The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Dr. Anton Phibes has it all. He’s a spectacularly talented man–a medical doctor, a trained theologian, a renowned concert organist, and a mechanical inventor of considerable ingenuity. Better, he has the love of a beautiful young wife whom he worships passionately. But even the most charmed lives are subject to the whims of Fate, and on one cruel day, Dr. Phibes loses everything: his wife is taken into risky emergency surgery with a critical heart condition; rushing to be at her side, Phibes gets into a fiery car crash. Neither survives. The couple are interred side by side in Highgate Cemetery, and there is an end to the tragic story of Dr. Phibes. Or it should be. But four years later, the surgical team that failed to save Mrs. Phibes begins to die off in bizarre situations. Eliminating the impossible, the police eventually have to accept the improbable: the single link among the murdered medical personnel is Dr. Phibes.

Funny things happen when you pull movies randomly from Vincent Price’s oeuvre to watch week over week. Dr. Phibes rings with echoes of Theater of Blood: a presumed-dead madman takes vengeance on his enemies through a series of inventive set-ups that follow a particular script. (Although, chronologically, it would be more fair to say Theater echoed Dr. Phibes, as it followed that movie by two years.) In this case, the deaths are following the Ten Plagues of Egypt (er…sort of.) Phibes uses all his talents to take his revenge on his wife’s “murderers”–I did mention his Ph.D. in theology, didn’t I? And to his list of talents, we must add costuming, prosthetic make-up, interior design, and (apparently) Mesmerism, given how meekly some of his victims take their lumps.

This role presented Vincent Price with a challenge: for most of the movie, he can’t move his face or speak–his natural face is Phibe’s prosthetic mask. Once Phibes reveals his true face, horribly disfigured by the car crash and subsequent fire, Price is under piles of makeup. Nevertheless, he manages in both situations to convey Phibes’ anger and pain and sheer unhinged-ness. I know Price is considered a terrible ham in some quarters, but I maintain that wild overacting was what was asked of him, and, as a skilled professional, he delivered. Asked for delicacy, refinement, and subtlety, Price would and could have performed just as well.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
has its weak points, requiring some generosity from the audience to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The application of the Ten Plagues ranges from literal to inventively adapted to indecipherable. (Which plague could plausibly be interpreted as attack by adorable [and non-carnivorous] fruit bats?) On the other hand, the visual design is gorgeous and there are moments of sublimity. The frog plague attack is just wonderful–beautiful and horrible at the same time. Vulnavia, Dr. Phibes’ handmaiden, wears some enviable costumes throughout the film, and Phibes’ lair is an Art Deco wonderland. In this film, the ridiculous often is the sublime, as indicated in this quote from Police Superintendent Waverley:

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

Indeed.

This review is for the Peril on the Screen challenge of RIP V.

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