Transporting the moody pipe organ and mythology of the Universal Monsters to 20th Century England, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is basically a modern reinterpretation of Dracula or The Phantom of the Opera, preserving the gloom, but abandoning the modesty. In place of that dated concern for good taste and subtlety are lavish set designs, inspired by the geometry and bold color spectrum of Art Deco, and a modern thirst for grisly excess, albeit one with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Nevertheless, this “more is more” style of filmmaking is actually what makes the film tick, resulting in a highly visual work that sparingly relies on dialogue, generating tension and titters through reaction shots and novel methods of execution (both literal and figurative).
The theatricality of the film is transparent from the first reel, introducing us to Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) and his nefarious plot exclusively through sensory cues. We ascend to an ornate marble stage from the subterranean depths of Phibes’ secluded mansion, carried by a pulley system and the pulsating sound of his pipe organ, accompanied gently by his animatronic, and remarkably creepy, mini-orchestra. As his symbolical rise from the grave concludes, Phibes takes his “fashionable” assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), into his arms and waltzes her through the desolate ballroom, rhapsodized by a sweeping overhead shot and the harmony of the pneumatic brass band.
This performance is the opening movement of their homicidal ritual, a step directly followed by an ingenious method of murder modeled after the Plagues of Egypt, boasting “ancient maledictions” like a mischief of rats or hailstorm, accomplished through comically convoluted measures. Phibes is both an acclaimed organist and Doctor of Theology and he utilizes his fields of expertise to pull off these highly ostentatious acts, all constructed to wreak vengeance on the nine-person surgical team that left his young wife dead on the operating table.
Phibes himself is as ceremonious as his acts of reprisal, constructing his battered body in the mirror much like one would assemble a costume, fabricating his face from rubber prosthetics and speaking through a tube stuck in his neck, attached by lengthy cable to a phonograph. His upper body scorched and vocal cords shredded in a fiery automobile explosion, Phibes’ only verbal communication is now in somber soliloquy to his dead wife’s photograph, emoted by Price through mournful and bitter facial expressions.
The surrealistic vibrancy of Phibes’ screen time is contrasted by the darkly humourous nature of the accompanying police procedural, which is always a pace or two behind and more of a highlight reel of ineptitude than a paean to shrewd detective work. Heading the investigation, Inspectors Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Crow (Derek Godfrey) realize Phibes’ scheme early on, but are met with such hostility from their superiors and are so beleaguered by their own clumsiness that they usually arrive at the scene well after the carnage, left to gasp in amazement at a blood-drained corpse or skeleton sucked dry of its flesh by a voracious swarm of locusts.
The most tragic of their miscalculations results in the death of a surgeon in protective custody, sashayed directly into the spiked horn of a brass unicorn, a trap orchestrated by Phibes and completely unnoticed by the gabby and easily distracted head detective. The biggest chuckle of the film accompanies their efforts to conceal this cadaver, a sight gag that finds them twisting the lifeless body on one side of a partition as the screw of the unicorn’s horn drips blood on the other.
Delicate sensibilities will certainly be distressed by the levity of this sequence, but those with a stronger constitution will find much to smirk at and admire in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, particularly its ability to juggle tone and artfully compose a shot. The symmetry of its visuals and rich primary colors of the decor influence the tone, varying between earthy browns and wood grain in farcical moments and scarlet red and lime green in moments of tension and panic.
This unsavory marriage of humor and horror would be intrinsic to fright films of the forthcoming 21st Century, but not nearly as significant as the film’s closing sequence, which pits the only surviving surgeon against the clock in a mad dash to save his first-born son from a vat of acid. The Saw series would exploit puzzles and traps of this nature ad nauseum, but could never elicit the delight and disgust of Phibes’ conceits, favoring an over-crowded narrative to the simple pleasures of visual storytelling.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (American International Pictures, 1971)
Directed by Robert Fuest
Written by James Whiton and William Goldstein
Photographed by Norman Warwick