director Robert Fuest
Earlier this year, I decided that it was important for my kids to know who Vincent Price was. And as October/Halloween is always our annual horror film fest (of sorts), what better time than now to explore some more of the great Mr. Price’s films?
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an odd film and perhaps an odd film to choose to watch with the kids but when I was a kid, I had a board game called “Creature Features” which was like Monopoly but you bought “classic” monster movies and instead of houses and hotels, you got the stars of those films. And while most of the films were true classics, like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), or The Wolf-Man (1941), The Abominable Dr. Phibes was on there too. And it took a long time for me to finally see it.
It’s odd because it isn’t part of any “classic” pantheon, and it’s odd because it’s just plain odd. It’s a revenge film. Dr. Phibes cleverly murders his wife’s 9 (or 10) doctors who failed to save her life. What’s “clever” about these murders is that they play out via the 10 plagues of Egypt: boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, rats, beasts, locusts, the death of the first born, and ultimately darkness. And Rube Goldberg or even MacGyver would be impressed with his lugubrious means to his end.
Phibes himself is odd. Vincent Price appears in an odd wig, and is only able to speak by plugging a cord into the side of his neck, booming out on a Victrola. He has a beautiful mute assistant and a bizarrely Art Deco home fitted with life-sized automatons who perform music. It’s only revealed in the very end that his human face hides a mucky skeletal head, the result of an automobile accident (in which he was thought to have died).
There is a very camp sensibility in the film. Not just the absurdities, but even Scotland Yard officers on the case are portrayed as comically bumbling buffoons. Joseph Cotton is the other big name in the cast, the main doctor on Mrs. Phibes’ case. He’s the only one who plays the whole thing “straight”.
And the other funny thing is that Phibes isn’t entirely justified in his scheme. It’s not clear that the doctors did anything wrong, that they had any power to keep her alive. But it’s with Phibes that the audience is set to identify. And while some of his schemes are gruesome, they are also clever and kind of fun.
The film was a minor success in its day and led to a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), which we watched right after. It also, I believe, inspired another Vincent Price film that I remember liking called Theater of Blood (1973) in which Price plays an actor who kills his critics according to the seven deadly sins.
The kids enjoyed the film. As did I. It’s not really scary. More funny. And fun.