Abominable Dr. Phibes, The (1971)
Release Date: May 18th, 1971 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Fuest Actors: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North, Peter Jeffrey, Derek Godfrey
he film begins with sensationally unnerving music (orchestral yet with twanging strings), which foreshadows the wicked events to come – without giving away too much. A dark, velvety-cloaked figure drives to his destination, a baroque old estate, wherein he lowers a cage full of bats from the skylight onto an unwitting victim (who is terrified of the creatures, even though they are a touch too cute to be truly horrific). Right in the heart of London, the man is shredded to death by the bats in his home – an outrageous murder scenario for Scotland Yard’s Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) to investigate (“Don’t take him out like that. At least cover his face up … what’s left of it”). And this occurrence follows that of a man in the medical profession who died from a swarm of angry bees in his library (which is spoken about but, sadly, not shown).
It’s the work of the diabolical Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price), who is slowly taking revenge against a collection of doctors who severely wronged him. A third victim, Dr. Hargreaves (Alex Scott), is executed by a particularly devilish contraption: a frog’s head mask that tightens around the wearer’s neck until decapitation. Next is Dr. Longstreet (Terry-Thomas), who is carefully drained of all his blood (while Phibes’ fashionable female companion sternly strokes a white violin). But when Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) becomes the next likely target, a connection between all the mysteriously executed surgeons is finally formulated (aided by an accidentally dropped amulet), bringing the police a step closer to their man.
A Grand Guignol conceptualization if ever there was one (bursting with ominous organ music, a black-clad antagonist, eagle taxidermy, a masquerade ball, stuffed human puppets rigged into elaborate music-playing contraptions, and spacious mansions adorned with dead trees and trap-doors and ornate chandeliers), “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” certainly lives up to its name. Mixing in Old Testament biblical concepts (specifically with the curses of the pharaohs, whose order sets up further hints at looming atrocities), bloodthirsty comeuppance, allusions to hauntings or a return from the dead, and unholy condemnation, the picture is wonderfully dark, cruel, devious – and highly entertaining. Despite not being able to exhibit the visual ghastliness of more modern movies (the effects are nonetheless sufficient), the violence and mutilation is undeniably a source of inspiration for the slasher subgenre of the ’80s and ’90s, as well as the torture-porn deviation of the 2000s (perhaps most notably beginning with “Saw”).
The villain is the star here (strangely comparable to Fu Manchu), with Price turning in a singular performance as a speechless, pasty-faced ghoul who unfeelingly torments his marks in perversely poetic avengements. Like many of the early endeavors about serial-killing madmen, there’s a woman involved, though in this tale she’s an emotionless accomplice (Virginia North), complicit in the slayings in both their planning and execution – and to make them more memorable by administering ambient string music. To further complement the duo’s evil deeds, a couple of scenes of stark humor make an appearance, weaving death with comical predicaments or sleuthing with interruptions from stuffy superiors. Unintentional laughs also crop up, such as when Phibes infiltrates a hospital in the most conspicuous of manners, or when he pours Brussels sprouts juice all over the face of a sleeping woman – who remains inexplicably unconscious. And, by the end, there are far more questions than answers. Still, the climax is so dementedly intriguing and morbidly satisfying, perfectly bringing together all the inventive weirdness before it, that it boldly caps off an unforgettable masterwork of the macabre.
– Mike Massie