Film #50: The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

film 50 the abominable dr phibes

Rating: 4/5

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

It’s taken far too long to get to this point, but here we are at the first milestone: fifty films watched! In the next post I’ll recap my thoughts on the process so far, but suffice to say now, I’m pleased to announce that the fiftieth pick was a good one. The Abominable Dr Phibes is one of American International’s best known films, starring the wonderfully theatrical Vincent Price in an unusually muted performance. Although dressed up with low-budget, yet still sumptuous, style, this is actually a fairly standard revenge thriller – in fact, it could be considered an early example of the formula adopted so successfully in The Crow (1994).

Dialogue is sparse for much of Robert Fuest’s film; the first ten minutes pass by without a word. Instead, we are introduced to Dr Phibes, draped in a black cloak, maniacally pounding away at a garish organ. His hand gestures seldom relate to the music emanating from the instrument, but it barely matters – Phibes is all about the visual impact (he doesn’t speak until half an hour has passed, and even then it’s brief and stilted, played through a gramophone and accompanied by some bulging eye motions by Price), and it’s a nightmarish, unsettling scene, complete with a robotic accompanying band, and a hypnotic, beautiful, silent accomplice (Virginia North). Here, in this chamber of Phibes’ home, theatricality is key; from North’s haute couture garments to the art deco-inspired surroundings, everything is carefully staged and attractively bizarre – much like his methods of revenge.

In terms of plot, The Abominable Dr Phibes is simple: a man, believed dead, seeks revenge for his wife’s death on an operating table some four years prior. Nine people are deemed responsible, most of whom die with barely so much as a whimper – as a man of many talents, and a theology scholar, Phibes concocts a series of punishments based upon the ten plagues of the Old Testament. So respectable surgeons, doctors, and nurses are quickly (or sometimes slowly) terminated by assorted bats, rats, freezing temperatures, blood-draining, suffocating frog masks, and catapulted unicorn heads, among others.

Inevitably the film takes on an episodic nature; Phibes eliminates one of his victims, the police arrive to investigate, they interview someone but learn little, and Phibes continues his master plan. As a result, there are a number of characters who pop up for a scene, and vanish from view for the remainder of the film – a housekeeper, a graveyard attendant, a metalworker. They all add a touch of well-conceived Britishness to the whole production; the police too are played with dry, wry humour. It’s a great combination of English understatement, harmless titillation, and some good old fashioned Gothic doomed romance.

Apparently The Abominable Dr Phibes was heavily rewritten and, having read some of the originally proposed ending ideas, the rewrites have not only benefited the film, but changed it quite substantially. It works because Phibes, despite his (perhaps misguided) cruelty, is a sympathetic character, and this is quite an accomplishment. His punishments are sadistic – in fact, the one saved for head surgeon Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) is straight out of a Saw movie – and he evidently takes pleasure in dolling them out; yet he is tortured himself. Physically scarred by an accident and emotionally ruined by his wife’s death, it is not a stretch to argue that this once brilliant man (as evidenced by his creations) has been irrevocably altered by the events in his life. He is not out to murder the innocent, only those he deems guilty. Price embodies this role with aplomb, managing to relate Phibes’ turmoil perfectly despite his heavily made-up white pallor and lack of dialogue. He provides a pathos to the character that would perhaps not be achieved were it performed by someone with a more subtle style. Interestingly, in both this and the previous pick, The Raven, the villains work precisely because of the actors’ exaggerated performances.

As with The Crow, The Abominable Dr Phibes ends in a rather poetic, even beautiful, way, and it seems a shame that the character was revived only one year later, attempting to resurrect his dead wife in Dr Phibes Rises Again. As that film is not part of our collection, I cannot comment on its success (or failure) any further, though I can say that, as much as I enjoyed this film, I have little desire to see its sequel. Dr Phibes carried out his revenge, and I am now happy for him to (finally) rest in peace.

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