The Abominable Dr. Phibes
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"A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon...words fail me, gentlemen." - A detective describing a particularly puzzling murder witnessed in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).
Vincent Price stars in what is quite possibly, the ultimate "Vincent Price" movie, one that practically cemented the actor's public and professional identity as the actual personification of all things horror.
In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, he plays Dr. Anton Phibes, a mysterious figure who is systematically hunting down and disposing of a team of doctors that he feels were responsible for the untimely death of his beloved wife (played by British cult favorite Caroline Munro, albeit seen only in photographs). Joseph Cotten fights for his life in his role of Dr. Vesalius, the chief surgeon of the botched procedure and British comedian Terry-Thomas pops up in a brief and amusing cameo as one of the doomed doctors.
The gimmick here is that Phibes dispatches his victims in a spectacular variety of gruesome and bizarre ways, all of which are based on ten biblical curses involving various deaths brought on by bats, rats, locusts and some other nasty surprises!
Directed in a bright, colorful and campy visual style by former art director (and frequent director of several episodes of the similarly peculiar TV series The Avengers) Robert Fuest, Dr. Phibes is a fast-paced, super-stylish black comedy that boasts some extremely memorable, often eerie, set pieces that will undoubtedly delight the fans of Price and of horror films in general.
Possessing a particularly gleeful and nasty sense of humor, the movie, set in the mid 1920s, comes across almost like a live action version of the artwork of Edward Gorey, not just in the film's mix of dark comedy and clever shocks, but also visually as well. Price with his pale, ghastly makeup and flowing robes or fur coats, looks straight out of one of Gorey's dark and scratchy tableaus, as do the collection of stuffy detectives, and Phibes' mute and fashionable assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North).
Keeping in mind the fact that the most closely associated and instantly recognizable trait of Vincent Price is his inimitable voice, one particularly interesting thing to note about Dr. Phibes is that we don't even get to hear it until approximately thirty minutes into the film! And when he DOES talk, it's in a slow, robotic tone via a cord that's plugged into his neck and played out through a Victrola! I won't go into the details of WHY he has to speak that way so as not to spoil any of the film's dark little secrets, but rest assured that Price makes up for his quiet performance with some truly hilarious and ominous facial reactions and expressions. According to some of the stories about the making of the film, Vincent had so much fun with this role and thought it was so funny, that he would often laugh, destroying the layers of makeup he had to wear that prevented his lips from moving. He told a reporter, "Phibes was something I had to take very seriously when I was doing it so that it would come out funny. All the same, it was just agony for me because my face was covered with plastic, and I giggled and laughed the whole time, day and night, and the makeup man and I were practically married because the makeup kept dissolving and he had to patch me up every five minutes."
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was distributed in 1971 by American International Pictures, the ultimate "B-movie" studio who were synonymous with churning out "exploitation" pictures directed to the "youth market"- films that ranged from the Roger Corman titles to beach party and biker flicks and eventually throughout the 1970s with its blaxploitation, women-in-prison and other assorted drive-in material. Typical of AIP's style,Phibes was marketed initially with the silly tag line, "Love Means Never Having to Say You're Ugly," a goofy riff on the famous catchphrase from the recently released (and immensely popular) Love Story (1970). Though critically well accepted, Dr. Phibes didn't scare up much box office during the first run until AIP revisited the film with a more traditional horror-angled approach (in which it was credited as Price's 100th film, which probably isn't officially accurate) and the film became very successful...so successful in fact, that AIP developed and rushed out a sequel the following year entitled Dr. Phibes Rises Again co-starring additional cult favorites, Robert Quarry and Fiona Lewis. It featured Price embarking on a new adventure out in the desert searching out a way to reanimate his dear dead wife. More icky murders and campy mayhem ensue.
In 1973, Price would revisit the Phibes formula with the brilliant and wonderfully sick Theatre of Blood, where he played a similar demented and vengeful madman who dispatches his enemies in a variety of creative and gory ways...this time as a long-ignored ham of an actor who gives his snooty critics their "just desserts" in the style of gruesome murders based on the plays of William Shakespeare.
Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Ronald Dunas, Louis M. Heyward, James H. Nicholson
Director: Robert Fuest
Screenplay: James Whiton, William Goldstein
Cinematography: Norman Warwick
Film Editing: Tristam Cones
Art Direction: Bernard Reeves
Music: Basil Kirchin
Cast: Vincent Price (Dr. Anton Phibes), Joseph Cotten (Dr. Vesalius), Virginia North (Vulnavia), Terry-Thomas (Dr. Longstreet), Sean Bury (Lem Vesalius), Susan Travers (Nurse Allen).
by Eric Weber