Cinema and literature has had a long love affair with revenge stories. Whether it is just an act of wish fulfillment or a deep seated thirst for justice, the public keeps coming back for them. Some tales put us on the side of the one getting vengeance, while others, we realize that the person exacting revenge is in the wrong or has taken it too far. 1971’s THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is of the latter.
Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price) is a rather interesting character, which you should expect from a doctor of theology, trained organist, and who also is supposedly dead. He’s plotted vengeance on a group of 9 doctors, led by Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), that operated on his wife, an operation that she didn’t survive. He died in a horrible car wreck after hearing of his wife’s passing, but he’s back from the dead to carry out his wrath.
The film starts off quickly by having having two of the doctors killed on screen within the first 15 minutes, and another off screen as well. All of this is done in a silent manner by our dastardly doctor with help from his beautiful assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North). The two go about their deeds in an almost emotionless way, only showing glee later on.
The movie is labeled as a horror and a comedy, with most of the comedic aspects surrounding the Scotland Yard detectives investigating the deaths. Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is constantly referred to as all sorts of fish, as well as having to constantly correct his superiors, humorously so. And while he is a good investigator, he is quite rusty on his people skills as his interviews with witnesses are always awkward, much to lighten the mood of the film.
The deaths are all themed after the 10 Plagues of Egypt. For those not familiar with the story leading up to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the Plagues were inflicted upon Egypt’s people to convince the Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people. There was the curse of boils, bats, frog, blood, rats, hail, beasts, locusts, the curse of the first born, and then finally of darkness. The Pharaoh released the Israelites after the curse of darkness. Our dear doctor has been knocking off those he feels responsible for his wife’s death by enacting a wrath similar to that of the Hebrew God. The way that the murders are carried out are a precursor to the slasher craze that took place in the early 80’s, but it definitely holds up with them. As well, some of the more intricate deaths appear to have influenced the SAW movie series. My only complaints about the film are with 2 of the deaths involving bats and rats. The animals involved appear to be loving on their victims, rather than attacking them.
The soundtrack has a great selection of films that were both contemporary as well as including classical organ music. The songs add a sense of dread, as well as lightening the mood when needed. Dr. Phibes and his clockwork band of musicians are a unique way of keeping the music as an important point of the story, not just to be used in the background.
As we see the 9 doctors being picked off, we realize that the deceased Victoria Phibes probably would have passed even earlier had it not been for their efforts, as any medical procedure that requires 9 involved individuals to be a severe one. The misguided Phibes still feels the need to carry out his retribution, which makes the audience hope that Trout and Dr Vesalius are able to stop him all the more.
Overall, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is an enjoyable horror film filled with quite a few laughs mixed in with some gruesome death scenes. Vincent Price is a treat to watch in his mostly silent portrayal as he is very animated throughout.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is currently available on VUDU for rental as well as playing on the MGM channel with the fun sequel, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN. Also, both films are available for purchase on Amazon.
Photo credit: http://chadoconnell.deviantart.com/art/Silicone-Vincent-Price-Phibes-212755110