Have you ever watched a movie you haven’t seen in a while and thought to yourself, damn I forgot how great this movie is? That is how I felt after re-watching “The Abominable Dr. Phibes,” one of the best horror films from the 1970’s and one that deserves more love and attention.
I would describe Dr. Phibes as a slasher-romance with interesting style choices. I haven’t seen a film quite like Dr. Phibes and I don’t know if I will again. It is one of the most unique and original visions in the history of horror cinema. You probably couldn’t make a film like this today.
Vincent Price plays the title character, a doctor of music/theology and a man out for revenge. His wife was killed during an operation and he blames it on the incompetence of the surgical team. He and his assistant Vulnavia (Victoria North) start to pick off the 9 members of the surgical team. These murders eventually catch the attention of law enforcement and soon Detective Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffery) is put on the case.
Writers James Whiton/William Goldstein and director Robert Fuest clearly wanted to create something fresh and they succeeded. What’s most impressive about the film is how they make everything believable. As I mentioned earlier there are some interesting style choices. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker these might have come out as hokey or campy but in these filmmakers hands it adds to the experience of viewing the film.
For example, the film is essentially a slasher. However, Phibes doesn’t murder his victims with weapons. He has an elaborate scheme based around the ten plagues of Egypt found in the book of Exodus. You might be wandering how can he murder someone with frogs or boils or beasts. I won’t spoil as that is the fun of this movie. There is no explanation as to why Phibes has such an elaborate plan but it isn’t necessary.
The romance works surprisingly well. It adds a lot of depth to the character of Phibes. Yes he is committing these horrible acts of murder but you manage to feel some sympathy for the character as he is doing this out of love. When Phibes is speaking to his wife the writing and performance from Price are so strong that you really feel the love and dedication for his wife. The tagline on the original poster was “Love Means Never Having To Say Your Ugly” which is a parody of the quote form “Love Story.” Just in case you were wondering there is no relationship with Phibes and Vulnavia, their relationship is strictly professional.
There is also a subtle sense of humor. Most of it comes from the interactions with Trout and other members of Scotland Yard. This works because the dialogue is fresh and sounds natural. Even silly moments such as Price and North waltzing around in their hideout or Phibes conducting his clockwork band comes across as natural. Everything that happens comes across as believable and as something a character would do.
Price’s performance deserves praise. This is one of his more versatile performances. Price was known for his distinct voice and in this movie he is mute for most of it. In the story Phibes was left mute after a car accident so he can only speak if he is plugged into his organ (yes he has an organ) or victrola. As such this movie has the feel of a silent film and Price pulls off the silent film style of acting well. His facial expressions communicate everything.
The phrase Hidden Horror does not do “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” justice. This is one of the most unique horror films out there and I highly recommend it. Perhaps the stylistic choices won’t appeal to all people but for those who can get into it you will find one of the best directed, sharply written and original horror films ever made.