Dir. Robert Fuest
The renowned surgeon, concert organist and holder of doctorates in Music and Theology Dr Phibes (Vincent Price), was supposedly killed in a horrific car crash as he rushed to be by the side of his ill wife Victoria. He did in fact not perish in the accident, but was monstrously disfigured and fiendishly angry with the surgeons who failed to save his wife’s life. Utilising highly imaginative and convoluted methods, Phibes has sworn to avenge his beautiful wife’s untimely death, and taking the Ten Biblical Plagues of Egypt as his inspiration, sets out to murder the surgeons he deems responsible for letting his wife die.
The Abominable Dr Phibes is justly renowned for its opulent art-deco sets, lavish dialogue, overtly camp performances and fiendishly dark sense of humour. Presiding over all this is the inimitable Vincent Price, a devilish delight to watch, who darkly relishes every moment.
Almost every shot is drenched in artistic mise-en-scene, particularly Dr Phibes fantastical clockwork band, the goliath concert room where he plays his organ, like some sort of crazed amusement park spectacle.
The death scenes are carried off with aplomb and methodical precision, each one as over the top and elaborate as the last. Characters are sadistically murdered in all manner of ways mirroring the 10 Plagues of Egypt. One is mauled to death by bats, another stung to death by bees, the female surgeon is coated in ‘green’ and consumed by locusts, another is attacked by rats (whilst flying a plane!), and one unfortunate other has his head crushed in a clockwork frog mask, and so on and so forth.
The operatic nature and grandiosity with which these deaths are stringently realised is perhaps the film’s very raison d’être. When we reach the death inspired by ‘the death of the first born’ plague, a device of such sadistic and sensationalist quality is rigged by Phibes that would later be echoed, much less tastefully, in the likes of Saw etc.
The dialogue on offer is as rich as the visual cacophony that seeps out of every frame. Due to his accident, Phibes can no longer speak without the aid of a mechanical device – Price reverberates lines such ‘Love means never having to say you're ugly’ and ‘Nine killed her; nine shall die! Eight have died, soon to be nine. Nine eternities in doom!’ in ghoulish and haunting tones.
Price’s performance is one of undeniable theatrical chutzpah. The sight of him flailing around while playing his organ and gesturing dramatically must be seen to be believed. However is it testament to the talent of Vincent Price that the character if Dr Phibes is at once rendered a tragic and sympathetic monster and never becomes the campy characterure he would have become had a lesser actor portrayed him. Phibes doesn’t even speak for the first half an hour of the film and Price conveys the character’s fragile emotional state through exquisite body language and those piercing eyes of his. As the actor wore a mask (of his own face) he can’t even rely on facial expressions to aid his performance. His face is grimaced into a cold stare which nicely contrasted with the colourful, full blooded dialogue he spouts.
When we finally see Phibes without his mask, the sight is genuinely shocking and more than a little touching. We are at once reminded of that other tragic, organ-playing icon of melancholy horror, the Phantom of the Opera and Phibes is imbued with a similar haunting pathos.
All of the other grotesque characters in the films, from the doctor’s mysterious and eerily silent assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) to the ever-cynical detective inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are reasonably fleshed out and enhance the macabre proceedings with rigor.
An immensely gothic, elaborate, camp and oddly affecting film, it somehow comes as no surprise to hear ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ play out over the closing titles. A psychedelic little wonderland of gallows humour and sadistic charm.
Dr Phibes returned to wreck more elaborate mayhem in the Egyptian desert set sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again! You just can't keep a great anti-hero down.