THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
A Reassessment File by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
Years ago, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) came up in every conversation I had with a horror fan. Recommendations for this film came hot and heavy, accompanied with expressions of awe and delight and wonder at the movie’s originality and effectiveness. It didn’t take long for me to decide to give it a shot.
What had I thought I was waiting for? The creep factor for this one is as far off the charts as the eccentricity. I gave it four knives, with the promise that I’d reassess it again later on.
So… we open with… a cavernous room reverberating with sinister music. At the far end, up on a stage, a dark figure and the organ he is playing rises, as if on an elevator. Flanking the stage, clockwork figures with white-gloved hands and big happy faces play instruments. The cloaked figure comes to conduct them while a woman in a lavish white dress enters the room. She and the cloaked figure dance. The couple lowers a freaky covered birdcage into an automobile. The woman gets behind the wheel, while the cloaked figure climbs in the back. The window rolls up to reveal the painted face of Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price, who I shouldn’t need to familiarize you with because the man’s an icon with 201 credits listed on IMDb, but here are some of the best: THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES, 1940, HOUSE OF WAX, 1953, THE FLY, 1958, HOUSE OF USHER, 1960, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, 1961, and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, 1990,).
A man slumbers in his bedchamber. Above him, the skylight opens, and the freaky covered birdcage is lowered. We see the cloaked figure pull the empty birdcage cover up, then the birdcage. Now, though, the bottom is open and the cage is empty. Quietly, the cloaked figure closes the skylight. Seconds later, the sleeping man wakes, disturbed by small, out-of-place noises in the room. He sees shadows at first, hears chittering, and then the bats swarm his bed. Now there’s a close-up of a bass drum with the words Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards printed on it. The cloaked figure is again playing the organ, and the clockwork figures accompany him happily.
The next morning, two Inspectors, Trout (Peter Jeffrey, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, 1978 and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, 1988) and Crow (Derek Godfrey, HANDS OF THE RIPPER, 1971), investigate the bedchamber of the sleeping man. He is bloodied and dead. When they discover he’s a doctor, Crow wonders if this could be related to the case of another doctor who died earlier, stung by so many bees it looked like he died from boils. Trout is flummoxed. Meanwhile, back in another part of the city, the cloaked figure selects a fake nose and ears, applies them to a face we can’t see, and then pulls on a wig. We see Doctor Phibes’ face as he plays his organ again, and the elevator raises him into the cavernous room. We wonder what he’s up to now.
A costume party. A doctor arrives, wrestles out of his coat, and claims he wasn’t told it would be a masked affair. He is then waved toward the back of the room, where a man is handing out masks. The doctor approaches, talking a mile a minute, while we recognize Dr. Phibes behind his vulture mask. The new doctor is too busy talking about himself to notice that the masked man doesn’t speak. He turns so the vulture can pull a large frog mask over him. With a deft flick of his fingers, Phibes switches a toggle at the base of the mask, which starts the gears tightening incrementally and inexorably. The doctor begins to party, but it’s not long at all before he realizes something is wrong. He puts on quite a show as the mask strangles him, finally collapsing down a huge staircase and landing sprawled at the partiers’ feet.
Inspector Trout tries to get help from his superiors. The only thing they care about is keeping him from letting the papers get ahold of the story in this election year. When Trout insists that the strangeness of the deaths must mean the cases are connected, his boss waves him off. “Very strange people practice medicine these days,” he says.
Dr. Longstreet (Terry-Thomas, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, 1963 and HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE, 1965) gets a new 8mm film in the mail. He cannot wait until his housekeeper leaves for the night. When she finally does, he sets up a screen in his study and practically drools while watching a brunette dancing with a snake and putting its head in her mouth. In a single distracted instant, the screen disappears and Dr. Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, 1969, and DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, 1967) has taken its place. Longstreet is so stunned by her appearance and her beauty that he allows her to push him into a chair and tie him to it. As soon as he is incapacitated, Dr. Phibes enters the room, carrying a medical bag and eight empty quart bottles.
By the time Longstreet’s exsanguinated body is discovered, his blood now filling the bottles lined ever-so-neatly along the mantle, Crow has completed scads of research and presents Trout with a name linking all the dead doctors. At one time they all worked for a Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton, CITIZEN KANE, 1941, and THE THIRD MAN, 1949). The Inspectors go to the pay the man a visit, and find him sitting on his living room floor, playing with a train set.
There is an awful lot going on in this movie, and parts of it are left to the viewer to figure out for him or herself. It manages to stay creepy and unsettling despite its intense eccentricity. My summary has barely scratched the surface. I’ve said nothing about the ten plagues of Egypt, the backstory of Dr. Phibes, or the genius way that Phibes, who cannot speak, has invented a way to plug his vocal cords directly into a Victrola, which then creates his voice through its megaphone.
The legendary Vincent Price stars in the film and yet never speaks a single word on screen. His acting is incredible. He emotes, acting with his facial expressions and body language, through the entire thing, without going overboard. Well… okay. Without going WAY overboard.
His assistant, Vulnavia, has no lines either, and she’s just as memorable. Could she be a more intricate clockwork figure of Phibes’ creation? A reanimated corpse summoned to do his bidding? A family member sworn to his side? We’re never told, and despite our questions, when the final credits roll, we realize that we don’t really want to know. A film like this should leave unanswered questions.
Director Robert Fuest (THE DEVIL’S RAIN, 1975), presents Dr. Phibes, with his speaking Victrola, his clockwork accompanyists, and his intricate deathtraps, with grave seriousness throughout the movie. There’s nothing funny about the man, his ways, his goals. Instead, we get the comic relief from the place least expected, from the bumbling Inspectors Trout and Crow, who can’t get a handle on what’s happening, even when it goes on right under their noses.
The first time I saw THE ABONIMABLE DR. PHIBES, it lived up to the hype and then some. This time, it lived up to my memory completely. Nothing jolted me from the strange narrative. The only thing that possibly could have were that the bats in the opening scene were not vampire bats. Vampire bats are too small to generate the fear the director wanted. Instead, he used fruit bats, which are much larger and look more threatening, but they’re harmless to humans. Certainly not blood drinkers.
I had such a good time with this one that I think very soon I’ll reassess writers James Whiton and William Goldstein’s second chapter in the Phibes canon, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN! (1972)
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES original assessment: four knives
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES reassessment: five knives
© Copyright 2017 by Paul McMahon