The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Synopsis: Revenge Is The Best Medicine.

Meet Doctor Phibes: a one-time concert musician who’s now an all-time crazed murderer. In this clever, crypt-kicking classic, horrormeister Vincent Price plays a diabolical doc seeking the ultimate in revenge with precision creepiness and surgical wit. Watch Dr. Phibes live up to his promise: “Nine killed her, nine shall die, nine eternities in doom!”

After a team of surgeons botch his beloved wife’s surgery, leaving her for dead, the emotionally distraught Dr. Phibes creatively concocts a fatal prescription for revenge. Using the Good Book as his guide, Phibes unleashed a score of old testament atrocities — from a plague of locusts to an attack of rats — on his enemies that climax in what may be one of “the eeriest endings on screen record” (Syracuse Herald-Journal)!

The Abominable Dr. Phibes 6.5

“The Abominable Dr. Phibes? Really?” confused

Yes, really. winking0002 Free Emoticons   Winking

Let’s put this one in context for a moment, shall we? ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ was yet another campy horror film that Vincent Price did at the tail end of a long string of low budget productions. Over the course of about a decade, Price had made a name for himself as the go-to guy for horror hijinks, and he was hired ceaselessly.

Inexplicably, during the ’50s Price became worried about his viability and took on any job he could just to keep working. Thus began his downward spiral into horror and camp, a genre that he seemed to relish as it gave him license to go as large as he wanted. The problem is that, in doing so, he lost credibility as a serious actor, and nothing but these low-paying gigs would come around; he had traded in quality for quantity. mad0071 Free Emoticons   Anger

But the tide always eventually turns and, thus, Price became a casualty of his own insecurity. By the time the ’70s rolled in, he could hardly find substantial gigs – the demand for the b-grade films he had been making having pretty much collapsed.

‘Dr. Phibes’ was part of that last hurrah, before Price became pretty much relegated to television work of all kinds: TV movies, bit parts, cartoons, narration, …etc. There would only be a few more such films, and they all have an aura of desperation about them, a sort of “let’s get on with it” quality that doesn’t make for the most convincing spookshow. indifferent0004 Free Emoticons   Indifferent

Amazingly enough, despite this, the first Phibes film (there would be a sequel a year later – we’ll get to it, we promise winking0002 Free Emoticons   Winking) has a certain allure that verily defies description. Even though it is quite obviously a p!$$-poor production that didn’t take anything seriously, it is energized by a wackiness that thankfully allows the viewer to overlook its trespasses. happy0024 Free Emoticons   Happy

With such darkly corny humour as the death of Dr. Whitcombe (see the spoilers section below for details), the film was obviously meant to be kitsch. ‘Dr. Phibes’ was inarguably made for cheap laughs and thrills more so than for actual shock and scares: the bargain-basement sets, horrible prosthetics and ham-fisted direction were all due to the filmmakers’ focus on low-brow theatrics – which infected the piece with a certain aloofness.

In fact, all of the film’s deaths were outlandish and totally impossible in real life. They reminded me mostly of old-school comic-books, how the villains always had these ridiculously elaborate but completely impractical plans that were too silly to accomplish. tongue0024 Free Emoticons   Sticking Out Tongue

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

In this case, and for reasons that escape me, Dr. Phibes decided to base himself on the Ten Plagues of Egypt to despatch his enemies:

1. Boils: this is off-camera and only referred to, but somehow Dr. Phibes manages to have Prof. Thornton stung to death by bees. confused

2. Bats: by lowering a small cage into Dr. Dunwoody’s bedroom from a window, Phibes released a dozen or more large bats – which proceeded to claw and bite him to death. rolleye0015 Free Emoticons   Rolling Eyes Even though he woke up and could have escaped.

3. Frogs: a disguised Phibes offers Dr. Hargreaves a large frog mask at a costume party. The good Dr. puts it on, not realising that it is a mechanical contraption that would ultimately crush his head. Jigsaw would be proud. winking0002 Free Emoticons   Winking

4. Blood: without putting up a fight, Dr. Longstreet lets Phibes and his assistant, Vulnavia, drain all the blood from his body into small glass bottles. Um… yeah. sad0020 Free Sad Emoticons

5. Hail: Phibes and Vulnavia stop Dr. Hedgepath’s car on the side of a road and, after killing the driver, a contraption that spews ice is placed in the car – freezing the doctor to death. The science behind this one is dubious at best. tongue0024 Free Emoticons   Sticking Out Tongue

6. Rats: for reasons unknown, Phibes decides to hide a bunch of rats in Dr. Kitaj’s plane, so that he gets attacked by them while piloting and crashes it to his death. How the doctor failed to see that cockpit full of rats when he got in is beyond me. confused Silly stuff.

7. Beasts: despite considerable police protection, Dr. Whitcombe has a brass unicorn head propelled at him from a catapult as he stepped out of a club. Impaled against a wall by the corkscrew horn, the police had to unscrew him – the most ridiculous thing you’ll see in almost any horror film! happy0018 Free Emoticons   Happy

8. Locusts: Phibes takes his cue from ‘You Only Live Twice’ and covers Nurse Allen with goo while she sleeps – from the room above her, using a body chart to aim properly. Then he fills her room with locusts that, attracted by the goo, proceed to eat her up and vanish in thin air. rolleye0015 Free Emoticons   Rolling Eyes

9. Death of the first born: Dr. Vesalius’s son is kidnapped by Phibes but his plans to kill him are foiled. What unspeakably wacko death had he planned for him? We’ll never know… sad0038 Free Sad Emoticons

10. Darkness: Phibes plans his own death, his rejoining of his beloved wife, by replacing all of his blood with embalming fluid – ensuring that he is kept as intact just as she has been all these years.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

The film features an especially exuberant performance from Vincent Price. In “Phibes’, he is at his most over-the-top: mugging madly, gesticulating generously, playing the organ completely off cue. Whether you appreciate his scene-chomping or not, it’s unforgettable. It is said that Price would purposely make faces at other actors to make them crack up and that his make-up had to be re-applies incessantly because he would laugh so much. Clearly, he was having a lot of fun in this role. happy0027 Free Emoticons   Happy

Otherwise, the actors were passable. Joseph Cotton was solid as Dr. Vesalius (even though, apparently, he couldn’t remember his lines!), Peter Jeffrey mixed up drama and camp arguably well as Inspector Trout and Terry-Thomas’ silly cameo is memorable enough that he would return in the sequel, in another part. Virginia North played Vulnavia impassibly, emotions buried deep under the surface – just as the character demands it. But it’s hardly a noteworthy performance, demanding little that a game show hostess couldn’t do equally well. indifferent0004 Free Emoticons   Indifferent

‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ plays like a cross of ‘Darkman’ (for the disfigured mad genius exacting revenge on his hapless victims, those he considers guilty of ruining his life) and ‘Saw’ (for the bizarre deaths that defy all logic). I can actually see this film being remade today, under the revamped title ‘Doctor Phibes’, but with an accent on the gruesome side of the equation instead of the camp. I’d actually be curious to see what they’d make of that material now. happy0024 Free Emoticons   Happy

Would it make for a good film? I suppose that it would depend on those making it. The story and its various elements are certainly ripe for the picking.

As for this version of the film, I can’t say that I would recommend it to most audiences: it far too cheesy and low-grade for most people to enjoy. But there is an audience for it, and the fact that it’s a cult classic and that there had been plans to make a full-fledged series of it speaks volumes. happy0024 Free Emoticons   Happy

For the average viewer I’d give it a mere 4.0. For them, this would indeed be abominable. sad0133 Free Sad Emoticons However, for anyone who enjoys this kind of cheesy junk food horror, which is rare, I’d give it a enthusiastic 7.0 – ‘Dr. Phibes’ can be a riot. happy0021 Free Emoticons   Happy

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