Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

(This post is part of the Vincent Price Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Reelweegiemidget Reviews)

Among the legendary horror movie actors, Vincent Price was utterly unique. Unlike Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Sir Christopher Lee, he never played monsters. Unlike Peter Cushing, he rarely played monster hunters. Instead Vincent Price played mortal men caught up in circumstances not necessarily of their own making. He played his share of heroes, including Dr. Warren Chapin in The Tingler (1959) and Dr. Robert Morgan in The Last Man on Earth (1964). More often he played villains, including Professor Henry Jarrod in House of Wax (1954) and Frederick Loren in House on Haunted Hill (1959). His speciality was playing individuals, who through circumstances or through the ill intent of others, had been driven beyond the brink of sanity. 

Among the most complicated characters Vincent Price ever played was Dr. Anton Phibes in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Like many of Mr. Price's character, Dr. Phibes was a man driven mad by tragedy, in his case the untimely death of his wife. Unlike many of Mr. Price's characters, it is difficult to describe Dr. Phibes as a hero or a villain. Having lost his wife during a surgery, Dr. Phibes was scarred and left mute when he experienced a car crash in trying to get to her at the hospital. Unfortunately, rather than file a malpractice suit against the doctors involved in his wife's death, Dr. Phibes kills them one by one using means inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt. Dr. Phibes's motivation is then understandable to anyone who has experienced the death of someone they love, although he goes about dealing with his grief in ways that most of us would find, well, abominable.

Dr. Anton Phibes was the creation of William Goldstein, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Abominable Dr. Phibes with James Whiton. The genesis of Dr. Phibes was in a series of dreams that Mr. Goldstein had over the course of a week. After the last night of dreams, he wrote all of them down and then contacted James Whiton to see if the dreams could form the basis of a movie. Mr. Whiton had already written episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. William Goldstein and James Whiton's screenplay eventually found its way to Ronald S. Dunas, a real estate man who had moved into film production. It was Ronald S. Dunas who brought the screenplay to the attention of James H. Nicholson of American International Pictures.

Before settling on the title The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the film had the working titles of Dr. Phibes and The Curse of Dr. Phibes. It was in a September 1970 article in Variety that it was reported that the film would be produced by Albert Fennell with Ronald Dunas, although ultimately it would be produced by Mr. Dunas and Louis M. Heyward, who had written for both The Gary Moore Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show and went onto become AIP's Director of Overseas Productions in London. He had already produced such classic horror movies for AIP as The Oblong Box (1970). 

Of course, much of the appeal of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is seeing two legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood pitted against each other. While Vincent Price played Dr. Anton Phibes, Joseph Cotten played Dr. Vesalius, the head of the team of doctors that had performed surgery on Dr. Phibes's wife. While Dr. Vesalius remains one of Joseph Cotten's best known roles, he was not the first actor considered for the role. Initially the role was offered to legendary horror actor Peter Cushing, who had to decline because of the recent death of his wife Helen.  

Dr. Phibes's vocal cords having been damaged in his automobile accident, the character required prosthetics to be able to speak. Because of this, as well as the heavy make up required of the role, all of Vincent Price's lines would be dubbed in post-production. This led to a complaint from Joseph Cotten that he had to remember his lines, while Mr. Price's lines would be dubbed in post production. Vincent Price simply replied to Mr. Cotten's complaint, "Yes, but I still know them, Joe." Vincent Price was known throughout his career for his remarkable memory, able to memorize not only his own lines, but those of every other character in a screenplay. Despite Joseph Cotten's complaint, according to Louis M. Heyward, Joseph Cotten was a total gentleman. He knew his lines perfectly and devoted all of his considerable talent to the role.
The role of Dr. Phibes required Vincent Price to spend several hours each day having his make-up applied. In order to make Joseph Cotten more comfortable on the set, Vincent Price would often joke around with his fellow veteran actor. As a result, Mr. Price's makeup would sometimes have to be reapplied.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was directed by Robert Fuest, who had directed several episodes of the classic British spy TV series The Avengers. The plot of The Abominable Dr. Phibes already resembled the plot of a typical episode The Avengers, with individuals dying in bizarre fashions. It was in a large part because of Robert Fuest that the movie feels a lot like an episode of The Avengers, albeit one set in the 1920s.  In addition to the movie's touches of humour, it also features lavish sets and rich cinematography that would not be out of place in an episode of The Avengers.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was filmed from November 2 1970 to January 1971. Most of the film was shot at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, with various scenes being shot around both London and Hertfordshire. Dr. Phibes's mansion was the Rosary Priory High School in Herfordshire at the time the film was shot and had previously been Caldecote Towers Hotel (it is now Immanuel College). Highgate Cemetery in London was the final resting place of Dr. Phibes's wife.

Because Dr. Anton Phibes was a concert pianist with degrees in music and theology, music plays a big role in The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Such diverse pieces of music as "War March of the Priests" by Felix Mendelssohn, "What Can I Say After I Say I'm Sorry?," "Darktown Strutters' Ball," and "Charmaine" appear throughout the film. That having been said, much of the music in The Abominable Dr. Phibes is anachronistic. While the film appears to be set in the Twenties, it features songs written after that decade, including "Close Your Eyes (1933)," "Elmer's Tune (1941)," "All I Do Is Dream of You (1934)," "You Stepped Out of a Dream (1941)," "A Hundred Years from Today (1933)," and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) (1943)." While an instrumental version of "Over the Rainbow," written specifically for The Wizard of Oz (1939), plays over the closing credits, it is background music, as opposed to other anachronistic pieces of music that are played within the movie itself (for instance, "Elmer's Tune" on a music box).
Although The Abominable Dr. Phibes is now considered one of the greatest horror movies ever released by American International Pictures, according to Louis M. Heyward, AIP co-founder  Samuel Z. Arkoff  of AIP hated The Abominable Dr. Phibes and even wanted his name removed from the movie. He had very little faith that the film could be a success. Initially, The Abominable Dr. Phibes was not a success. Marketed through a tongue in cheek campaign centred on the tagline, "Love never means having to say you're ugly! (a parody on Love Story's "Love never means to have to say you're sorry"), The Abominable Dr. Phibes did poorly at the box office. Fortunately, AIP switched to a more traditional, straight-forward marketing campaign and The Abominable Dr. Phibes proved to be a hit.
In fact, The Abominable Dr. Phibes proved to be such a hit that a sequel was planned. Screenwriters William Goldstein and James Whiton proposed a sequel titled The Brides of Dr. Phibes. Louis M. Heyward rejected The Brides of Dr. Phibes, and then turned to Robert Blees to write the sequel.  Dr. Phibes Rises Again was released in 1972.  Dr. Phibes Rises Again proved successful enough that more sequels were considered. Other proposed sequels included Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land, The Son of Dr. Phibes, Phibes ResurrectusDr. Phibes, Phibes Resurrected, and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes. Sadly, none of these sequels ever made it to production.

These proposed sequels were not the only attempts to revive Dr. Phibes. In the mid-Seventies, Louis M. Heyward and William Goldstein proposed a TV series to NBC which would have featured Dr. Phibes fighting crimes using his considerable talents in makeup and technology. The network passed on the project.

While Dr. Phibes would never return to the big screen following Dr. Phibes Rises Again and would  never have his own TV series, the character would eventually be resurrected. Dr. Phibes's creator, William Goldstein, revived the character starting with the novel Dr. Phibes - In the Beginning in 2011, co-written with his son Damon J. A. Goldstein. Since then, the two men have written Dr. Phibes Vulnavia's Secret, Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, and Dr. Phibes - The Androbots.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes stands as one of the most famous of AIP's later movies as well as one of AIP's greatest horror movies. It seems likely that its success is due to multiple factors. It is one of the most effective horror movies of the Seventies. It features some very frightening scenes, including several horrifying deaths. At the same time, however, it features touches of humour, with neither of the lead characters (Dr. Phibes and Dr. Vesalius) ever being the object of that humour. The movie's cast is certainly one of the reasons for much of its success. Both Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten give sterling performances. What is more, the cast includes such talents as Peter Jeffrey, Hugh Griffith, and Terry-Thomas. Certainly Robert Fuest's direction is responsible for much of the movie's success. Mr. Fuest was able to blend horror, humour, and music together in a way that it seems perfectly natural and yet unlike any movie before it.

Of course, most of all it is perhaps the character of Dr. Anton Phibes that is responsible for the success of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It is with good reason that Dr. Phibes is listed in the closing credits alongside Dr. Vesalius as one of the protagonists. Despite being responsible for several terrifying deaths throughout the film, Dr. Phibes is not a villain. Instead Dr. Phibes is a figure with whom anyone that has lost someone they dearly love can sympathise. Dr. Phibes lost the one person he loved more than anyone else in the world, his beloved wife Victoria, and at the same time was horribly damaged physically himself. It is not merely out of anger that Dr. Phibes strikes against those he believes to be responsible for Victoria's death, it is also out of what must be overpowering grief. Given how much Dr. Phibes loved Victoria, it probably came as no surprise that the plot of the second movie, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, sees him seeking to resurrect her. While Dr. Phibes commits some very atrocious acts in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, he then remains a sympathetic figure. At his core, Dr. Anton Phibes is simply a man who was deeply in love with his wife and remains so even after her death.

It has been nearly fifty years since the release of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Today Dr. Anton Phibes remains one of Vincent Price's best known roles and The Abominable Dr. Phibes one of his best known films. While Dr. Phibes might never have been resurrected again on the big screen after Dr. Phibes Rises Again, through the continued popularity of the film the character will never die. 


movies, stories and laughs said...

Excellent, well-researched article on a wonderful film. Thank you for the great read.

Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

Thanks for this wonderful passionate article about this character and for joining our blogathon from Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews

Caftan Woman said...

Your article was very informative and touching. Nicely done.

The pairing of Price with Cotten feels very natural in this movie and it is a shame that we didn't get the chance to see them working together at different eras in their careers.

MichaelWDenney said...

The Abominable Dr. Phibes may be my favourite Vincent Price film (I keep flip-flopping between it and Theatre of Blood - a similar role in a different style). Thanks for the detailed article that provided some details about the film I was not aware of. Nicely done.

Brian Schuck said...

Wow! A lot of fascinating details about the production! Dr. Phibes as a TV crime fighter? Now that would have been something to see! In retrospect, it was an interesting choice to hobble Vincent's greatest asset -- his voice -- for the role. And yet it worked wonderfully well, and Dr. Phibes is as fresh today as he was 50 years ago.

John L. Harmon said...

A very informative review of a great film!
I did not know a television series was proposed, but I wonder if it would have really worked out very well.
I may have to look into the recent books!

Silver Screenings said...

Can't believe I still haven't seen this film. If it's half as good as your analysis, I'll enjoy it very much.

Barry P. said...

Bravo, Terry! Excellent and informative review of one of my favorite Vincent Price films. I agree with your comments about the character not being a true villain, and the effects that grief have on him. It's a shame we never got to see more adventures, beyond the one sequel.

Thanks so much for joining our blogathon!

Diary of a Movie Maniac said...

Agreed. One of Price's best roles. Yes, weird that no one has tried to revive the character!

John V said...

Fantastic article on one of my favorite Price roles. Thanks for all of the great info on the Phibes films!

Unknown said...

The character of Dr. Phibes is a concert organist, not a pianist.