The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Black humor rules the day when Vincent Price stars in one of his most memorable roles to genre fans. That of Dr. Anton Phibes. Colorful, not nearly as graphic as you may think it is and a memorable performance from Price delivered in mime highlight this feature from AIP and director Robert Fuest that smartly sends us back to the 1920’s as a backdrop.
It’s a tale of revenge enacted from the demented mind of the disfigured Price/Phibes. All to the backdrop of jazz and funky set pieces in the mansion Price calls home. Like the famed Phantom, Price loves to play the keys on his organ that magically rises from his inner sanctum below to the main floor of his palatial estate where he joined by his mute assistant Virginia North as they take to ballroom dancing while the mannequin band plays on. It’s all rather bizarre but wickedly fun.
Let the murders begin. Price has marked 10 people for death. Nine men and one woman. They are the medical team who couldn’t save his wife’s life as she died on the operating table. We will soon learn that Price himself is thought to be long dead after a fiery car crash while enroute to be at his dying wife’s side. Far from the truth, he has concocted a magnificent plan to take his revenge using the 10 biblical curses that descended upon Egypt as a template as explained to us by Oscar winner Hugh Griffith turning up in a cameo.
Bats, frogs, hail, blood, locust, the death of the first born etc are quite colorful means for murders when Price begins his vengeful mission. A mission that will see him face off against the ultimate English Cad when he and his lovely assistant come upon intended victim, Terry-Thomas watching an early stag film circa the 1920’s. Terry is such a delight as he slyly gets rid of his housekeeper so he can get to the film while enjoying a good wine. It’s almost a sexual fantasy come true for Terry when Miss North appears before him. However when Price appears as well, Terry is going to become the next victim in a “bloody good” fashion.
As Price’s nemesis and the hero of the film is Joseph Cotton ( a very Peter Cushing like role) who himself had taken to the horror genre during the early 70’s working for Mario Bava and turning up in enjoyable atrocities such as Lady Frankenstein. Cotton was the head surgeon on the night in question and will be the final victim on Price’s dance card. Along with Cottten and one step behind each murder is Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout. He’s quite enjoyable as the lead detective and somewhat of a distant cousin to Inspector Clouseau I should think.
Each and every death can be classified as gruesome but plenty of the bloodletting is left to our imaginations the way horror really should be. Still this is a bloody affair and when Price unveils his true self, it harkens back to both Lon Chaney’s unveiling as the Phantom and Price himself when he starred as the kindly sculptor turned killer in The House of Wax.
Truly what makes this film so enjoyable are the Price (isms). Surely you took notice when Price leaves his latest victim, Terry Thomas’ flat. Vincent stops to sniff the wine giving it a scornful look and comes back into frame to have a closer look at the painting on the wall. If you know anything of Price’s off screen interests than surely this causes a laugh. Not to mention his entering the kitchen as he concocts some green syrupy stuff to lure the locust to an intended victim. Let us not forget that Price was a gourmet cook as well. Most any costar of his will regale us with stories of his cooking on set for cast and crew.
I still keep my eyes open in thrift shops for one of his highly sought after cook books.
With a slice of ham and his tongue firmly in cheek, Price is such a joy to watch here and unbelievably, mostly in mime. Though his voice does come through a loudspeaker at times, his character has lost the power of speech and if the film has one drawback, it’s suffocating one of Price’s greatest instruments, his voice. The template for this film seems to have been recycled for his 1973 film, Theater of Blood which is just as memorable as this one with it’s dark humor and heavy dose of bloodletting.
Far out and funny, this is one of those must see films of the genre and for those looking to catch up on all the Vincent Price films they may have yet to see. Dr. Phibes Rises Again soon followed in 1972 and for those that are not quite sure, that is Caroline Munro’s photograph that Price is seen mourning at. For she is his deceased wife.
And finally I do indeed have this one in the vault here at Mike’s Take. And no it’s not for sale.