In the tradition of films like Phantom of the Opera, Murders in The Rue Morgue and House of Wax, this 1971 AIP horror classic directed by Robert Fuest (And Soon The Darkness, The Devil’s Rain) stars Vincent Price as Dr. Anton Phibes, one of the many memorable characters in the pantheon of his illustrious career. Although this performance is often cited as being campy, Price was really able to show through his portrayal how Phibes would go to any length for his dead beloved wife. The result is a strange mixture of humor, heartbreak and horror that only the great Vincent Price could deliver.
The year is 1925 and the place is England. We are introduced to the mysterious Dr. Phibes as he plays a colorful, neon-lit musical organ while his customized “Clockwork Wizards” automaton band play in his secret lair. The story goes that the bad doctor Phibes was once a lauded musician but while driving home one night was disfigured in a car crash and believed his wife (played by an uncredited Caroline Munro) died at the hands of a group of irresponsible surgeons. Ever since he’s hidden away from the world while planning a way to get back at each of them. Being a history aficionado as well as a diabolical creep, his methods of macabre madness are inspired by The Ten Plagues which occurred in The Old Testament. They include such utter nastiness as: Boils, Bats, Frogs, Blood, Hail, Rats, Beasts, Locusts, First Born Death and Darkness. With each new murder, and to be a bit more twisted, Phibes wears a different medallion with a Hebrew letter representing each of The Plagues.
Following Phibes first three “executions” of the doctors, an Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is called in to investigate. He actually believes that Phibes may be behind the deaths but doesn’t get any help from other authorities like Scotland Yard since they find his theory to be far fetched. He then seeks out Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) who was the head surgeon that operated on Phibes’ late wife (the name “Vesalius” being a reference to Andreas Vesalius, a physician and founder of modern anatomy). Since Phibes believes Vesalius is chiefly responsible for his wife’s death, he devises an especially horrific surprise for the doctor regarding his young son.
What makes The Abominable Dr. Phibes such an entertaining horror film is Price’s offbeat acting, the elegant period production design (filmed on the 1930s era sets at Elstree Studios in Herfordshire), the music by Basil Kirchin, and most prominently the sharp, biting black humor that runs throughout. As viewers we even get a thrill and a bit of sadistic glee whenever Phibes and his beautiful mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) appear with different types of terrifying tricks to use on their unsuspecting victims.
The Phibes character stands out from other “mad” villains since he can’t speak regularly. He must wear a special electronic voicebox (plugged right into his neck!) so Price never utters a word live onscreen but talks in dubbed broken sentences driving the performance over the top in a delightfully weird way. This idea, along with the musical aspect would be used again in Brian DePalma’s own take on the disfigured revenge seeker: Phantom of The Paradise (1974). You can also see a direct influence on Sam Raimi’s DARKMAN (1990) another character that closely resembles Dr. Phibes without his makeup.
The film was followed by Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in 1972. Ideas for more sequels were brought up with colorful titles like Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land, The Brides of Phibes, Phibes Resurrectus and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes, but they were never made. Speaking as a longtime Phibes Phan, I can honestly say that I wish they had been!
FURIOUS PHIBES FILM TRIVIA
- Set in 1925; the Phibes’ tombstones say 1921, and the characters say Anton and Victoria died 4 years earlier.
- Peter Cushing was originally cast as Vesalius, but he declined because his wife was in poor health at the time.
- In order to gain more publicity this film was advertised as Vincent Price’s 100th feature film.
- The rat curse was originally intended to take place on a boat. Robert Fuest changed it to inside a plane, as he felt the boat could have been escaped from.
- In the script Phibes was abusive to Vulnavia, eventually stabbing her to death, and then escape his house (which was to catch fire) in a hot air balloon with Victoria’s body. It was decided to make Phibes a more sympathetic character, so these sequences were removed.
- Vulnavia was originally meant to be another clockwork device, who simply looked more human.
- The “Vampire Bats” were really flying foxes, very docile fruit-loving bats. – The organ music at the beginning is “War March of the Priests” by Felix Mendelsohn.
- Joseph Cotten would grumble on the set that he had to remember and deliver lines, while Vincent Price’s were all to be post-dubbed. Price responded, “Yes, but I still know them, Joe.” In fact, Price was well-known in Hollywood for his ability to memorize all of the characters’ lines in a given production, not just his own.
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