Necromantic Cinémathèque #3: The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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The name Vincent Price is a name that will forever be linked to the horror genre, very similar to how the names Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff are. From 1953 until 1990, no other actor better personified the very essence of what a horror leader man should be. While his incedible career was captured in such films HOUSE OF WAX (1953), THE FLY (1958), PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990), the true pinnacle of his career very well may have been in Director Robert Fuest’s (DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972), THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975)) 1971 cult-classic THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES. “In a desperate attempt to reach his ill wife, organist Anton Phibes is horrifically disfigured in a car accident and presumed dead. When he learns that his wife died during an operation, Phibes blames her surgeons and plots an elaborate revenge to punish them for their incompetence. With the help of a mute assistant , Phibes creates a mask resembling his own face and murders the surgeons one by one using bizarre methods inspired by the biblical plagues”, which certainly leads to horrific ends to all that befall him and sets the stage for many genre films to come…

Gothic horror and physcial prescence have always been a staple to the characters that Price has played, but very few ever managed to have the gravity that Phibes did. Even while adding in his meglomaniacal performances as the scientist in THE FLY and RETURN OF THE FLY (both 1959) and his cruel nature in THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968), the sheer coldness and almost hapless indifference in which he goes about exacting his revenge on the people he believes are responsible for his wife’s death shows a level of depth to his acting that rarely surfaced. All of his lines are dubbed in afterwards (as his character has lost his speech), and while many actors may find this kind of limitation taxing, Price does a fantastic job of communicating his rage with facial expressions and eye movement. The bone chilling way that Phibes “speaks” through his musical devices is unique and further deepens the character. Furthermore, the intelligence of the character is never in doubt due to the incredible mechanical band that Phibes has built to try and give his life some sort of normalacy. Through the course of the movie, you are never really sure if you feel sorry for him or if you should condem him for his actions…

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Aside from the fact that Phibes is an interesting character study and makes you question the lengths that one would go to to avenge a percieved wrong, there is plenty from a technical standpoint to like in this film. First of all, the film boasts incredible locations and is flush with color. Granted the film is suppossed to take place in the 1920’s (and you certainly get a fair shake of 1970’s decor and color scheme as well) but it certainly nails the time frame right both ic clothing and technology. On top of that, the plot is unique for its time and is quite ingenious. While threats of religous world ending events have been used for years in film, Price manages to inject a certain level of panache to his diabolical plot and makes each scenario bold and daring. Considering that bats, frogs, locusts, blood, bees and even a brass unicorn head are used to off the victims in stunning complex ways, even to the point that over the last several years, many fans and critics have pointed out similarities to modern horror films such as SAW (2004). Add to that fact the soundtack to the film and the music that Phibes plays on his organ are just as haunting…

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While Price certainly blows the doors off of this movie with his depiction of Phibes, he did have a great cast to work with. Joseph Cotten (CITIZEN KANE (1941), HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971)), Terry Thomas (MUNSTER, GO HOME! (1966), THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973), THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1978)), Virginia North (THE LONG DUEL (1967), SOME GIRLS DO (1969), ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)), Peter Jeffrey (COUNTESS DRACULA (1971), DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)), Derek Godfrey (THE VENGEANCE OF SHE (1968), HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971)) and an uncredited Caroline Munro (DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972), MANIAC (1980), FLESH FOR THE BEAST (2003) round out the acting talent, and let us not forget Special FX artist George Blackwell (CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957), THE MASQUE OF RED DEATH (1964), ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)). Of course, without Samuel Z. Arkoff (A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959), BLACK SUNDAY (1960), THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979)) as the producer, we may never have seen this cult-classic…

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In the booklet that was included in Scream factory’s 2013 VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION VOL. 1 Author David Del Valle, Caroline Munro recalled this about filming THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES: “I loved working with Vincent even though I had no dialogue and had to remain motionless in a glass coffin. Vincent would go out of his way to keep me from feeling closed in, as we were filming in very confined space to say the least. Vincent could carry on a conversation with anyone on any subject. He was wonderful to know. I wish we could have made more films together.” Also of note, the film was promoted as Price’s 100 th film (which it was not), but it helped to draw attention to the film and is often considered to be one of his all time best performances…

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FUN FACT: In the script Phibes was abusive to Vulnavia, eventually stabbing her to death, and then escape his house (which was to catch fire) in a hot air balloon with Victoria's body. It was decided to make Phibes a more sympathetic character, so these sequences were removed. Certainly an interesting departure from the script. It certainly felt like that there were times that ther was more to Phibes and Vulnavia’s relatioship…

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