The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

When you watch an old horror movie starring Vincent Price, you pretty much know what you’re in for.  It’s never going to be anything particularly gruesome by today’s desensitized standards, but it is almost guaranteed to be silly, funny, and if you’re lucky, unfiltered cheesy camp. It’s always a sheer pleasure to watch Prince’s movies, because Vincent Prince as an actor has this uncanny ability to make everything sound believable and interesting, even the most utterly trashy and awful dialog sounds fine when he delivers it. And when you happen to watch one of his particularly well done horror pictures, like in this instance, it’s twice as enjoyable because you get a good story on top of a great performance.

Not really knowing anything about the Abomidable Dr. Phibes before watching it, I was a bit surprised to realize that Price would basically go and remake this very same story two years later in the form of Theatre of Blood. Both movies follow the same basic structure and share much of the same basic idea: Price is a mad killer, he is accompanied by a beautiful assistant, at the beginning of the story Price’s character is assumed to be dead, enabling him to go around killing people who he thinks have done him wrong with highly elaborate and fantastical death traps, and for most of the movie the police are entirely helpless in stopping the murders. The notable difference between these two movies is the motive. In Dr. Phibes we see Price murdering the members of the medical team who failed to save his wife, in Theatre of Blood he is murdering theater critics who prevented him from winning a particularly prestigious acting award. In other words, in Theatre of Blood it’s all about Price’s wounded ego that turns him into a homicidal maniac, meanwhile Price’s titular Dr. Phibes is a bit more sympathetic figure, he’s primarily motivated by the belief that his wife died due to the medical staff’s incompetence and he wants to punish the people responsible.

I’ve always thought that the kills are one of the most important aspects of a horror movie when determining how good the picture is, and this movie really takes the cake with its inventiveness when it comes to the murders. You have everything from a woman getting eaten alive by a plaque of locusts to a man wearing a masquerade mask that is designed to tighten around the collar until the neck is crushed, then there’s a giant unicorn statue used to skewer a person when he opens the door, and let’s not forget one of the earlier ones where the victim gets slowly drained dry of blood while he’s still alive. One poor chap even gets frozen to death inside a car while he’s out on a drive in the countryside. And it’s not just that these murders are weirdl, they are actually all themed around a Hebrew curse of Ten Plagues of Egypt from Exodus. There doesn’t really seem to have any real rhyme or reason as to why Phibes chose that particular theme. I suppose he could be Jewish, but Phibes doesn’t sound like a Jewish surname to me. And it doesn’t stop there, the murders also involve this weird repeated ritual involving golden medallions, inscribed with different Hebrew alphabets,and their corresponding curse, that he places on the busts of all his victims after each kill, and then as the pièce de résistance, he melts the busts with a blowtorch. It’s so weirdly detailed and over the top thing to do that I can’t help but to love it.

Another rather kooky aspect of the movie is Dr. Phibes’ young female assistant, Vulnavia. She’s this beautiful, nymph like young woman, whose existence in the movie is never really explained. She has no real perceptible personality aside from the willingness to assist Phibes in his gruesome murders, and she remains entirely silent throughout the entire picture until a final death scream when she seems to be killed by Phibes’ acid death trap. She seems to exist  purely so there’d be someone for Phibes to talk to during his scenes set in his lair. There actually exists a small fan theory that claims she was some kind of a mechanical robot created by Phibes, though the acid death at the end might counter that. Or perhaps not.  This theory is primarily founded on the fact that Phibes is shown to be a mechanical genius, having created a mechanical way to speak after his disfiguring accident had left him mute, and of course the mechanical orchestra that plays couple of the musical numbers that the movie has. That’s right, there are actual musical numbers and dancing, as if the movie wasn’t already weird enough.

I suppose the thing I like the most about this movie is that the villain, Dr. Phibes, actually achieves everything he sets out to do. He gets his revenge, and even if his final death trap, where Phibes forces the last remaining medical staff member to operate on his own son in a race against time (morbidly mimicking the operation that resulted in the death of Phibes’ wife) doesn’t succeed in disfiguring or killing the son, it is kind of implies that it didn’t really matter what the outcome was. Forcing the chief surgeon from the failed operation to cut into his son while the time delayed acid death trap loomed over the operating table was enough psychological torment for Phibes to feel that his vengeance was complete. After all, Phibes doesn’t even remain to see whether or not the chief surgeon is able to rescue his son, instead Phibes retires to his private chamber in the lair and prepares to be embalmed and buried with his dead wife in an ingenious mechanical sarcophagus of his own making, that then hides his body before the police are able to locate him. Man, that Dr. Phibes sure knew how to exit with style. It’s so ridiculous and awesome.

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