The Bad Movie Report

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Own It!

From the opening scene, where an enormous organ, its pipes resplendent in backlit red glass, rises from the floor - an organ playing a jaunty tune, a hooded figure at the keys, gleefully stroking the keys out of sync with the music - we feel we are in familiar territory. However, when that cowled figure descends some steps and winds a great crank, sending into motion a group of jazz-playing robots, and a young lady (clad in a gown likely designed by Busby Berserkly) enters, that the two may dance, we enter the realm of the familiar made weird: the strange 1920s realm of The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Things get down to business as the two motor through the night (in a limousine whose windows are adorned with photos of Vincent Price) to a palatial estate. A skylight in a darkened bedroom is opened, and a covered cage they have carefully transported is lowered. The cover is raised back up, followed by the now-empty cage. The skylight closes, and the fellow asleep in the bed is awakened by a fluttering sound. Slowly, he rouses, aware only of briefly seen shadows flitting across the room. Then he comes fully awake, face to face with....


Okay, point taken. In the world of the crap film, bats are inherently evil and are to be feared. But come on: what we have here is the flying fox, which can grow to be one of the largest of their specie, true, but also have some of the most downright cute faces in the bat world. The hog-nosed bat or even the common brown cave bat have scarier visages. Basically, the man in the bed has little to fear unless he is dressed as a plum or a juicy papaya (not, as we shall see later, that dressing up his victim as a mango or Bartlett pear should be considered beyond our villain, no).

Which is a source of puzzlement for Scotland Yard Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and his assistant Crow (Derek Godfrey). Trout at least demands that the bats be checked for rabies; Crow starts the Inspector on the path of his investigation by mentioning the odd coincidence of the victim's profession: he was a doctor, after all, and just the previous week, another doctor was killed by a savage bee attack, his body a mass of boils. As the cadaver is carried from the room, the flustered Trout barks at the attendants to "cover his face...what's left of it."

And that's the segue to the lair of our murderer, who is placing things like a putty nose and ears and a graying wig on his (offscreen) head; the camera pulls back to reveal none other than Vincent Price playing Dr. Anton Phibes, your psycho for this evening. We're back in the land of the familiar - sit back and enjoy the ride.

You're waiting for me to make a "He croaked" joke, I know.  Well, tough.The silent Phibes attends a masked ball and offers a psychiatrist ("I'm a head-shrinker!" he drunkenly announces) an ornate frog mask. What the doctor does not realize is that what he assumes to be a helpful butler has activated a mechanism in the mask that causes it to slowly shrink, ultimately crushing his skull. Head-shrinker, indeed.

With three doctors on the dead list, Crow is able to piece together a common thread - they had all, at some point in their careers, served on a surgical team headed by Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten).

Concurrent to Trout's visit to Vesalius' home, however, we are privy to the goings-on at the home of Dr. Longstreet (the terrific character actor Terry-Thomas in an extended cameo), who has given his housekeeper the night off so that he may peruse his newest acquisition: a moving-picture of a belly dancer with a snake (hot stuff indeed, we must surmise). When the hand-cranked projector malfunctions, Longstreet looks away from the screen to beat on the recalcitrant device, and turning back to the screen, he finds the celluloid woman has been replaced by the very real and very fetching Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes' silent assistant. Mesmerized and enticed by Vulnavia's smile (which would, admittedly, cause permafrost to melt), Longstreet almost absent-mindedly allows her to tie him to a chair, which is the cue for Phibes to enter.

I'm sorry, but every attempt I made at writing a caption for this picture wound up being a fart joke.  I'll do better next time.Phibes wastes no time in inserting a long needle into Longstreet's arm and pumping out his blood. During the doomed doctor's struggles, an amulet around Phibes' neck is torn off (close-up of it hitting the floor - you know that's going to be important). But the exsanguination continues until there are eight bottles of blood on the mantelpiece, and all the while Vulnavia plays sweetly on a white violin.

Meantime, Vesalius is poo-pooing Trout's theory that someone is knocking off members of the medical profession. That is, until Trout receives a phone call and asks him, "Do you know a Dr. Longstreet?" (and since Longstreet's murder takes place late at night, and it is still apparently the early morning hours when Trout interviews the housekeeper, I always finding myself wondering at what the hell time Trout was visiting Vesalius... and Vesalius was up playing with his model railroad set!)

The lost amulet, of course, provides the key to Trout's investigation, from a jeweler (who reveals it is one of a set) on to a rabbi: the Hebrew symbols on the amulets symbolize the Biblical Plagues visited upon the Pharaoh who kept the Israelites in slavery. And if you guessed (without looking in the Old Testament - or the Tanakh, depending on your upbringing) the first four plagues were boils, bats, frogs and blood, well, you've been paying attention.

Phibes deals with his issuesIndeed, Phibes wears a different amulet to each of the murders, and when the deed is accomplished, he hangs the amulet around the neck of a wax effigy of his victim. And then he takes a blowtorch to the wax dummy's face, just to hammer home a point. At least you can say he's dealing with his issues.

Vesalius, searching through his records, manages to narrow down his case files to the single instance where each of the dead men assisted him in the operating room: the sad case of Victoria Regina Phibes, who survived a mere six minutes on the table. "We were too late to save her," sighs Vesalius. To compound the tragedy, her husband, the noted organist Dr. Anton Phibes, on tour in the Continent, rushing to be by her side, was incinerated in a fiery car crash.

Like any mortal man, Phibes moons over Caroline MunroWell, we certainly know that to not be the case, but it's obvious that Phibes didn't just walk away from the wreck unscathed. He has to plug a gramophone into a socket in his neck to speak, and another hole apparently serves for drinking, as the time that he toast Vulnavia with champagne and tilts the glass to the side of his neck (exactly how he eats is simply too gruesome to contemplate). In any case, Phibes likes to croon blank verse to a photo of his wife (an uncredited Caroline Munro - no wonder he's so pissed off!), intoning "Nine killed you... nine shall die... nine eternities of doom!" And Phibes - a doctor of music, theology, and something of a mechanical genius - is definitely doing something about it.

Now, our heroes feel, they at least have a list of Phibes' prospective victims, and all they have to do is track the doctors down and place them under police protection. As any fan of horror or Vincent Price "Close the door!  You trying to air-consition the outdoors?"knows, this is the time to say fat chance.

First, Vulnavia pulls the old woman-having-engine-trouble-at-the-side-of-the-road trick to lure the next doctor's chauffeur from the limo. Once Phibes has dispatched the driver via the Vulcan Nerve Pinch (he is apparently also a Doctor of Trekology), Phibes sets up an ice machine in the limo, freezing the doctor to death and fulfilling the curse of hail.

Rats.Next, Crow races down some back roads to reach the next victim, only to find that he has just taken off for a leisurely ride in his aeroplane. Or as leisurely as it can get when you discover you have a cockpit full of hungry rats on loan from Willard. On a nearby hilltop, Phibes watches through a brass telescope as the curse of rats plays out to its flaming climax, and Vulnavia whiles away the time with her violin. Stylish, that.

Ak.Trout and Crow actually manage to reach the next doctor on the list pre-murder, and escort him from his gentlemen's club to sequester him at a secret place in the country for a few days. As they open the front door for him, a huge brass unicorn head is shot across the street and through the doctor, nailing him to a wall. Bet you were wondering how he was going to pull off the curse of beasts, weren't you? Of course, given the curly-cue nature of the unicorn's horn, the only way to remove the corpse from the premises is by turning him like a compass needle (as Andrew appropriately states at this point: hehehe!)

This leaves Vesalius and a nurse (Susan Travers) still standing. The entire hospital is put under guard, and the protesting nurse hidden in a room with a bobby at the door. Rather disturbed at the news that a psycho is going to try to kill her, the nurse apparently listens to Vesalius' advice to take a sleeping pill. Seemingly, in the 20s, sleeping pills were much more powerful, likely on the level of heroin, as the Abominable Dr. Phibes has sneaked into the hospital disguised as an orderly, drilled a hole in the ceiling above the somnolent nurse, and drizzles down upon her a green concoction he has brewed himself from Brussels sprouts (ak! The fiend!). And she never stirs while being slimed. After that, Phibes opens the second canister he has been carting about to reveal locusts.

Meantime, Vesalius and Trout are playing the fab new party game "How Am I Going To Die?" Vesalius reckons that, as the head of the surgical team that failed to save Victoria's life, Phibes has something special planned for him, likely the final curse, the curse of darkness. After all, Vesalius reckons, his older brother died several years ago, exempting him from the curse of the death of the first-born. Until Trout suddenly realizes that nobody is guarding Vesalius' son - his first-born (which only goes to prove that, in the world of the crap film, the homicide divisions of every police force worldwide is manned by idiots).

Why sleeping pills and locusts do not mix.Crow returns from Vesalius' home with the disheartening news that the boy was obviously abducted. Trout and Crow go upstairs to check on Nursie, and when she does not respond to knocks at the door, Trout shows he has more sense that I had credited him with, as he says, "Open the door...slowly."

Well. Given that what remains of the nurse is a bloody skeleton, those were some damn hungry locusts.

Vesalius answers a phoned summons by Phibes and finally meets his tormentor face-to-face. Phibes does indeed have something special planned for the surgeon: he reveals that the son awaits Vesalius, anaesthetized on a hospital gurney. A small key has been placed next to his heart, a key which will unlock a steel halter around the unconscious boy's neck and allow the gurney to be rolled away. Why rolled away, you may ask? Phibes sets into motion a device that will, in six minutes - the amount of time his wife survived on the table - pour a powerful acid onto the boy's face. It will Strom Thurmond puts in a guest appearance (haha!  he's old!)take all of Vesalius' skill to remove the key without killing the boy within the time limit. And just to spoil his concentration, Phibes announces that soon the boy "will have a mine!" and pulls off all the Vincent Price makeup, revealing a twisted, skull-like mass. And a section of exposed brain that probably aches like the dickens on those cold winter mornings.

As Vesalius continues to rummage in his son's chest*, Vulnavia takes an axe to everything in the great room above, and Phibes plays his organ, descending one last time into his sanctum below. Trout and Crow arrive with the police, Vesalius saves his son with seconds to spare, and Vulnavia - not watching where she's going while running from the cops - winds up under the acid stream.

Telemarketers!  They always call during an embalming!Phibes, meantime, has put his face back on and lies down with the body of his wife in a mirror-lined coffin built for two (with a telephone!) and sets in motion a machine that withdraws his blood and replaces it with embalming fluid, as a massive lid descends on the duo, concealing their resting place. Vesalius, Trout and Crow figure out which tune to play to make the organ descend. Finding no trace of Phibes, they decide that he has buggered off, not realizing that he had saved the last curse for himself - the curse of darkness. The end.

Wait a minute - did Vesalius even bother to sew his son back up? No wonder Victoria died!

The word style can have an almost derogatory connotation these days; how many times have you heard the phrase style over substance this week? But a fair portion of the appeal of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is its very stylishness. With a production design absolutely drenched in Art Deco, Phibes creates an atmosphere not well exploited in a horror film since the days of the Lugosi-Karloff The Black Cat, and in echoing the tenor of those bygone terrors, the nastiness of the murders - and the attendant black humor - is all the more shocking (and hilarious).

Vulnavia and Phibes style the night away.  Then they cut out some guy's heart.One of the reasons we root - against all reason or personal morality - for the bad guy is, quite simply, the gentleman has style (there's that word again). Not everybody indulges in a full-blown production number before a murder. And in a world where our cinematic killers tend to simply settle on the nearest gardening implement for their dirty deeds, Dr. Phibes employs garish, almost baroque means for his murders. The man cares about his work, pure and simple, and it shows. The horror comes from not only the price Phibes makes these people pay for their perceived sin, but the very outre quality of their demises. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, we seem to have a perverse fascination for "bad" deaths. Or, when a bobby opines of the frozen corpse in the back of the limo, "Fortunately, he didn't feel much," Trout instantly, bitterly shoots back, "Like hell he didn't!"

Vinnie whips up a wicked good goulash.The movie's other main strength is, of course, its star, Vincent Price. This movie, along with the similar Theater of Blood (a personal favorite I must get to someday), is one of the few that makes good use of the star's well-known offscreen life. It is no secret that Price was, among other things, an art expert and gourmet cook; therefore the moment where Phibes takes one look at a painting in Longstreet's study and casts a final, witheringly accusatory look at Longstreet's corpse is made all the more rich. Ditto the scene where Love means never having to say you're ugly.Phibes pointedly goes through a bucket of sprouts offered by Vulnavia, seeking just the right ones for his locust-tempting ooze. Both scenes are funny in their own right - Price's background and sure-handedness in handling these in-jokes just makes them better.

There are a couple of reasons I feel sorry for director Robert Fuest - first, because the reveal of Phibes' true face, damaged beyond repair in the car wreck, is obviously intended to be a shock scene on the level of the Phantom's unmasking in the original Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunately, AIP's publicity machine had other plans. Not only was the "...he will have a face...LIKE MINE!!!!" scene the only film clip that was ever distributed for talk show appearances and the like, but the movie's poster featured the skull makeup - Phibes in a romantic clinch with Vulnavia (a scene which never appears in either of the movies) along with the Love Story-parody tagline, "Love Means Never Having To Say You're Ugly". Some marketer is burning in Hell over that. That said, I used to have this movie poster hanging in my room during high school. I wish I still had it.

The second reason is Fuest never truly again reached the heights exhibited here; he made some adequate but rather less-than-average fare like The Devil's Rain, The Revenge of the Stepford Wives and The Final Programme (as far as I know, the only Jerry Cornelius movie ever made. And small wonder). And, of course, the sequel to this movie, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Oh, if only he had not... and myself are reviewing both films as Phibes-A-Poppin' (well, that's what I'm calling it, anyway). Andrew's review lies here. I've even done a sidebar on how Phibes' version of the Biblical Plagues compares to the Real Deal. Or you can just go on to the next review.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again


Stylish slaughter, sardonically sinister.

- June 3, 2001