The Abominable Dr. Phibes made its mark 50 years ago with a tone, central performance and visual flair just as decadent as its exceptional title. Tracking the bloody revenge of its endearingly camp puppetmaster, horror/comedy Phibes helped The Phantom of the Opera’s brooding, tragic, organ-playing monster-man translate to the extravagant early ‘70s and in doing so, laid the groundwork for it to evolve yet again with the mid-’70s Phantom of the Paradise. But as our Jim Vorel so rightly said, “When it came to grandiose revenge, nobody did it quite like Vincent Price.”
Directed by former art director/production designer Robert Fuest, who got the gig after helming a Wuthering Heights adaptation starring Timothy Dalton that was described as having “the unfortunate physical appearance of a vampire tale,” The Abominable Dr. Phibes leans into that heightened melodramatic aesthetic. Emily Brontë, meet Vincent Price.
The 1971 film sees Price four decades into his legendarily spooky career, playing a theatrical, voice-modulated killer whose ideology is completely warped and whose murders are often hilariously elaborate. If that sounds a bit like our irony-loving friend Jigsaw, back in the news thanks to Spiral, you’re not off base: Dr. Phibes seems to have directly inspired the first Saw. Remember when Amanda Young had to extract a key from a sedated cellmate’s torso? Here, the last doctor on Phibes’ shitlist surgically removes a key from the ribs of his own son in order to save him from certain death.
Phibes’ plan isn’t limited to “wanna play a game”-like constructions. In fact, it’s far more ambitious and fitting with the designs of his own lair: Over-the-top, lavish and utterly surreal. The killer looks to inflict Exodus’ ten plagues upon the medical professionals that failed to save his wife during surgery. That means everything from hail (flash-freezing a man with some kind of Batman villain cold machine) to frogs (crushing a man’s skull with an amphibious mask at a masquerade)—all done with the subtlety of a Lady Gaga performance. To our delight and, occasionally, that of the unapologetically bumbling cops (Peter Jeffrey and Norman Jones are both hilarious) on Phibes’ trail, these murders escalate not only in their display of divine power but in pure hedonism. “Beasts” is kind of a vague plague. What do Phibes and Fuest do? Catapult a brass unicorn head through a victim, who must then be unscrewed from the wall.
Macabre humor abounds in the film, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely silly or even that it avoids being unsettling with its lush design. That’s a hallmark of Price, whose commitment to his performance allows for a dreamy collision of emotional detail that just doesn’t exist in real life. His theatrical line readings, played back with tinny uncanniness because Phibes can only speak through a metal cable and phonograph horns, are flowery and cruel—made all the more unnerving by how Price undulates his neck and chin without moving his mouth. When he drinks a cocktail by pouring it…somewhere…behind his neck, it’s both a great gag and an image that’ll nag at you for the rest of the film. Throughout it all, perverse pleasure and fiery hate play across Price’s eyes, and his rubbery makeup gives us a spin on the mask-wearing Phantom that continues to haunt modern horror.
The midnight madness look of Phibes’ domain isn’t limited to his face, though. His home is palatial, resplendent with mirrors and golds, furs and tapestries. He and his excellently named assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) dance under chandeliers and near organ-activated elevators, all set to music played by his own in-house band, Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards, a group of robo-musicians with inflatable heads that all look disconcertingly like Frank’s title character. The pair wear flowing robes, sheer shirts, ostentatious papakhas and elaborate headdresses. Even the axe Vulnavia eventually wields is solid gold.
This is all contrasted with the visceral, down-and-dirty cheapness of some of the complicated kills’ animalistic details: Rats crawling all over a pilot and his cockpit, midair; a sleeping man awakened to a handful of bats squirming up his prone body; locusts picking over a cleaned-out skull. Phibes sometimes watches these kills play out, putting him on the same voyeuristic level as us and loving every minute of it. It’s hard not to get caught up in his glee, unabashedly evil—hey, they tried to save his wife—and with a supervillain’s flair for the convoluted. Even when things don’t entirely go according to plan, Phibes still wins the day against the explicitly comic police battalion. Fuest’s film declares victory for the garish stylist over the squares, leaving the conservative do-gooders literally stumbling around in the dark trying to make sense of it all while its orchestrator rides off into the morbid, florid hereafter.
While the film spawned a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, a year later, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is best taken as a singular work of weirdness. Each scene contains an off-the-wall choice or impressively executed detail (I didn’t even mention Aubrey Woods’ scene-stealingly weird jeweler or that the ending song is “Over the Rainbow”) that are the true draws of an enduring B-movie. Lovely to look at and still a hoot to watch half a century after its release, the film is one of Vincent Price’s most odd and charming affairs—leaving audiences to walk away with good Phibes only.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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