It was 17 years ago that the great Vincent Price died from lung cancer. It is natural , then, that my thoughts should turn to his many films. In particular, I am thinking of one of his later works, yet one that is still one of his best. I am talking about The Abominable Dr. Phibes, released 18 May 1971.
In some respects The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a bit of an anachronism when it was released. In 1971 the cycle towards Gothic horror which Hammer Films began with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 was finally coming to an end. Although set in 1925, The Abominable Dr. Phibes feels very much like a classic, Gothic horror movie. Indeed, it looks and very much like the classic Hammer \and American International Gothic horror films released in the Sixties.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes centres upon the title character, one Dr. Anton Phibes (played by Vincent Price), a talented organist who holds degrees in both Music and Theology. Four years earlier Dr. Phibes and his beautiful wife were in a horrible crash which disfigured Dr. Phibes and would leave his wife dead. Dr. Phibes would create a realistic mask to replace his damaged face and use his skill in music to create technology that would allow him to "speak" despite the damage to his vocal cords. Dr. Phibes would not stop there, however, as he would seek revenge on those he blamed for his wife's death, killing them one by one in the most terrifying ways. Seeking to stop Dr. Phibes' reign of terror are Dr. Vesalius (the great Joseph Cotton), one of the men Dr. Phibes blames for his wife's death, and Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard (Peter Jeffrey).
The Abominable Dr. Phibes has often been classed as camp. And there is some justification in this to a small degree. It features beautiful, but extravagant art deco sets and the murders Dr. Phibes commits, although horrifying in the extreme, are admittedly over the top. That having been said, I truly do not believe The Abominable Dr. Phibes is camp. Things that are truly campy elicit laughs more than anything else, while The Abominable Dr. Phibes elicits screams rather than laughs. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is no more campy that the classic Hammer or American International horror of the movies. It is much closer to Hammer's version of Dracula (1958) and the American International Pictures classic The Masque of the Red Death (1964), in which Vincent Price also starred) than the Sixties Batman TV series or the movie Hairspray (1988).
Indeed, while both the art deco sets and the means through which Dr. Phibes commits his murders are over the top, Vincent Price's performance as Dr. Anton Phibes is remarkably restrained. It is arguably one of Vincent Price's best pieces of acting in his his long career. This is all the more incredible given that, because Dr. Phibes never actually speaks in the film (he only "talks" through the sound system he created), Mr. Price had to dub all his lines after the film had been shot! This would lead to Joseph Cotten complaining that he had to remember and deliver lines, while Mr. Price would dub all of his lines in post production, to which Vincent Price replied, "Yes, but I still know them, Joe." Here it must be pointed out that Vincent Price's capacity for memorising lines was so great that he could not only memorise his own character's lines in scripts, but that of every single character!
Of course, there should be little wonder that Vincent Price should play Dr. Anton Phibes so well, as he is an archetypal Vincent Price character. While Mr. Price would play a variety of roles in his career, many of his best known characters from his horror movies were tragic figures who elicited our sympathy even as they committed unspeakable horrors. In House of the Seven Gables (1940), he played Clifford Pyncheon, the victim of his evil brother Jaffrey's scheming. In House of Wax (1953) Vincent Price played wax sculptor Prof. Henry Jarrod, whose original wax museum was burned in an arson and whose body was badly burned in that fire. In The Last Man on Earth (1964, the first film based on Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend), Mr. Price played Dr. Robert Morgan, one of the few survivors of a plague that turned its victims into vampiric creatures. Dr. Phibes, who was disfigured in a wreck and the love of whose life died in that wreck, is a similarly tragic character. We may not condone what he does, but we can certainly understand why he is doing it.
Of course, Vincent Price does not offer the only great performance. Joseph Cotten may have had difficulty remembering his lines, but he does a very good job as Dr. Vesalius, a man who knows he is targeted by Dr. Phibes and knows that if Phibes is successful, then he will die a most gruesome death. Peter Jeffrey also gives a good performance as Inspector Harry Trout, the dedicated police detective trying to unravel the mystery of some of the most horrific crimes ever committed in London.
While The Abominable Dr. Phibes unmistakably belongs to the Gothic horror genre, it does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of the Twenties. The sets are art deco, the preferred style of the time. It also utilises a good deal of the music from the era, including "Charmaine," "Darktown Strutter's Ball," "You Stepped Out of a Dream," "Close Your Eyes," and "Elmer's Tune." Arguably, The Abominable Dr. Phibes has one of the greatest soundtracks of any horror movie.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was produced by American International Pictures and released in May, 1971. It did remarkably well at the box office, so much so that a sequel would be made, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Other sequels would be considered, with such titles as Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land,The Son of Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Resurrectus, Dr. Phibes, and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes. A Dr. Phibes TV series was even pitched to NBC. Bands from The Misfits to The Damned to Angel Witch have released songs based on Dr. Phibes.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes would be Vincent Price's best film released in the Seventies and remains one of the best films he ever made. It is truly terrifying, but at the same time Mr. Price played a character with whom any one who has ever been in love could sympathise. It was set in a time period rarely utilised in horror movies (the 1920's), evoking that era quite well, but still feeling like a classic Gothic horror film. It makes great use of music, including classic songs from the era. Quite simply, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a remarkable horror film of the sort that even people who not fans of the genre can enjoy. It is, quite simply, a classic.