Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)


Today is officially the 100th birthday of the late, great Vincent Price, so I think it’s only appropriate that “Robin’s Underrated Gems” cover the 100th feature film that he made in his long and storied career. Several weeks ago, I covered the Vincent Price horror classic Theater of Blood and remarked that even though it is considered by many to be the best film of his career, it is not as well-known as some of his other works, such as House of Wax and The House on Haunted Hill. Such is also the case with his 1971 effort, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which is not as renowned as it deserves to be. In fact, you could argue that if wasn’t for The Abominable Dr. Phibes, there would be no Theater of Blood as it’s obvious that the latter film was heavily influenced by the former. Both films featured a storyline with Price playing a madman who concocted elaborate death scenes as a form of revenge on those whom he believed had wronged him in the past. While Theater of Blood made better use of this formula and wound up being the superior film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes was the one which got it started and is still a great deal of fun on its own accord. Watching it today, you’ll also be quite surprised to discover how much influence it seems to have had on a fairly famous set of horror films called the Saw franchise.

The film takes place in 1925, four years removed from when the main character, Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) lost his wife in a car accident (British scream queen Caroline Munro has an early uncredited role as her corpse!). While rushing to be at his wife’s side, Phibes himself was also involved in a car crash and was presumed dead. In actuality, he was horribly disfigured and is forced to wears a lifelike rubber mask to disguise his injuries. And while he has lost the ability to speak, he communicates by using a hose and gramophone to create a very old-fashioned version of a voice box. Phibes works with a mute young female assistant named Vulnavia (Virginia North), whose origin is never explained, and at the beginning of the film, they are shown murdering some doctors in very bizarre fashions, such as having them having them stung to death by bees or mauled to death by bats. It’s gradually revealed that these doctors were all part of a surgical team lead by Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) who operated on Phibes’ wife after her accident. Phibes believes that their incompetence was the reason she died, so he concocts an elaborate revenge scheme to kill each doctor die in a manner that’s based on one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament. Many of these death scenes are presenting with an undercurrent of black humour, such as when they drain all the blood out of the body of one doctor (Terry-Thomas) after interrupting his viewing session of 1920s porn!

Like Theater of Blood, the victims in The Abominable Dr. Phibes are nowhere near as interesting as the villain, so don’t expect any great depth or social significance from this story. The primary enjoyment comes from seeing what horrible, but ingeniously clever death scene Dr. Phibes will concoct next. Hell, part of the fun is seeing just how incompetent the police force can get while trying to protect the victims. While Theater of Blood was pretty much a retread of this storyline, the one area in which it improved upon Dr. Phibes was in the utilization of its star. Theater of Blood was Vincent Price’s dream project because his character was a deranged Shakespearean actor, giving him the opportunity to perform numerous passages from Shakespeare’s plays while murdering his victims. The title character in Dr. Phibes is obviously a lot more limited. Because his character is wearing a lifelike rubber mask, Price never gets the chance to change his facial expression. The voice box gimmick meant that all of his lines of dialogue had to be recorded in post-production and some nitpickers would be aghast at the idea of a horror film limiting the use of Vincent Price’s iconic voice. Yet in spite of these limitations, Price just has this one-of-a-kind aura and screen presence that somehow makes the character work and it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. Visually, The Abominable Dr. Phibes looks terrific and Phibes’ colourful secret lair, which features a wind-up robotic orchestra called “Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards” and a Phantom of the Opera-esque pipe organ, is a masterpiece of art direction. I had mentioned earlier that the Saw franchise seems to have drawn some inspiration from The Abominable Dr. Phibes. In this clip from the film’s climax, Dr. Phibes forces Dr. Vesalius to perform a surgery to remove a key from his son’s chest and use it to unlock him from the operating table. If Vesalius doesn’t do this within a certain amount of time, his son will be doused with acid. Sound pretty familiar, Saw fans?

Some horror fans have described The Abominable Dr. Phibes as “Saw with a more quirky sense of humour”. As the Saw series went on and the death and torture scenes got more elaborate and ridiculous, I started viewing the films as black comedies, even though I’m not sure they were ever intended that way. With The Abominable Dr. Phibes, however, there is no doubt the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. The film is a very effective mixture of horror and black comedy and it’s obvious that most of the elaborate death scenes are not intended to make the viewer cringe, but to make them laugh. A somewhat needless, but still entertaining sequel called Dr. Phibes Rises Again was released the following year, which followed the same formula and features another Saw-like scene where a character has to retrieve a key from a vase filled with scorpions! Anyway, in spite of the fact that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is mostly intended as tongue-in-cheek camp, Vincent Price still plays his role completely straight and somehow manages to bring some sympathy and pathos to his deranged character. I’ve stated numerous times that because they were trapped within their genre, most of the great horror stars of yesteryear never got the credit they deserved for being great actors. However, I think the two Vincent Price films which I’ve showcased thus far have been perfect showcases for the man’s immense talent. In Theater of Blood, he was able to great things with a role that is every actor’s dream, but in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, he pulled off the Herculean task of doing great things with a role that is every actor’s nightmare.

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