CULT CORNER: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Vincent Price delivers one of this most memorable performances in this pulpy cult classic. Richard gives it another look.

Who made it?: Robert Fuest (Director), James Whiton, William Goldstein (Writers), Louis M. Heyward, Ronald Dunas (Producers), American International Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North.

Tagline: “Revenge Is The Best Medicine.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

While the 1930s and 40s may have been the time of the Universal Horror monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, by the time the 1950s rolled around, those old classics were on their way out. But stepping into their place was perhaps one of my all-time favorite actors, Vincent Price, the prince of Horror. Price was, to put it mildly, pure class. While many may not know the name, his voice has become the stuff of legend as the spooky narrator to Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller.” With a degree in art history and being a gourmet cook, it’s kind of a wonder that Price ever ended up in film, especially the kind of ridiculous horror fare which became his staple. But, luckily for us, he did, and to make that point, I want to revisit one his classics, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

This movie is an absolute trip, making zero sense when viewed with even a modicum of logic. Price stars as the titular Dr. Phibes, a famous doctor and musician. After his wife dies in surgery and he crashes his car on the way to her side, leaving him horribly disfigured, he decides to take his revenge on the team of doctors he holds responsible by subjecting each in turn to one of the biblical plagues of Egypt. Is the film nearly as ridiculous as it sounds? We have barely even scratched the surface. To put it this way, the film opens with an organ solo followed by a dance number where the masked Phibes, dressed like the dark lord Liberace, dances around with his beautiful mute assistant Vulnavia, whose dress seems appropriate casual wear for a sacrifice to an Aztec Bird Deity. Providing the music are Dr. Phibe’s Clockwork Wizards, a fully-sized wind-up seven-man band with painted-on faces, their name written on the drum kit.

This is a 1950s-style “late night creature feature” fused with a late 60s psychedelia to make for a visual aesthetic unlike any other. Each murder becomes more and more ludicrous with an element of misplaced high drama. My personal favorite being the doctor who gets impaled on the horn of a brass unicorn head after being fired across the street by a catapult. Combine this with the many scenes cutting back to Phibes and Vulnavia prancing around his mansion like they’re in some silent Victorian melodrama, and watching this film becomes like a midgrade hallucination. You are pulled into Phibes’ world, a place of vibrant color, music and ritual. A world as strange and as unfamiliar to us as it appears to the increasingly desperate policemen, Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Sergeant Schenley (Norman Jones), attempting to solve these bizarre crimes and protect the doomed doctors.  

Price, known best for his distinctive voice, is never actually seen to speak. Phibes can only communicate, poetically, by plugging his neck into a phonograph-like device. Yet, somehow, under several layers of mask-like makeup, he still managers to give a strong performance, primarily through body language and his eyes. Trout and Waverly seem to be from a completely different and much more lighthearted crime caper judging by the jokes and occasional moments of morbid slapstick. Though appearing later in the film, the final confrontation takes place between Phibes and Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton). The finale is spectacular in its embrace of that unique Phibes’ aesthetic, and could easly be seen as an early precursor to the Saw movies.

The story here plays second fiddle to the overwhelming sense of style, and the less you worry about the reasoning behind how things work, the happier you’ll be. The one thing you should absolutely take on board, however, is the somewhat subversive yet silly sense of humour that runs throughout the whole film. I can’t believe for a second that anyone involved behind the scenes weren’t completely aware of how downright nutty the whole thing is, and yet everyone from actors to the costume makers seem to have put some honest effort into it. What I’m reminded of most is the psychedelic Giallo films that were coming out of Italy in the 60s, but with their overblown sense of the melodramatic replaced with camp pageantry.  

Inhabiting some strange subspace between horror, comedy, mystery and LCD trip, I would say The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the kind of film worth watching at least once. I would also recommend that once being in the presence of good friends and with access to some inexpensive liquor. Sometimes, you need a little bit of liquid courage before you can throw yourself into this particular kind of crazy, which seems to be the main thing anyone remembers about this movie. The moments of madness I’ve mentioned are but a small sampling of the treasures within, and this has always been one of my favourite films to foist on the uninitiated. Few films can create such an expression of fascinated wonder like seeing the flying disembodied head of a unicorn passing through the politely-opened doors of an English gentlemen’s club to stab a man in the heart.  

Best Scene

Best scene? How about watch the whole damn movie? Cheers, YouTube.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In order to gain more publicity this film was advertised as Vincent Price’s hundredth feature film.
  • Joseph Cotten would grumble on the set that he had to remember and deliver lines, while Price’s were all to be post-dubbed. Price responded, “Yes, but I still know them, Joe.” In fact, Price was well-known in Hollywood for his ability to memorise all of the characters’ lines in a given production, not just his own.
  • Peter Cushing was originally cast as Vesalius, but he declined because his wife was in poor health at the time.
  • Dr. Phibes’ first words are spoken thirty-two minutes into the movie.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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