With Vincent Price, it’s all about the dance; the way his voice dips and swoons regardless of partner, the wave of his hand signaling the start of a new song. A little dramatic and florid, yes; but an artist of his stature deserves all the sweeping fanfare bestowed upon him; and nothing makes me want to strike up the band more than The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), a gorgeously demented waltz for the ages.
Produced and released by American International Pictures stateside in May (and released by Anglo-EMI Film Distributors in the UK, where it was filmed), Phibes was a big hit with critics and audiences alike; and really, what was not to love? Wickedly funny and ghoulish, people were ready to be in on the joke like Price had been all along.
A black cloaked figure sits at a pipe organ, in an ornate mansion with marble floors surrounded by life size automated band members dubbed Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards. The figure winds the band and takes his assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)’s for a twirl around the floor before they leave the manor and drop off a giant covered bird cage through a prominent physician’s bedroom skylight. When he opens his eyes, he’s surrounded by bloodthirsty bats.
Enter Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey – Midnight Express) of Scotland Yard, who finds the case strange, indeed; even more mysterious for the Yard is the succession of bizarre deaths that occur, specifically to other practitioners of medicine – by frog (kind of), bloodletting, rats, cold, locusts, and other odd offings – who all have one thing in common: they failed to save the titular character’s (our black cloaked figure) wife during an operation. Trout tracks down the lead physician Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten – Lady Frankenstein), and together they try to stop Phibes’ malicious malpractice suit before he puts all the doctors out of business…
Price’s roles were usually informed with good humour, but especially in horror; even in pieces like his Poe Cycle with Roger Corman in the ‘60s, he never failed to embrace the absurd and utter grandness of the material. With The Abominable Dr. Phibes he had the chance to apply his grandeur to material that was a) tailored to his persona, and b) decidedly tongue in cheek. Phibes is most definitely a comedy, and a delightful one at that; I mean the tagline on the poster is “Love means never having to say you’re ugly.” This isn’t to say that it’s over the top and hammy, with Price mugging for the camera; but rather it adheres to the raised eyebrow and deadpan wit of so much British comedy. He couldn’t mug anyway; Phibes is horribly burned in a car accident on the way to his wife’s operation, and all that’s left is a grey visage without lips and ears (The Abominable Mr. Potato Head?), forcing him to speak through a gramophone attached to the side of his head.
Speaking in stop gag soliloquies, Price uses his fractured speech and entire body to convey Phibes’ anguish over the loss of his betrothed; whether arms flailing while pounding on the keys or a flourish of his cloak, he gives a very sympathetic performance even if he doth protest too much. (They really did everything they could to save her, Anton. Chill.) Jeffrey’s Trout is the perfect embodiment of disbelief and frustration, and if you dig ye olden British comedy, legend Terry-Thomas (The Vault of Horror) excels as a doctor with a predilection for nudie reels. The entire cast plays the dark comedy with the greatest of deadpan, and nary a smirk in sight.
The tone is crucial to Phibes working; too jokey and it comes off as silly farce, too grave and it would also look ridiculous. This middle ground is where the film lives and breathes. Director Robert Fuest (And Soon the Darkness) cranks the music up to the proper speed not only through the witty screenplay by James Whiton (Murder by Phone) and William Goldstein (The Amazing Dobermans), which is loaded with creative deaths, but in the lush, Art Deco set design of the ‘20s, an unusual setting for horror at the time. (AIP, Hammer, etc. were clawing their way to the modern era.) Fuest worked on several episodes of the hit British spy show The Avengers, and all The Abominable Dr. Phibes is lacking is a Steed and Peel to save the day; however in that setting Phibes would be considered the villain, whereas here he’s painted as a tragic antihero.
And so he is. Using the Plagues of Egypt to exact his revenge, Dr. Anton Phibes is not a medical doctor but rather holds degrees in Music and Theology (murder would probably be an easier field to find employment in), thus making him appear more humane to the audience than the cold hearted surgeons. The film has an amusing anachronistic streak to it that makes me love it even more; there are ten plagues according to the Quran, not nine, and for the life of me I can’t remember anyone being smote by unicorns. Phibes’ mix of lush orchestration by Basil Kirchin (The Shuttered Room), songs by Mendelsohn and Shelton Brooks, and the 1943 (!) standard One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) set the appropriate mood and give it a timeless one as well. (Let’s add Over the Rainbow to the mix too while we’re here.) It’s this tweaking of time that helps give the film its quirky feel.
So does the humour, ghoulish (and reasonably gruesome) liquidations, and bone-dry performances. But above all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes puts you in the hands of Mr. Price for a 94 minute spin around the ballroom that is as exhilarating as it is hilarious. When he asks you to dance, you should always accept.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is available on Blu-ray from Cinema Cult and as part of "The Vincent Price Collection (Vol 1)" from Scream FactoryNext: Drive-In Dust Offs: CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974)