100 Film Favorites – #46: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
(Robert Fuest, 1971)
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep up with the trend of one post hinting at / leading into the next, or whether that spoiled the surprise too much. I’ll probably phase it out and/or forget about it before too long. At any rate, while yesterday’s selection begins with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” today’s film ends with it.
If you’ve been following the Brian Terrill Movie Night page for any length of time, I feel like I may have already talked your ears off about this one. The Abominable Dr. Phibes was shown, along with the railroad safety short “The Finishing Line,” at a Brian Terrill Movie Night last October. That same month, it was also featured in the “Creepy Classics Countdown.” So basically, if you’ve been following along since October you probably know this movie backwards and forwards. If that’s the case, you can stop reading here. I won’t know. But if I ever find out, I’ll incinerate your head from the inside out with my mind-lasers.
Probably better just to press on.
The film follows the mysterious Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) as he commits a series of grisly murders, themed around the 10 biblical Plagues of Egypt. Phibes, once a renowned concert organist, was hideously disfigured (and supposedly killed) in a car accident which also injured his wife, who later died on the operating table. Holding the doctors who performed the operation responsible for her death, Phibes eliminates them one by one. As for why he settled on the whole Exodus plague thing, that’s anybody’s guess. Gotta theme your murders around something, I suppose.
We also follow Inspector Trout, the officer Scotland Yard has assigned to investigate the murder spree (“Phibes,” along with other Vincent Price films of the era, was filmed in the U.K.). Trout shares the (in)convenient lateness which seems epidemic among policemen of this subgenre: he arrives just in time to discover the serial killer’s handiwork, but always too late to catch him in the act. But that’s just as well. If he were more punctual, we’d miss out on seeing doctors eaten by locusts, perishing in plane crashes triggered by sudden rat attacks, and made into human popsicles (the “plague of hail”).
As in the bible, Phibes’ penultimate “plague” is the Death of the First-Born. Phibes abducts the son of Dr. Vesalius (the last surviving doctor, and the head surgeon on Phibes’ wife) and chains the boy to an operating table beneath his mansion. Vesalius arrives, and Phibes reveals, in a scene which MUST have influenced the makers of Saw, that he has sewn the key to unlock the chains inside the boy’s chest cavity. Vesalius must operate quickly and skillfully to remove the key within six minutes, or else a vat of acid concealed in the ceiling will dump its contents over the boy’s body.
With his magnum opus underway, Phibes and his lovely assistant Vulnavia set about destroying the mansion. At the last moment, Vesalius succeeds in freeing his son. Inspector Trout arrives, and he and Vesalius search the crumbling house for Phibes. We as viewers learn that Phibes’ final plague, Darkness, is intended for himself: Inserting an I.V. filled with embalming fluid into his arm, Phibes joins his wife in a secret crypt in the cellar. The tomb glides shut and sinks into the floor, just as Trout rounds the corner. Trout and Vesalius are unable to find the disappearing doc, but agree that they haven’t seen the last of the abominable Dr. Phibes.
Then, ending credits roll over an image of Phibes’ tomb, while a brassy, fanfare rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays.
As I mentioned in the original October post, and the entry for Se7en in this Countdown, I’m a sucker for “serial killer themes his crimes around items on an historically-significant list” movies. This niche subgenre includes films such as Se7en, Theatre of Blood (also starring Vincent Price), and the two Dr. Phibes films. That’s right. Two. Despite wrapping up his revenge scheme (not to mention actually DYING) in the first film, the good doctor returned to commit some more Egypt-themed homicide in 1972’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of the few films to really pull off the delicate balance between horror and comedy. When it’s scary it’s pretty scary: The murders are fairly gruesome, and the scene in which the “Plague of Frogs” victim has his skull slowly crushed by a constricting frog mask at a masquerade ball still gives me chills.
But dark, and even zany, humor is liberally sprinkled throughout the movie. From the manic, showy way Phibes plays his neon organ at the opening of the film, to people always forgetting Trout’s name (substituting various fish), to one of Phibes’ victims attempting to covertly watch “porn” projected on a bedsheet (a difficult proposition when you need to crank the projector by hand), the film is replete with quirky gags at every turn. For instance, to accommodate his various disfigurements, Phibes must speak by plugging a photograph into a jack in his throat, and drink by pouring martinis into a hole in the back of his head.
The set and art designers deserve major kudos, too. Set in the 20s, the film is full of jazz age opulence and an art deco aesthetic, which is especially apparent in Phibes’ extravagant mansion. Phibes even has a mechanical band called “The Clockwork Wizards,” composed of life-sized “tin toy” automatons, to serenade him.
All in all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an offbeat film which deserves to be better known than it is. Its kitschy mix of horror and comedy make it memorable, and it’s hard to go wrong with master of the macabre Vincent Price in a leading role. My grandfather introduced me to this film years ago, and it was one of his favorites. I committed his ashes to the deep a few years back, but sharing this movie is one small way of keeping his memory alive. Here’s to you, Grandpa. Hope you’re somewhere over the rainbow.