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? Really?”
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.
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.
Amazingly enough, despite this, the first Phibes film (there would be a sequel a year later – we’ll get to it, we promise ) 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.
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.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
*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.
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.
‘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.
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.
For the average viewer I’d give it a mere 4.0. For them, this would indeed be abominable. 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.