The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

*. The Abominable Dr. Phibes didn’t get a lot of love when it came out. Critics saw it as camp trash, though some enjoyed it, and the initial box office was disappointing because AIP, who also didn’t think it was anything special, took a while to figure out how to market such an oddity.
*. But audiences did eventually catch on, and today this is a much loved cult favourite. In several ways it was ahead of its time, setting up such later blockbusters as Se7en and even more obviously Saw. Yes, the serial killer who works by way of a theme might be taken all the way back to And Then There Were None, but that was a mystery and not a horror film and there’s a difference. It’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes that has the most to answer for.
*. Also ahead of its time was the mix of brutal and shocking violence (at least as brutal and shocking as budget and censors would allow) with comedy. One gets the sense that everyone was having a good time and laughing away as they made it.
*. There are so many little jokes I love. Ending with a jazzy version of “Over the Rainbow.” The way the Moon and Earth are labeled on the lid of the sarcophagus. The painted screens in the car windows. Terry-Thomas’s porn-loving doctor winding the crank of his projector so hard it breaks off.
*. I could keep going. I get a kick out of the shrine Dr. Phibes has set up to his wife, dominated by her vapid stare (the late Mrs. Phibes represented by Vincent Price’s real wife, the model Caroline Munro). And how about the wonderful dialogue? “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” When Phibes accuses Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) of killing his wife the good doctor exclaims that he tried to save her. To which Phibes replies “With a knife in your hands?!” Well, he was doing surgery . . .
*. The glory of the sets is another big plus. Not just Dr. Phibes’s rocking pad, with its Art Deco-Aubrey Beardsley dance floor and mechanical orchestra of Clockwork Musicians, but also Dr. Versalius’s amazing digs, and the mint-green hospital. We’re in another world here, a sort of English giallo nearly every bit as ripe as the Italian.
*. Vulnavia (Virginia North) has no lines but takes over with such a striking presence she doesn’t need any. And that name! I mean, why didn’t they call her Vulvania just to see if they could get away with it? (Price does distinctly call her Vulvania once in Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in what could hardly be called a slip of the tongue.)

*. Alas, they were limited in what they could achieve in the way of gore effects. Basically all they could manage was some scary heads. Half or fully eaten. Frozen. Exsanguinated. And finally a big reveal of Dr. Phibes’s own mutilated face, which is just a rubber mask. There’s been no end of talk of more sequels, or a remake, and you know revisiting the effects has to be one of the main attractions. Not that I think they should remake it. Leave well enough alone.

*. The script is pure fantasy. Some random questions: How on earth does Dr. Phibes get those rats on the plane without anyone noticing, and fix it so they come out at just the right time? Why does Terry-Thomas not say anything while his blood is being stolen? Many of Phibes’s victims are excessively passive. The man in the back of the car doesn’t seem perturbed much either. And why does the nurse not wake up when her face is covered by green goo? I know she has (perhaps) taken a sleeping pill, but even so you’d wake up once your airways were covered, or when a handful of locusts starting eating your face off. How was the unicorn impalement managed? A catapult? From across the street? And what or who is Vulnavia? What’s with the violin playing? Or the dancing figurine she places in the back of the car? Or the contrived musical numbers she does with Phibes? Originally she was meant to be another automaton, and maybe she still is, which would explain some of this. But then why not say so, or reveal this when she has her acid shower at the end? And why the Biblical plagues? Just because Phibes is a doctor of theology as well as a concert organist?
*. Director Robert Fuest (who also apparently wrote most of the screenplay) doesn’t get much credit, but I think this is a well-turned out little movie, especially for AIP. There are even some odd style points scored. Also, kicking things off with over ten minutes of film without any dialogue was pretty bold. It’s a truism of the horror genre though that your villains shouldn’t talk too much, even if they’re played by Vincent Price. Here the fact that Phibes is hooked up to a squawk box that he has to keep plugging in to whatever outlet’s available (“I have used my knowledge of music and acoustics to re-create my voice!”) is a bit awkward, but it’s fun too.
*. I was pleasantly surprised coming back to this movie and enjoying it as much as I did. I’d re-watched it about five years ago and taken some notes and looking over them it seemed as though I was less impressed then. Today it struck me as far more entertaining. Total nonsense, and cheap, but it’s also a groundbreaking and inventive work that repays repeated viewing. I wouldn’t quite rate it a classic, but it’s a must-see flick for genre fans and even fifty years later has a crazy transgressive attitude about it that makes up for a lot of failings.

14 thoughts on “The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Well, this is a kind of horror-comedy. His role is kind of funny. T-T is in the sequel too, playing a different character (since he gets killed here).

      Reply
  1. Bookstooge

    When I was a young teen or even tween, my cousin watched this and I was at their house. I was fascinated. The humor side of things completely passed by me and all I saw was the horror. It worked perfectly for being creepy without scaring me. So I had very fond memories.

    I tried to watch it again just a couple of years ago. That time the humor didn’t pass me by and it didn’t work for me at all. Interjecting humor into horror is a tricky thing and I tend to avoid humor in serious movies (or ones dealing with serious themes), so my re-watch wasn’t a success like it was for you.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s odd how our responses to these things change. If you were a kid I could see having that response of just thinking it was a horror movie. But have you lost your sense of humour as an adult? Sad!

      Reply
      1. Bookstooge

        Oh no, I think plenty of things are funny. But not mixed in with other things. That would be like putting orange juice on your wheaties or something…

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