Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein
Directed by Robert Fuest
An American International Picture
Starring: Vincent Price (Dr. Anton Phibes); Jospeh Cotten (Dr. Versalius); Peter Jeffrey (Inspector Harry Trout); Virginia North (Vulnavia); Terry-Thomas (Dr. Longstreet); Aubrey Woods (The Goldsmith); Sean Bury (Lem Versalius); Susan Travers (Nurse Allen); Hugh Griffith (The Rabbi); Caroline Munroe (Victoria Regina Phibes)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes marked a new phase in the career of its star Vincent Price. Having gone through the fifties and the sixties as the boogieman in low-budget horror films produced by the likes of William Castle (The House On Haunted Hill, The Tingler) and Roger Corman (The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Masque Of The Red Death and other Poe-inspired films), Price found himself free of those old franchises but still highly marketable as a leading villain for fright-fests. With the Hays office finally abolished, horror films were beginning to mature and show a thing or two on screen that had never been possible before. In order to remain relevant with the changing times, Price dove headfirst into the new wave of horror. The first of these was also one of the best films of his career: The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
The film stars Price as the title character, Dr. Anton Phibes, who, as we eventually come to learn, shouldn’t even be alive. He is believed to have been killed in a car accident the night he rushed to be at the side of his wife (Caroline Monroe, playing dead for the entire film) who died on the operating table under the care of eight doctors and a nurse who, one by one, start ending up dead in the most bizarre of circumstances. One doctor is the victim of so many bee stings that his skin turned into a mass of boils, another is attacked by bats in his bedroom, and a third has his skull crushed by an ever-tightening frog mask. It takes Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) of the Yard to deduce that Dr. Phibes is still alive and out to enact revenge using the ancient curses of Moses on the Egyptians. But can Trout and Dr. Versalius (Joseph Cotten), the chief physician in the Phibes case, stop Phibes before it is too late?
I sure hope not. One of the pleasures of The Abominable Dr. Phibes lies in the joy of seeing how Phibes is going to do away with his next victim. While we don’t exactly share Phibes’s conviction of the guilt of those who presided over his wife’s final illness, there is something undeniably thrilling in trying to anticipate how Phibes will recreate yet another biblical plague in modern England. Some of the attempts provoke laughs (such as the Plague of Beasts, which involves a large, ceramic unicorn’s head being vaulted through a victim’s open front door) and a few inspire real chills (a close-up of a rat chewing into a victim’s shoulder or an equally nasty close-up of a bat sticking its tongue out) but all of them are undeniably entertaining.
Through it all we watch the weird and strangely engrossing Dr. Phibes, his face an obvious façade of separate false pieces and his voice amplified through a phonograph horn (his injuries even force him to drink a toast through the back of his neck). With his faithful and equally-mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) by his side (what the Hell is she all about?), Phibes takes his time at each murder, languidly draining the blood out of Dr. Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) or enjoying Vulnavia’s violin recital as Dr. Kitaj (Peter Gilmore) is eaten by rats as he tries in vain to keep his biplane aloft. Unlike later serial killer films where the murders are so complex as to invite an audience to ask why anyone would go to so much trouble, The Abominable Dr. Phibes doesn’t inspire many questions: Phibes is an artist, a madman, and he’s played by Vincent Price. That’s all the explanation we need.
One of the things that make this film stand out against others is its use of scenes without dialog. Price only speaks in voice-over (and even then not very often) while North keeps her trap completely closed. That being the case, the preparations for the murders and the murders themselves play mostly with musical accompaniment and little else (with the exception of the occasional scream from the victim or Terry-Thomas’s trademark lisp asking a few inane questions before he is slowly dispatched). Consider the opening sequence, during which we are introduced to Phibes and Vulnavia and see the first murder committed: we are given a look inside Phibes’s home, his art-deco design and strange mechanical orchestra, treated to a quick dance from our two villains and then travel with them to the home of the first victim, Dr. Dunwoody (Edward Burnham). After such a silly, over-the-top intro for Phibes, we are not prepared for the masterfully executed sequence where Dunwoody wakes to hear strange squeaking in his room. Little by little, he looks for clues in the darkened room – a strange sound here, a shadow over there – until he turns to his left and finds a large bat crawling up his pillow. The first line of dialog, “Good morning, Sir,” spoken by Dunwoody’s butler just before he discovers his master’s body, doesn’t arrive until more than ten minutes into the film. In this film, dialog is for imparting information and getting laughs, but silence is for murder. Phibes is a man who picks his opportunities the same way his picks his words: carefully and with great precision.
With Price and North keeping mum for most of the running time, the nuts-and-bolts of the narrative falls onto the capable shoulders of Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout. While Trout’s investigation proves largely ineffective against the genius of Phibes, Trout is an endearing character who inspires both sympathy and laughs as he pieces together Phibes’s plan with very few clues and is rewarded with contempt from his superior (who persists in getting Trout’s name wrong, calling him “Pike” and “Bream”), scorn from nearly everyone he meets and a clouting from Dr. Versalius in the final act. Strangely enough, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of the few films in which sympathy for both the heroes and the villains are rather evenly split: we’re with Trout and Versalius all the way, but it would be such a shame to not see Phibes’s plans come to fruition because he’s just so damned ingenious and entertaining.
The script finally forces us to choose between the forces of good and evil in the final showdown between Phibes and Versalius. To enact the ninth plague, the Death of The First Born, Phibes has kidnapped Versalius’s son Lem (Sean Bury) and chained him underneath a slow tap of acid, giving Versalius eight minutes to operate on the boy and find the key planted near his heart that will unlock the chains. This is a sequence of real suspense and we have no trouble assigning our sympathies to Versalius as he diligently puts his skills as a surgeon to the test to save his son. As much as the average viewer doesn’t care about Lem, a bland and effeminate character who exists, as every viewer can guess from the first viewing, to be kidnapped and used as an element of suspense, we must put the young man, as Phibes does, in the same place as his wife, who is even less than character than Lem Versalius and whose death has inspired the entire film. Unlike some of the other murders, we feel real suspense as Dr. Versalius works under the ticking clock of a tap of acid to save his son while Phibes leers over him and taunts him about his shaking hands. It’s a shame that the culmination of the sequence is Phibes’s tearing away of his face to reveal a completely unconvincing mask that doesn’t even rate as good as Mr. Sardonicus’s sardonic smile. It’s a bad hiccup in a good film that is full of bats, rats and men reduced to frigid statues. But it is enough to place us squarely on the side of Dr. Versalius as he successfully completes the operation that saves his son and, incidentally, tricks Vulnavia into stepping into the path of the streaming acid. Good has, indeed, triumphed.
But this film leaves the more-than-casual viewer with many questions, such as who exactly was Vulnavia and why was Phibes so obsessed with a dead wife when he had a beautiful assistant who would follow any order he chose to give with a nod of his deformed head? And even if Phibes is an artist, some aspects of his grand plot against the nine who killed his wife are downright silly; his decision to have ten medallions fashioned with a Hebrew symbol for each biblical curse is highly superfluous, existing only so that he can leave one at the scene of Dr. Longstreet’s murder and give Trout a clue as to solving the crimes. Despite being educated men, both Versalius and Trout are remarkably slow in deducing that Lem is to be the target in the “Death Of The First Born” curse (Versalius stupidly believes that his already dead older brother was to have been the target). And while Joseph Cotton gives a fine performance as he always does, there’s an aspect to his demeanor that telegraphs that he would like to be somewhere else – anywhere else – than in this film. His jovial demeanor from an equally-silly film like Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte is nowhere to be seen here. Perhaps he believed that, with so much madness around him, he needed to be the level center of the picture for fear that it would just fly out of control (and that might be true), but it often comes across as if the great second lead from one of the greatest films ever made (Citizen Kane for those of you who couldn’t guess) is simply phoning it in.
But in the end, we still hold a soft spot in our hearts for Phibes. Once his plans are completed, he saves the final curse for himself: Darkness. He had no intention of surviving beyond his final curse (at least until the sequel reared its ugly head) and, in the end, he reacted as only a loving husband would. Phibes may escape the long arm of the law, but he, like his victims, has no hope of escaping his own curse. And maybe it is our curse that The Abominable Dr. Phibes, such a mad and silly film in many ways, is so enticing that we would be drawn to it again and again after so many years.