The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Vincent Price stars alongside Joseph Cotten and Terry-Thomas in this darkly comic AIP horror film. MGM/Fox R1 DVD

The Film

AIP had transformed from a small sub-B-movie company in the late 1950s, to the producers of a highly respected series of Gothic and Poe-based horror films throughout the 1960s, mostly thanks to maverick director Roger Corman. However by the 1970s the traditional genre was dying out and companies like Hammer in Britain were desperately trying to update and alter their formula, often by adding comedy to their scripts, for better or worse. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a good example of this - a storyline that could have made for a standard horror film, instead being blended with a thick vein of dark comedy, in this case highly sucessfully.

In an expensive London house a doctor is killed by bats. Recalling a similar case the previous week involving bees, the police are baffled as to who is targeting these doctors and why. We see the killer, a mysterious organ playing figure (Vincent Price) who has to assemble his own face before heading out. Another doctor is killed by a frog's head mask and a fourth has all of his blood removed leading the police to become really concerned. They speak to a respected doctor named Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) who worked with all four dead men and he takes a look into his case book, discovering that he worked with all these men together on a single case, that of Victoria Phibes who died on the operating table while her husband was killed in a car crash while racing to be with her. The police start to suspect that he was not killed and that he is behind the murders so they begin a vain attempt to protect the other doctors involved in the case...

The script is a particularly strong element of the film, blending the horror aspects with a mix of light and dark comedy, although fortunately avoiding any unnecessary slapstick. Instead of making the killer's identity a mystery we know who it is from the start, but we have to wait for the police to find out the name of the killer and why he is doing it - an interesting twist on the giallo films that were just becoming popular in the early 1970s which usually relied heavily on the mystery around the killer to keep them moving.

The film flows well, with even the police proceedurals, usually a tedious element of horror scripts, working very well and being used to break-up the killing sequences with their own light humour. The deaths themselves are masterworks of ingenuity and form the highlight of the film, logic pretty quickly takes a back seat and the film leaves dozens of unanswered questions and contrivances but the story does manage to stay so comically over-the-top that these can be disregarded. Only the death of Nurse Allen seems to be too much - a big deal is made of how Phibes could never get into the hospital because of the heavy guard, but sure enough he makes it in and out unseen and we never find out how. The pacing starts off very quickly but slows down slightly with a few of the death scenes going on rather too long (particularly the Nurse Allen death again), fortunately the pace really picks up towards the ending and the film wraps up perfectly.

Robert Fuest does a simply superb job behind the camera giving the film the look of one far more sophisticated, while the death scenes are as well staged as they are written, with some effective and inventive special effects. The set design, particularly of Phibes house, is superb with the early 1920s atmosphere well captured and the musical soundtrack is used to particular effect throughout, particularly the light organ music that Phibes plays in many scenes - quite the contrast to what you would expect from the genre.

AIP's veteran Vincent Price was quite a regular in unusual villain roles but here gives a completely unique performance as the film's disfigured title character. Able to talk only via a remote speaker, Price still manages to give a particularly strong performance and you can really feel his hatred when he meets the doctors he blames for the death. Peter Cushing was originally to have been cast in the Dr. Vesalius role, but declined it because of his wife's illness and Joseph Cotten was cast instead - he gives a good performance and certainly convinces as being a surgeon with a suitably harsh edge to his character. British comedian Terry-Thomas gives a short but particularly memorable performance as one of the doomed victims and a variety of familiar faces crop up in the minor roles.

Well written, well produced and with a standout performance from Vincent Price, The Abomniable Dr. Phibes is a highly enjoyable film that is a must see for fans of Price and should appeal to all fans of the classic horror films of the 1960s and 70s.

In Brief
Anyone famous in it? Vincent Price - a horror icon who starred in a variety of horror films in the 1960s including The Raven (1963)
Joseph Cotten - a major Hollywood star in the 1930s/40s, he made a number of cult films during the early 70s.
Directed by anyone interesting? Robert Fuest - a British director who also helmed the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) and later when on to shoot the demonic American horror film Devil's Rain (1975)
Any gore or violence ? Some bloody shots, quite brief.
Any sex or nudity? None.
Is it scary? No, it never tries to be.
Who is it for? Certainly one for fans of Vincent Price and recommended to all classic horror fans.

See Also:
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) The sequel which follows on directly but never captures the magic of the first film.
Theatre of Blood (1973) Vincent Price stars in a British film that borrows heavily from the Phibes idea, using Shakespeare play themed killings, but with enough interest to avoid being a mere rip-off.

Visuals Original Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
The print is generally strong with good colours. Some minor print damage and noticable grain.
Audio English mono - sounds fine.
French and Spanish dub tracks.
Subtitles French and Spanish.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Original theatrical trailer.
Availability Available as a single disc, as a double-disc set with Dr. Phibes Rises Again and in the seven film Vincent Price Scream Legends Collection boxset.
Region Region 1 (USA, North America) - NTSC
Other regions? Also available in Europe with additional German and Italian audio tracks
Cuts? Fully uncut. English language print.



All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 5th April 2008.
Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

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