One of my minor regrets about last Halloween season was that I didn’t manage to get any Vincent Price in, as I had intended to do. I’m rectifying that this year, with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a 1971 film directed by Robert Fuest. Price stars in the title role; it’s a normal role for him in that it’s a highly intelligent villain, but at the same time it has a distinct irregularity. Dr. Phibes is, aside from the occasional assistance from a machine, mute: Price has to do most of his acting without the benefit of his voice, and even during the few scenes where he does get the chance to monologue, it has to be dubbed in afterward, as his character cannot move his lips due to a traumatic accident.
And even under that restriction, Price still manages to ham it up.
The makeup that Price is under is a bit ghastly, but it’s meant to be; Dr. Phibes was burned and disfigured in a car accident as he raced home to try and be by his wife’s side as she was rushed into a hospital for emergency surgery. She didn’t make it through, and now, in 1925, Dr. Phibes seeks revenge against the nine surgeons who failed to save her life. He takes his cue from the ten Biblical plagues of Egypt, with a few substitutions (the film identifies bats and rats as among the plagues instead of the plagues of flies and gnats that are actually in the Bible; presumably this is to keep things visually interesting.)
Unfortunately for the doctors, it would be several decades until Morgan Freeman took up crime-solving.
The movie is just a little tongue-in-cheek (the “plague of beasts” murder is hilarious), with Price at his hammy best and the chief investigator, Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) constantly a step behind and dealing with superiors who won’t even bother to get his name right. But the plot plays out well as a serious story of a mad serial killer who chooses a particular motif to his killings. It’s not a mystery; we know who the killer is from the title, after all. But it does have elements of a thriller to it, as well as horror in the murders themselves (which are quite inventive.)
There are some interesting side-roles aside from Price. Jeffrey is good as the not-quite-bumbling but still out-of-his-league Inspector Trout. He comes across as a traditional London policeman, faced with a string of killings that go beyond the ordinary. Joseph Cotten plays Dr. Vesalius, the head of the team of surgeons, who helps Trout to figure out who is behind the killings and what his next move will be. Phibes has his own assistant in the form of Virginia North as Vulnavia, a quiet but beautiful woman; one weakness of the film is that it’s never clear exactly what her connection to Phibes is (despite some posters for the movie, it’s not a romantic relationship, and Phibes is still devoted to his late wife.) Terry-Thomas’s role as victim Dr. Longstreet is minor, but memorable for a bit of a comedic turn until it’s his time to go. Similarly the Goldsmith played by Aubrey Woods is a lot of fun to watch.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes may not be the “most terrifying picture ever made” as its marketing proclaimed it to be; in fact, it’s not really all that scary at all unless it happens to trigger an audience member’s phobia. But as a game of criminal cat-and-mouse it holds up very well. Dr. Phibes is an interesting and entertaining villain, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an entertaining film.