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
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....
AAAAAAAAAH! FRUIT BATS! OH MY GOD GET EM OFF GET EM
FRUIT BATS!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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).
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
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 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 face....like 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.
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).
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!"
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
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.