The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January and the “31 Days of British Horror” in March , Jules is at it again in May, treating us to the continuation of his chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North
Director: Robert Fuest

“Nine killed you, nine shall die and be returned your loss, nine times nine! Nine killed you, nine shall die, nine eternities in doom!”

There’s black comedy, there’s gallows humour, then there’s The Abominable Dr.Phibes.

Vincent Price was long-established as one of the biggest names in horror by 1971, but this was yet another new string to the versatile actor’s bow. Sure, it’s gruesome. It’s tense, compelling and loaded with pathos at times, but it’s also often somewhere between darkly amusing and flat-out hilarious.

1925: Professor Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) is a horribly disfigured genius thought killed in an car crash, who is convinced beyond doubt that his beloved wife Victoria (Caroline Munro) died on the operating table a victim of (if not murdered by) incompetent doctors, so has plans to enact his own murderous revenge.

Just killing them won’t be enough though, so Phibes begins to work his way through his victims using methods based on the ten plagues that befell ancient Egypt in the Old Testament. With the help of his beautiful and silent female assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes rains down a series of bizarre and horrific death on the medical staff, using bats, rats, locusts and more.

Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffrey) quickly suspects Phibes, but only Doctor Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), the head surgeon who operated on Phibes’s wife trusts his instincts, but even knowing who is responsible doesn’t mean the pair are any closer to catching him…

What an absolute joy The Abominable Dr. Phibes is. The central concept is demented, but could have worked as a straight horror, but the decision to play it for the darkest of laughs was a masterstroke and in a way, even serves to reinforce the surreal nastiness up on the screen.

Right from the off, this is a simply astonishing looking film.

Director Robert Fuest clearly had an eye for spectacle, previously working on 10 episodes of The Avengers, even using the crew from that TV series on the film, including screenwriter Brian Clemens. Add in set designer Brian Eatwell, who also worked on Nicolas Roeg’s films, such as The Man Who Fell To Earth and you have something truly remarkable.

There’s barely a shot in here that doesn’t impress in some way, from the lavish art deco sets (particularly Phibes’ underground lair) and the gorgeously elaborate detailing on his death traps to even the way Fuest arranges his angles, reinforcing the dual themes of madness and beauty purely by how he lets us view his subjects.

Price is clearly in his element here, his famously mischievous sense of dark humour being allowed full reign. Even though he’s playing it essentially mute (speaking through a device on his neck after using his knowledge of music and acoustics to recreate his voice), the great man puts so much graft into his performance it’s a pleasure to watch him in every scene. It’s all in the eyes. Well, the eyes and that mechanical voice delivering outrageous lines like “My precious jewel, I will join you in your setting. We shall be reunited forever in a secluded corner of the great elysian field of the beautiful beyond!”

As the Doctor/Policeman pair trying to track down Phibes, Cotten and Jeffrey are brilliantly cast. They’re not pitched as bumbling, but their sheer dismay at the Dr getting the better of them yet again is comedy gold and they have plenty more moments throughout the film to show off their comedic chops.

It’s the elaborate murders that really make this film though. Some are stylish and bizarre like the constricting frog mask, some are gross and bizarre like the nurse having her face eaten off by locusts, while some are just bizarre. But each one is exquisitely worked, despite their frequency and means there’s barely a moment to catch your breath before the next victim arrives.

One of the finest entries in the horror/comedy genre ever, The Abominable Dr Phibes is that rare thing, a film that balances both horror and comedy perfectly, often at the exact same time. A classic, in other words.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. 31 More Days of British Horror – Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) – BIG COMIC PAGE
  2. 31 More Days of British Horror – Theatre Of Blood (1973) – BIG COMIC PAGE

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