amongst the non-horror muggles. The film plays a strident note in between camp and grotesque, with art-deco sets and baroque flourishes everywhere. While there isn’t much to the story beyond “madman kills people in obsessive revenge,” the style trumps the substance. One minor quibble is that the scenes involving animals, in those pre-CGI days, didn’t get the animals’ full cooperation and seem to be more cuddly than threatening. And of course, the whole thing is dated and intentionally corny, so if you like your horror serious, this isn’t the film for you.

For a 1971 film, it looks forward to whole sections of the modern horror genre. The Saw franchise owes a great debt to Dr. Phibes, at the very least. It’s a highly recommended romp for you modern-day elite who miss the days when culture ruled the day and a man could hatch a campaign of terror without getting his cape mussed and still thump out a competent performance of “War March of the Priests.”

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