From the video case: 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 unleashes 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. (1971, color)
Mark says: When my sister and future brother-in-law took me to Dr. Phibes at a drive-in theater as a kid, the playfulness of the story was lost on me. I just thought it was one of the scarier Vincent Price movies I had ever seen (I was already a fan by the age of 10).
As an adult, you can’t miss the wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality of the film. It could have been played as a straight horror, and been moderately effective, but it’s the skillful combination of horror and dark humor that makes this film so unique and memorable.
Vincent Price (The Fly, House on Haunted Hill) plays Dr. Anton Phibes, an angry organist who lost his wife during surgery. Because he blames the surgical team for his wife’s death, he murders them one by one using the biblical plagues of Egypt as his inspiration.
Dr. Phibes himself is horribly disfigured due to a car accident he had while racing to his wife’s surgery. Presumed dead, he has to wear some rather complex make-up as he executes his deadly deeds. The unmasking of Dr. Phibes towards the end of the film is reminiscent of the unveiling of Price as the marred Prof. Henry Jarrod in House of Wax.
Dr. Phibes, due to his accident, can only speak through an apparatus attached to the side of his neck. When he does speak, his language is ornate and very theatrical. For example, Dr. Phibes speaking to a photograph of his dead wife:
Where can we find two better hemispheres, without sharp north, without declining west? My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, and true plain hearts do in thee faces rest. Within twenty-four hours, my work will be finished, and then, my precious jewel, I will join you in your setting. We shall be reunited forever in a secluded corner of the great Elysian field of the Beautiful Beyond!
Mercifully, most of Price’s acting is done through actions rather than words.
Dr. Phibes’ assistant is a lovely, non-talking, almost robotic woman, Vulnavia (Virginia North). Vulnavia, though appearing in a good portion of the film, has little to do. Her primary purpose seems to be distracting the victims so Phibes can carry out his vengeance.
The murders themselves are the most interesting (and sometimes amusing) scenes in the film. If played as a straight horror flick, many of the killings would have been laughable. However, because the whole thing is played as a farce, the murders are properly entertaining. If you can imagine such a thing.
Because the murders are so unusual, I won’t discuss them in detail as not to spoil the thrill for the uninitiated. However, I will say that the “plague of the frogs” and the “plague of the locusts” are the two killings I always remember from childhood. I must say, much like old Warner Brothers’ cartoons, this movie not only withstands the passage of time, it gets better with it.
On the trail of Dr. Phibes is Peter Jeffrey (Countess Dracula) in the role of Inspector Trout. The Inspector is assisted by a comical group of investigators who banter back and forth like an Abbott and Costello routine. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but they are a pretty silly bunch. Most of the time the humor is subtle enough as not to be overbearing, but it can get to be a bit much.
You’ll likely recognize some of the surgical team, among them: Terry-Thomas (Rocket to the Moon) as Dr. Longstreet, Alex Scott (Twins of Evil) as Dr. Hargreaves, Maurice Kaufmann (Gorgo) in the role of Dr. Whitcombe, and Susan Travers (Snake Woman) portraying Nurse Allen. Nurse Allen is the only woman of the bunch, and her death (“plague of locusts”), as I’ve mentioned above, is one of the most memorable in the film.
You may also recognize Dr. Phibes’ wife (only shown in photographs, and as a corpse at the end) as Caroline Munro (Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter), one of the “Hammer Glamour” stars from England’s Hammer Productions.
Joseph Cotten (Soylent Green) plays Dr. Vesalius, the head surgeon and ultimate target of Dr. Phibes’ revenge. With the help of Dr. Vesalius, Scotland Yard is able to deduce the identity of the killer. This does not save Dr. Vesalius from his own life or death test, however.
Besides the murders themselves, the other unforgettable scene in Dr. Phibes is the ending. My brother-in-law had to explain it to me as a kid, as I didn’t understand what embalming fluid was, but that’s all I should say on that matter. Suffice it to say, you won’t be disappointed.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is directed by Robert Fuest, who also directed the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
Scene to watch for: Dr. Phibes makes a toast and then downs his drink through the side of his neck.
Line to listen for: “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”
Trivia: Peter Cushing was offered the role of Dr. Vesalius, but turned down the part due to the recent death of his wife.
Note of interest: Fans of the Art Deco movement will really enjoy the set designs.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.