The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Revenge Old Testament Style
Written by David Carter
It is with a heavy heart that I must admit two of my weaknesses as a film lover and specifically horror lover. My ignorance of British horror movies and the big gaping holes I have in my Vincent Price views. I’m almost completely ignorant of the Hammer Horror films and when it comes to Price you can throw a pebble and easily hit something I haven’t seen. However, what I have seen tells me everything I need to know about the man. He was one of our finest actors and I don’t think anyone has come close to occupying the large operatic space he filled in the film world. He was of a breed of actors I like to call “Spooky Boys.” Horror icons with distinctive physical characteristics, voices and theatrical styles well suited for the macabre. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Agnus Scrimm, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff just to name a few Spooky Boys. What made Vincent Price stick out so much was that he had physical characteristics that walked a line between Clark Gable and Snidely Whiplash. He could be a tall dark and handsome hero, or conniving threatening menace. Also, his voice was unique, but not in the same way that other creepy icons’ voices were. It wasn’t deep and sonorous but nasally and slightly effeminate. If you didn’t know what Vincent Price looked like, you sure as hell knew what he sounded like. There have been countless impressions of the man’s cadence and tone and I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone on earth has probably heard him in the song “Thriller.”
So it only makes sense that one of his most classic films has him mute for a large portion of its runtime.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a romantically baroque slasher flick. One where the slasher is always three or four steps ahead of the detectives trying to bring him to justice. Everything, no matter how implausible or convoluted is planned out to the letter. Why shouldn’t it be? Dr. Phibes himself is essentially the Old Testament God. Wreaking divine and wrathful havoc on the ungrateful mortals who have wronged him, but I’m getting ahead myself.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is about Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price having so much fun), a mysteriously mute doctor, scientist, biblical scholar and I kid you not, one of the world’s greatest organists. A true renaissance man. Along with his mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North in what the movie says is her debut role but according to IMDB it’s her final screen credit), they perform visually and musically lavish routines for an audience of no one in a decked out art deco lair. The first 10 minutes of this movie is just Vulnavia dancing in extravagant costumes while Phibes lays into an organ (with some accompaniment from a Chuck E. Cheese-esque robot band). It’s disorienting but a wholly welcome tone the movie sets out the gate. However, the next thing we see is the murder of a man in his bedroom by way of bats. Another layer added to this hearty multi-layer dip of a movie. The murder is pretty gruesome and played to shock the audience member. This isn’t just a fun campy romp. Except for when it occasionally slips into being a Scooby Doo-like romp. Layers indeed.
We soon learn that Phibes is behind the murder of the man and murders that follow. The connection? All the victims are doctors and a nurse. Phibes’ ill wife Victoria was under the care of these doctors when she passed away. Phibes feels that these people were negligent and incompetent, so he decides to take his revenge on them in the only way he feels suitable: Using the theatricality of the biblical plagues of the Old Testament to murder his victims. Frogs, locust, beasts, hail and so on are put into full effect, and Phibes has some clever and truly inventive ways of employing these. The Abominable Dr. Phibes has some of the most inventive kills this side of the Friday the 13th franchise. But Inspector Trout (played by Peter Jeffrey, who looks like a computer’s too-perfect rendering of a British man from the 70’s) and the doctor most responsible for Victoria’s care, Dr. Vesalius (another Hollywood legend Joseph Cotton) try to bring Phibes to justice before he reaches the final two plagues: death of the firstborn and darkness.
This is a fool’s errand because while I won’t spoil the film for you, I’ll just tell you that Dr. Phibes cannot be got. The man makes the Jigsaw killer from the Saw movies look like a bush leaguer. Not only that, Phibes is hands-on in his murders. He wants you to know that you’ve been done in by the best. He takes pride (and in one delightful scene, glee) in his work. He puts the same time and passion into a murder as he does any of his luxurious compositions. Every drop of blood is just another leitmotif to Phibes.
Why shouldn’t he put in that amount of craft? He’s a creator after all. Using the plagues of Old Egypt is the perfect modus operandi for a narcissist of Phibes’ magnitude. He’s the all-seeing eye and no one will escape his grasp and wrath. He is so assured of his righteousness and so good at what he does that you as an audience member almost (or in my case definitely) begin to root for him. When it comes to murder the man is truly the God of revenge.
This is a film you should 100% seek out and watch. It’s the type of spooky film that horror hounds will love to add to their collections, while people who aren’t super into horror movies can get onboard with since there’s a fun macabre streak running through the movie and the deaths aren’t as gory by modern standards. There’s a sequel to this film called Dr. Phibes Rides Again also starring Vincent Price which sounds buck-wild when you consider how The Abominable Dr. Phibes ends.
Happy hauntings to all and to all ghoul night.