Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of The Abominable Dr Phibes.
Vincent Price was once just a jobbing actor who had worked with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre company and appeared in such popular films as Laura, The Song Of Bernadette and The Ten Commandments as well as occasional horror movies such as House of Wax. That was before William Castle cast him in House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler, two efficient horror films which set Price on the road to becoming a horror legend. By 1970, Price was well established in the genre, having appeared in many of Roger Corman’s distinguished Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and given a stunning performance in the British made Witchfinder General. However, his transformation into an icon – of both horror and camp – was set in stone by his appearance in AIP’s The Abominable Dr Phibes. In retrospect, this looks like a lugubrious mixture of horror, sentimentality and camp humour, but it was a huge success and was extremely influential. It’s also possible that it set the seal on any lingering ambitions Price may have had to be a serious actor, but if he found this frustrating he certainly didn’t let it affect his workload.
It is 1929 and Dr Anton Phibes (Price) is a man with a mission. Mourning the death of his wife on the operating table, he decides to punish the doctors and nurse who tried to save her by killing them in various elaborate ways. These death traps are inspired by the ten plagues sent upon Egypt as described in the book of Exodus. Although initially baffled, the police – led by the redoubtable Inspector Trout (Jeffrey) – manage to link the initial victims together and seek advice from the man they all worked for, Dr Vesalius (Cotten), who tells them about his attempts to save the life of Phibes’ wife. It would seem to be a straight case of revenge, if Phibes had not himself been killed in a car crash. Gradually, the police realise how Phibes has cheated death and returned to seek vengeance but the trail is complicated by their uncertainty as to which doctor will be killed next and by the sheer ingenuity of Phibes’ methods.
The initial thing to say about The Abominable Dr Phibes is that, give or take a few sudden jolts, it’s not remotely frightening. Although some of the Poe adaptations of the 1960s have dated and now seem more quaint than scary, they do have an eerie atmosphere of impending doom which remains potent to this day. Phibes has scenes of surprising beauty and some which are highly amusing, but it is never particularly unnerving, let alone likely to induce fear. The murder scenes are very well staged and occasionally offer up some unpleasant images – locusts crawling over a fleshless skull, rats nibbling a pilot’s fingers – but they go for sick laughs rather than shocks. How one responds to this is a matter of personal taste I imagine and I have to applaud the film for its ingenious use of the plagues but the constant attempts to be funny destroy what residual horror might remain in the film. Compared to Theatre Of Blood, a full-strength Vincent Price horror movie with a similar revenge plot, this is weak stuff indeed. In that film, made three years later, the death scenes succeed in being both amusing and often very scary indeed – the initial murder scene where Michael Hordern is slashed to pieces by a group of meths drinkers in a decaying building is genuinely frightening and even the famous moment when Robert Morley is force-fed his own poodles is sinister as well as hilarious. This is a very fine line and Phibes can’t seem to walk it.
However, given this limitation, The Abominable Dr Phibes is certainly an entertaining film. If the horror rarely hits the mark, the humour frequently scores a bullseye, thanks to an entertainingly witty script and some delicious performances. Peter Jeffrey, an actor who propped up more movies and television shows in his time than I could count, is a splendidly sardonic policeman, grappling with both Phibes’ inventive atrocities and the incompetence of his superiors. Early in the film, he’s granted audiences with two real scene-stealers; Aubrey Woods, as a sarcastic jeweller – “Of course there’s more than one, that’s why it’s a set” – and the incomparable Hugh Griffith as a very Welsh Rabbi who reminds us about the plagues sent down on Pharaoh by Moses. It’s also nice to see Norman Jones – another TV regular – as Trout’s put-upon Sergeant. Among the victims, the great Terry-Thomas has a divine case of the sexually-deprived shakes as he watches a very mild bit of soft-porn and the sharp-eyed will spot Peter Gilmore, the captain of “The Onedin Line”, as the unfortunate weekend pilot. Best of all, apart from Price, we get his old Mercury Theatre colleague Joseph Cotten as Vesalius. Cotten’s career had gone seriously haywire by 1970 and he was wandering about the globe appearing in whatever films he could get – hence his seriously embarrassing turns in the likes of Mario Bava’s below-par Baron Blood, Lady Frankenstein and, later, the hugely entertaining Italian exploitation romp Island of Mutations. But his performance in Phibes is very forceful, giving Price some serious competition for audience attention and managing to make it seem as if there really is something at stake. This pays off in the last twenty minutes which succeed in creating a certain amount of suspense as Cotten attempts to stave off the ninth curse – the death of the first born.
Robert Fuest directed Phibes following a successful career in independent television where his contributions to The Avengers are fondly remembered. It’s the camp, somewhat arch tone of that show which he brings to this film and that may account for the bizarre lack of scares in what was presumably intended to be a horror movie. Fuest’s distinctive touch can be seen in the use of “Dr Phibes Clockwork Wizards”, a dance band made up of grotesquely animated clockwork puppets, and the breathtakingly camp touch of closing the film with “Over The Rainbow”. He revels in the sedulously furbished Art Deco settings provided by the production designer Brian Eatwell and smothers the proceedings in lushly orchestrated music, some of it period but most of it not. It’s entirely symptomatic of his approach that he has gone to great pains to recreate the interiors of the period but then destroys the effect with anachronisms like the use of the song “One For My Baby” and the appearance of a hand-cranked sound projector in Terry-Thomas’ sitting room. The film often appears to be in quotation marks as if we’re meant to be appreciating how it comments upon itself and it’s star – there are references to Price’s well known love of art and cooking – but the end result is that it seems terribly smug. Even the sets look a bit prefabricated and when people are pushed against walls you do begin to worry that they might begin to visibly crack. However, I can’t deny that the visuals are frequently very striking. The episode in which one doctor is killed in his car by a portable hail-making device is particularly notable for the weirdly poignant landscape in which it takes place. But a little of this is quite enough and the decision to colour code some of the sets is tiresome, as is the constant use of violin music which is presumably meant to be touching but it merely irksome. Phibes’s self-pity doesn’t need underlining but the violin keeps playing for him and these scenes slow the pace of the film down to a slow crawl.
Luckily, throughout the film, Vincent Price is there to keep it on the right side of watchable. Price is the kind of actor whose very presence does much to enliven a film and he’s great here. This is quite an achievement, not least because his most distinctive quality – that rich voice – is hampered by the use of a voice trumpet. But he shows constant inventiveness, both in his body language and his expressive face and he makes the film a lot more interesting than it otherwise would be. Vincent Price saved more horror films in this period than I could even begin to name and it’s good to see his abilities as an actor finally being reassessed in the light of the biography by his daughter. He doesn’t have enough to do in Phibes but he does it perfectly, looking slightly amused at how little is asked of him. His typecasting in horror films was confirmed by this film, which brings in little details from his career such as the melting wax from House of Wax while totally wasting his abilities and watching his superb readings of Shakespeare in Theatre Of Blood is enough to make you weep for what he could have done with the right opportunities. But despite this, Price was a true star, even if only in one genre, and The Abominable Dr Phibes would be unthinkable without him.
MGM haven’t expended any effort on trying to give us a special edition of this fondly remembered film. Their R2 release of The Abominable Dr Phibes is entirely typical of their approach to a fine back catalogue; adequate transfer, trailer, that’s your lot. It now appears that many of their R2 releases are going to lack the special features found on their R1 counterparts, which is another depressing sign of the times.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s actually not a bad transfer at all. Nothing special and a little grainy throughout but not too much artifacting and only a small amount of print damage. It’s also anamorphically enhanced. This picture isn’t great but it’s certainly the best I’ve ever seen Phibes look and I must have watched it at least ten times on television.
The soundtrack is the original mono track. This is fine with no hiss or distortion and the dialogue is crystal clear.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer, intriguingly advertising the film as merely Dr Phibes and suggesting that it might be ‘the most terrifying film ever’. The crude animation of this trailer is wonderfully nostalgic for anyone who remembers how cheap trailers used to look back in the seventies. It is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1.
There are the usual 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
The Abominable Dr Phibes is a fascinating period piece which isn’t effective as a horror film but remains entertaining in a self-consciously camp way. It’s worth seeing for the good cast, some bad taste jokes and, most of all, for Vincent Price. The DVD is generally average but worth considering if you like the film or the star. It can be picked up at a considerable discount online.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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