DECEMBER 18 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES
Is there a doctor in the house?
Taking you right back to my early horror-loving days with this – in one of Vincent Price‘s greatest roles (which provided him with a much-needed career boost during the early 1970s), the silver-tongued scream giant brings the eponymous Dr. Anton Phibes to life, or should that perhaps be death?
Directed by Robert Fuest (The Final Programme (1973)), whose sequel Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) is such a perfect complement to the first film that you may as well consider this post to be a review of both, created by writers James Whiton and William Goldstein and wonderfully designed in pure 1920s Art-Deco by Brian Eatwell, …Dr. Phibes is one of the finest combinations of mood, mystery, murder and mirth to ever grace the horror genre – and pigeonholing it thus may even be a mistake.
Dr. Anton Phibes (Price) was a world-renowned organist, scientist and biblical scholar who (allegedley) died in a car accident, racing to be with his wife Victoria (Caroline Munro) in the 1920s, when she herself was on the operating table. She lasted only six minutes in the care of a surgical team of nine, lead by Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) and now, mysteriously, the doctors who allowed her to slip away are meeting gruesome fates, courtesy of a modus operandi that appears to be distinctly Old Testament in nature – specifically, they’re dying according to the ten plagues of Egypt. The redoubtable, put-upon Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is drawn in to the investigation and, slowly but surely, begins to realise that the good Phibes may well be very far from deceased…
And that is perhaps the most enigmatic aspect of the whole affair – Phibes, who was hideously scarred in his accident and has had to devise an elaborate acoustic system that allows him to speak through a hole in his neck (through which he also, somewhat disconcertingly, eats and drinks), appears to have powers that go beyond the rational, and is aided by the beautiful, mute Vulnavia (Virginia North), who appears to be as murderous as her master. Thus, he is able to command rats, locusts, even the sands of the desert to do his bidding, in ways that seem far removed from mere technological genius. As he himself declares twice to his pursuers, you can’t kill what is already dead – he is after eternal life, to be spent with his beloved, whose body he has purloined and is keeping perfectly preserved until the appointed time…
Of course, the film’s real power comes from Price’s performance which, as with the sequel, is entirely dependent on the actor’s greatest attribute, namely his voice. His mouth never opens, meaning that Price has to rely on expressionist acting which, given the period in which the film is set, is appreciably reminiscent of a Rudolph Valentino or Lon Chaney, two greats of cinema’s silent era. In addition, Price manages to keep his tongue firmly in cheek throughout, ensuring that his menace never completely overpowers the wit and verve of the story.
And the murders themselves are wonderfully gruesome; eschewing the blood and guts that were to come later in the decade, but nevertheless still raising shudders, the homicidal ingenuity on display has since been much duplicated, in films as diverse as Theatre of Blood (1973), which also starred Price, Se7en (1995), and numerous horror ‘franchises’.
Allow Fuest, VP et al to remind you, as the film’s tagline put it, that love means never having to say you’re ugly…
DECEMBER 18 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES
While the U.K.'s Hammer Studios was dying a slow death in the early 1970s, American International Pictures provided the reigning king of U.S. horror, Vincent Price, with an indelible role in two British-produced features. Before the The Exorcist and Halloween's Michael Myers, the murderous Dr. Phibes was the fright film icon of the decade. (At least the good doctor performed his nefarious deeds with a great sense of style.) MGM now brings the two Phibes flicks, both beloved cult favorites, to DVD as part of the company's "Midnite Movies" line. Each disc presents the film in anamorphic widescreen format with only the theatrical trailer as an extra. Picture and sound quality (Dolby Mono) are generally quite good. As for Phibes flick # 1...
It is the 1920s. Someone is murdering London-area doctors using the most outlandishly diabolical methods imaginable. One doctor's skull is crushed at a masquerade party by a frog mask that gradually tightens around the wearer's head. Another is completely drained of blood with a pumping device. Ravenous rats placed in the cockpit of a plane cause the fatal crash of a physician who was an amateur pilot. A prominent medical man is found frozen solid in the backseat of his automobile... As the earnest but fumbling Scotland Yard investigator Sgt. Trout (Peter Jeffrey) tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, more bodies keep turning up. His superior, pompous martinet Superintendent Waverly (John Cater), grows impatient for answers. What could be the motive behind these heinous crimes? What sort of madman could plan and execute such elaborate murder schemes? Dr. Anton Phibes, that's who — a madman to be sure, but also a genius. A world-renowned musician, Phibes (Vincent Price) is also a wizard in the fields of acoustics, engineering and science. But why knock off doctors? Revenge — revenge for the death of Phibes' young wife Victoria on the operating table. All the murder victims were members of the medical team that performed Mrs. Phibes' surgery. Her husband believes them criminally negligent. See what happens when you can't sue your HMO?
Phibes is able to dispatch his victims with virtual impunity, for he has a terrific alibi: he's dead. At least that's what everybody thinks. Phibes' car went off a cliff as he frantically raced back to his wife's side when she took ill. Horribly burned, Phibes nonetheless survived the crash but let the world believe he perished. Now, years later, assisted by his beautiful and mysterious cohort in crime, Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes brings the full measure of his wrath down upon the "guilty" using the Biblical plagues of Egypt as his inspiration. He's saving the final act of this murderous passion play for one Dr. Vesalius (Baron Blood's Joseph Cotton), chief surgeon of the ill-fated medical team. Phibes has arranged a most insidious test of the physician's skills with a scalpel...
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a clever, campy, thoroughly enjoyable horror thriller leavened with dark humor and droll British wit. Vincent Price is superb in a very difficult role here, one of the best and most unusual of his long career. As all his dialog is spoken in voice-over fashion — Phibes' speech ability was lost when he was burned, so he "talks" through an electrical amplifier that plugs into his neck — Price uses his eyes and body language to terrific effect. (He could have been a stellar silent film actor.) To compliment Price's star turn the rest of the cast are kept perfectly in tune with the film's sensibilities by director Robert Fuest. Whether serious (Cotton) or comic (Jeffrey and Cator), the right tone is maintained dependant on the needs of an individual scene. The production design, too, is first-rate, especially in light of the film's modest budget. (The art deco sets are fabulous, and can now be more completely appreciated in widescreen format.) This is one of the best fusions of horror and black comedy ever made, starring America's greatest native-born genre icon in a signature role. Well worth your time!
DECEMBER 18 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES
There is a tendency in critical analysis to view every aspect of a work as being the product of a conscious aesthetic or symbolic decision by its creator. Specious though the technique may be, applying it to the opening of Vincent Price’s seminal The Abominable Dr. Phibes yields some tantalizing results. A robed Phibes first appears seated at his massive, art-deco organ hammering out a virtuosic performance of a piece well-suited for a horror film. The work is Felix Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” an organ standard that originates from a Biblical play about a queen murdered by a man who had been hiding for years, patiently waiting to mete out divine punishment.
The origins and meaning of the piece go unremarked upon and have no bearing on the events of the film. The work is used simply to establish mood; an aural set-piece chosen for its sensory, rather than symbolic, qualities. The scene performs its function excellently, effectively establishing Phibes’ style of high gothic mingled with Technicolor modernism. Such visual and aural indulgences are Phibes’ hallmark and sensory engagement is the film’s primary and possibly only objective. Motive, logic, and realism are discarded in favor of the sumptuous visual, a methodical tempo, and the emotive power of Price’s eyes. It is an illogical film, filled with contradictions and anachronisms; to look for “meaning” in the individual parts is to miss the point. Scenes – and to a certain degree, the entire film – must be digested whole; each element empty save for what it contributes to the mise en scene. For these reasons, it is possible to view The Abominable Dr. Phibes as the quintessential horror film—a triumph of style over logic.
Existing in direct contradiction of the opulence of its visual components, the narrative of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is simple and straightforward. It is a revenge tale. Dr. Anton Phibes’ wife Victoria dies on the operating table while being attended by nine doctors. Phibes has an auto accident on his way to the hospital and is believed dead. Alive yet horribly disfigured, Phibes lives in secret for years plotting his elaborate revenge against the doctors who he blames for Victoria’s death.
Revenge itself is not enough for Phibes, and he conducts a symphony of violence inspired by the Old Testament, murdering the unsuspecting doctors in the style of the ten plagues visited on Egypt in Exodus. His beautiful mute assistant, Vulnavia, aids Phibes in his quest, distracting victims and procuring the supplies he needs. Scotland Yard inspector Trout and revenge target Dr. Vesalius serve as Phibes and Vulnavia’s opponents, hopelessly outmatched and perpetually one step behind the duo. When Phibes’ end comes, it does so in a manner and a time of his choosing; disguising his victory as defeat to continue his charade.
Phibes and its sequel are often viewed as terminal films, the final works of Price’s “golden period” during which he made the films with which he is most associated. However, the film’s canonization of visual excess, its use of ironic and implausible murders, and villain-as-hero narrative place Phibes as the urtext of slasher cinema1. We watch with anticipation, not for Phibes to be caught, but for his plan to succeed. It is murder-art; the driving force of Phibes is transferring the doctor’s sadism to the viewers.
It is possible to take some elements of Phibes as comic, given the level of absurdity in the film. It does, after all, feature a man suffocated by a frog mask and another impaled by a catapulted unicorn. The scenes of the investigators are the only ones clearly intended as comedy, however. Phibes’ actions are meant to be viewed as serious regardless of how illogical they seem. Phibes has the element of surprise on his side and the simplest path to achieving his revenge would have been to simply shoot, stab, or otherwise murder his seemingly helpless victims. Again echoing the Romantic music of Mendelssohn, Phibes is more concerned with displaying his virtuosity in the art of murder than he is with killing. Everything he does is a needless flourish—ars gratia artis. It is important that Phibes is a dual-doctor in both music and religion, as he conducts murder as both a symphonic piece and as ritual2. The degree to which it is ritual is lessened by Phibes not expressing any beliefs that conducting the murders in that manner will have an effect, furthering the idea that he only views his crimes as a work of art.
Phibes is especially successful at forcing the audience to suspend their disbelief, the key element of horror cinema. The viewer will not so much bat an eye at the idea that Phibes has constructed what appears to be a freeze-ray (for the Plague of Hail), a pneumatic mechanical larynx, and a band of automatons, Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards. The Clockwork Wizards are the most fanciful of his inventions as they contribute nothing to his revenge plot and have a penchant for playing songs that wouldn’t be written until decades after the film’s 1925 setting. We still see elements of the slasher film in this aspect of Phibes as well. Dr. Phibes overtly has no “powers” – superhuman or supernatural – except for these inventions, the scale of which places him on par with the Freddy Kruegers and Michael Myers that would follow.
There are many elements at work in The Abominable Dr. Phibes yet all of them are overshadowed by the presence of Vincent Price. Here, more than perhaps ever, does Price’s gravitas serve as the film’s chief strength. It is difficult to imagine the film working so well in less capable hands and I firmly believe that Price lends aspects to the work and character that would be lacking in his absence. Price’s Phibes is both diabolical villain and tragic hero—the ultimate horror film “monster” and a distillation of the aspects that made Price an unparalleled talent.
DECEMBER 18 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES
Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) is horribly disfigured in a car accident while on his way to be with his ill wife. The remains of the chauffeur from the accident are mistaken for Phibes. The good doctor is now given plenty of time to exact revenge on the surgical team he held responsible for his wife's death. With the help of his mute and mysterious assistant, Vulnavia (the striking Virgina North), Phibes is able to execute his plan for revenge.
With a touch of class in each carefully choreographed scene, Phibes takes revenge upon the 9 doctors with 9 of the biblical plagues visited upon the Pharaoh. The grand finale leads Phibes to his nemesis, the head surgeon (Joseph Cotton). Phibes, unable to speak, has created an ingenious little device to allow his voice to be heard. Despite the fact that he's horribly disfigured, he has also created a new face for himself to be applied whenever necessary. Hot on the trail of Phibes and Vulnavi are "The Law", Detectives Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Crow (Derek Godfrey). They always seem to be one step behind the Dr. and provide some chuckles as they remain hot on his trail. Their bumbling antics can get a bit tedious, however, their presence does seem appropriate and still works within the story.
Each scene of revenge is a true treat, and Phibes is devilishly exact and graceful in his execution We can't help but root for the good doctor and as we accompany him on his journey, feel his pain and despair. Dr. Phibes has nothing but class and his lavish home decorated with extreme flair and flamboyance, is a real treat for the eyes. The visuals are a mind blower, and the acting is over the top, but that's what we'd expect. Each of the visited plagues, is an incredible set piece, and the film doesn't slow down for a minute, up until the chilling finale.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer. The transfer is quite brilliant and blows away the Orion laser disc, which for its time was also quite stunning. Colors are bright and sharp, and there are little to no distractions to be found, a nice clean compression job, and it's a true joy to behold.
The Sound is Dolby Digital English Mono (with mono French and Spanish tracks also) and is quite clear and distortion free. This is quite simply the best this film has ever looked or sounded.
Extras are thin, just a theatrical trailer (and a very cool trailer to boot!). The trailer is also widescreen, and in decent shape. No complaints though, because this film can be purchased online for under $10.00 shipped to your door.
An essential disc for any fan of horror, which belongs in your collection. At a cost of less than $10.00 there is no excuse not to own this DVD. The extras are thin, but the price point takes care of that. Pop in this disc, for a journey you will not soon forget.
DECEMBER 18 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES
Vincent Price was considered one of horror’s greatest actors. With a career lasting almost sixty years (1935-1993), Vincent Price became an American icon. In the seventies, long after success in the fifties (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and House of Wax); yet predating true mainstream iconographic glory in the eighties (Tim Burton’s Vincent and his voice in Thriller), there was his dynamic role in two British films. The role was of Dr. Anton Phibes, lead of 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and 1972’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again!. This clay faced, theatrical loving, gramophone communicating mastermind strikes fear into the hearts of men. Since Dr. Phibes Rises Again! deserves its own look, tonight I will only focus on the original.
Both films in the Dr. Phibes series were headed by Thriller director and screenwriter, Robert Fuest. Fuest’s other works include The Final Programme (known in the U.S. as The Last Days of Man on Earth), his critically successful And Soon the Darkness, and the “cult” film The Devil’s Rain (reading William Shatner’s biography gave me some hilarious insight into this Anton LaVey associated train wreck), as well as directing Dr. Phibes Rises Again!.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes takes place sometime during the 1920’s in England. In the first shoot we see an art-deco yellow and purple party room, where a cloaked Dr. Phibes playing Felix Mendelssohn’s War March of The Priest on a neon red organ whilst the credits role. After finishing, Dr. Phibes approaches a collection of life sized wind-up toys, affectionately called Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards, turns them on with a hand crank, and starts to conduct their playing. Then a woman (credited as Vulnavia) in an elaborate white dress appears; she starts to dance with Dr. Phibes, until stopping to walk up one of the room’s raised ledges. The film then cuts to both Dr. Phibes and perpetually silent Vulnavia, who we understand now is his assistant, who drive off in an old-fashion automobile with a cloth covered cage. They are then shown opening the ceiling window of a man’s bedroom, letting the contents of the cage fill the area while a sleeping man lies in bed. After they have left, the man wakes up to see shooting shadows cross his vision. Terrified, he soon discovers that his room has been infiltrated with bats. The bats attack him and all that is heard is his scream.
The next day arrives, and Detective Trout (Peter Jeffery) is investigating the death of the sleeping man. He finds out that he was a doctor, and from what his partner tells him, has died in a similar fashion to another local doctor who was killed by bee stings. Detective Trout believes that these two cases are connected. So this part of the movie follows Trout’s job to find the killer. Sometime after another doctor is killed in a similarly weird fashion, death by frog shaped head mask that crushed his head. He meets with Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) and the two throughout the movie discover that these deaths relate back to one man. The long dead musician, Dr. Anton Phibes, who died while sporadically driving back to aid his dying wife. He is murdering the nine individuals who tried to save his wife from beyond the grave. He considers these doctors murderers and is killing them off one by one, each death correlating to one of the plagues set upon Egypt in the Old Testament. Now the only question is will Detective Trout and Dr. Vesalius be able to stop him?
The Abominable Dr. Phibes has excellent design work in both sets and costume. Dr. Phibes’ headquarters is one part evil lair and one part shrine to his wife. Things like a show of busts representing the doctors he still has yet to kill, two fake trees with stuffed owls that line his organ, and all of those red velvet curtains the cover every door and window. Dr. Vesalius’ apartment is also something to look at. With a more seventies open space look, with a hair solon like walkway with lined chairs, and a ton of randomly placed statues. Costume wise, Dr. Phibes constantly switches between white robes to 20’s gentleman attire like it was nothing. Vulnavia displays different dresses frequently, but always seems to go back to this casual outfit that reminds me of the way Siouxsie Sioux looked in the video for The Passenger.
I would consider this film’s soundtrack to be just as important as its art design. From the operatic pieces that Dr. Phibes and his Clockwork Wizards play, to the soundtrack by ambient master Basil Kirchen, The Abominable Dr. Phibes impresses. This films’ influence on other artists is also something to bring up. Bands like The Misfits and The Damned have songs that reference Dr.Phibes himself. Not to mention Dr. Phibes & And The House of Wax Equations.
Pros: The unique design and music give the movie its own distinct style, something that I consider to be one of the most important parts of any creative work. The acting is great, it is enjoyable to route for Joseph Cotton and Detective Trout is strong enough to hold his own. This movie pulls off dark humor and a little British humor unexpectedly during the second half, but most of it is warranted and pretty funny.
Cons: Without revealing plot points, some of Dr. Phibes actions seem to contradict things that he has done in the past. They downright break the films’ rhythm and are distracting. Some of the attempts at humor hamper scenes that would have been very serious otherwise. While I do enjoy the acting in this movie, many of the victims seemed to overreact to the way they were being killed. Making certain scenes play out goofy and forced.
The release I own is an MGM Midnite Movies’ line double pack, so The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again! is on the same disc. I suggest this release because I believe that the sequel follows tightly after the original to the point that I started to watch it right after I finished watching the original. There is also another MGM release called the MGM Scream Legends Collection that included both films. Excluding a few inconsistencies, The Abominable Dr. Phibes has become one of my favorite films; I suggest checking it out.