Robert Fuest, 1971
Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North
A truly bizarre and whimsical feature, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of those films that has to be seen in order to be believed. It is certainly on the list of my favorite Vincent Price films - favorite films in general actually - and comes highly, highly recommended.
Price stars as Dr. Anton Phibes, a famous organist and doctor of musicology and theology who died in a car accident after rushing to the side of his beautiful wife, who died soon after on the operating table. Several years pass and the team of doctors who operated on Mrs. Phibes begin to die off in strange, gruesome ways. Hebrew amulets are left at the scene of each crime. The police department, headed by accident prone Inspector Trout, finds the supposedly dead Phibes as the only connection between the murders. Can he still be alive enacting his revenge?
Yes. Yes, he can. He is actually murdering each member of the medical team with the ten plagues of Egypt found in the Old Testament: boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, rats, beasts, locusts, death of the first born, and darkness. What the ten plagues have to do with his wife's murder/accidental death is completely unclear. His lovely assistant, Vulnavia, is his only connection to the outside world and helps him plan and commit these atrocities. When he isn't murdering off doctors, he sits at home, dons lots of make up to cover his burn scars, plays the organ, and gets his mechanical brass band to play waltzes for he and Vulnavia to dance to.
The script of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, written by James Whiton and William Goldstein, feels kind of like the writers jotted down a bunch of ideas, mixed them all up in a hat, drew out a handful and connected them in anyway possible. The screenplay makes absolutely no sense, but it doesn't matter, because this is an incredibly entertaining film regardless. Fuest manages to blend horror, black comedy, some eccentric themes, and an art deco set together to create one of the most memorable B-films of the '70s and of Price's career. And though Phibes is a crazed, murderous villain, it is impossible not to like him and root for him throughout the film. Price plays him as hammy, charming, tragic, and sympathetic.
Despite an incredibly grumpy Joseph Cotton, who plays head surgeon Vesalius, all the actors seem to be having a lot of fun, particularly Price. His enthusiasm for the role and the film is infectious. Vesalius was originally supposed to be played by Peter Cushing, who turned the role down because of his wife’s poor health. It’s a shame the two weren’t able to pair up, as it could only have made a great film even better. The two police inspectors, played by Peter Jeffrey and Norman Jones, also seem to have a great time and they manage to hold their own against Price. Though they are absolute blunderers, or maybe because of it, their scenes provide some of the most effortless comedy in the film.
There are also appearances from famed British actor Terry-Thomas (How to Murder Your Wife), Aubrey Woods (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and Virginia North (Deadlier Than the Male) as Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia. His beautiful wife is the uncredited Caroline Munro, who later made her naming appearing in a number of Hammer films. Director Fuest did a wonderful job here and would go on to direct Brit horror And Soon the Darkness as well as satanic William Shatner vehicle, The Devil’s Rain. His films always had such a distinctive sense of personality and style that he’s a shame he wasn’t given the chance to do more.
I dare you to watch The Abominable Dr. Phibes and not like it. Impossible. You can get the single disc DVD or the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set, which I'm reviewing. It contains five discs and splits The Abominable Dr. Phibes on a double-sided disc with the almost equally wonderful Dr. Phibes Rises Again.