The Abominable Dr. Phibes – UK, 1971 – reviews

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[Total: 12   Average: 3.4/5]

‘Love means never having to say you’re ugly’

The Abominable Doctor Phibes is a 1971 British horror feature film directed by Robert Fuest (The Devil’s Rain; And Soon the Darkness) from a screenplay by James Whiton and William Goldstein, with additional uncredited scripting by Fuest.

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The movie stars Vincent PriceJoseph Cotten (Lady Frankenstein; Baron Blood; The Hearse), Terry-Thomas (Munster, Go Home!; The Vault of Horror) and Hugh Griffith (Cry of the Banshee; Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?; Craze).

With Art Deco sets, dark yet camp humour and knowing performances by Price, this film and its sequel Doctor Phibes Rises Again have become cult classics. The character of Doctor Phibes is inspired by the Biblical ten plagues of Ancient Egypt from the Old Testament for the methodology of his murderous spree.

One of the most stylish and poetic horror films ever made, The Abominable Doctor Phibes sees Vincent Price appearing as Doctor Anton Phibes, presumed to have died in a car crash with his wife, Victoria (played, uncredited, by Caroline Munro), some four years previously. It appears Phibes has somehow survived and he returns, eager to avenge his beloved Victoria, whom he believes to have died at the hands of incompetent doctors on the operating table.DR_PHIBES_3D_BD_4

• High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of The Abominable Dr Phibes and Dr Phibes Rises Again, transferred from original film elements by MGM, and both presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, region B/2.
• Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr Phibes by director Robert Fuest.
• Audio commentary on The Abominable Dr Phibes by author William Goldstein.
• Audio commentary on Dr Phibes Rises Again by Video Watchdog‘s Tim Lucas.
• Dr Phibes and the Gentlemen: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson recall the horror classics.
• Daughter of Phibes: Victoria Price discusses her father’s career.
• The Doctor Will See You Now: Interview with David Del Valle.
• Trailers
•100-page booklet featuring new writing on the films by Julian Upton, Martin Jones, Little Shoppe of Horrors’ Justin Humphreys and Trunk Records’ Jonny Trunk, the on-set recollections of Caroline Munro, plus interviews with Tim Burton and American International Picture’s publicist Milton Moritz, illustrated with original archive stills

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New High Definition digital transfer – Newly created exclusive content – Deluxe Edition Collector’s box featuring original artwork – 100-page Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, archive content and more! More to be announced closer to the release date

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Plot:

England, 1925: A disfigured Phibes sets about killing the doctors he holds responsible by visiting upon them the ten biblical plagues of ancient Egypt. As Phibes’ victims rack up, it becomes a race against time for Inspector Trout and Scotland Yard to stop him before the final doctor and his young son meet their fate.

Review:

In this towering achievement of British horror, Vincent Price was at the very height of his powers, in what the film’s producers claimed to be his one-hundredth film.

The success of the film can certainly be in part attributed to Price, despite the fact that due to his disfigurement, his lines are largely post-dubbed by himself as he can only speak in the film with the aid of an uncomfortable-looking contraption attached to his neck, his familiar, strangled vowels seeming even more otherworldly crawling from the amplification device.

The darkly humorous, yet genuinely affecting plot and script are perfectly suited to Price who had long since perfected the art of delivering barbed bon mots whilst giving a sideways glance at the camera.

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The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971

Assisted by his silent female companion, Vulnavia (Virginia North), the updated plagues unleashed by Phibes are:

Boils

A tricky one to translate to the screen (indeed it isn’t, it takes place before the film starts), unlucky Professor Thornton stung to death by bees.

Gnats

Gnats proving too difficult to present onscreen, Phibes lowers deadly vampire bats into Dr Dunwoody’s bedroom via the skylight. The ferocious winged beasts are cute vegetarian fruit bats, but shh, no-one noticed.

Frogs

Stuck-up Doctor Hargreaves has his head crushed by Dr Phibes’s constricting frog head-piece at a masked ball. A funny and disturbing scene ensues as assorted horses and birds peer over to view his corpse.

Blood

Stag film-loving, brandy-quaffing Dr Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) has his late-night viewing interrupted by Anton and Vulnavia as they carry out an unwanted complete blood donation. So delightful is Thomas, he returned as a different character in the film’s sequel.

Hail

Dr Hedgepath is frozen to death in his car, a fiendish ice machine attached to the engine.

Rats

Again, flies too difficult and expensive to convey, rats are secreted into Dr Kitaj’s biplane, despite their fluffy appearance, enough to cause him to spin to the ground (in a hurry, and without applying the brakes). Originally, the rats were to kill the doctor on a boat but it was quickly realised that escape would’ve been relatively simple.

Beasts

Particularly ingeniously, Dr Whitcombe is impaled on the brass horn of an ornamental unicorn, fired from a catapult. Not a real unicorn, that would be silly.

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Locusts

Perhaps the most well-known plague, poor Nurse Allen gets a really rough deal, after drilling a hole into her bedroom ceiling, he pours green slime over her sleeping body, a rare treat for the locusts who ravenously follow the liquid, gnawing her face off in the process

Death of the First-Born

Slip-shod policing assumes this to be the already dead elder brother of the doctor, not the actually kidnapped teenage son of lead surgeon, Doctor Vesalius. Years before Saw, a devilish trap is constructed, the youngster facing death by acid lest his father is able to perform a perilously quick operation to find the key to undo his bindings, hidden as it is within his body, close to his heart. Phibes finally comes undone, a daring, high-octane rescue being successful. This just leaves the final plague…

Darkness

Unaware of his failure, Phibes embalms himself, finally joining his darling wife in the greatest darkness.

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The genius of Phibes’ traps and his hideous visage, mostly covered throughout the film by a self-crafted mask and wig, have made the villain one of the most iconic movie monsters outside of the Universal canon.

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Price is ably assisted by a cast who by turns, play the film completely straight and conversely with an eyebrow permanently raised, in particular, Inspector Trout, played by Peter Jeffrey (Deadly StrangersCountess Dracula; Doctor Phibes Rises Again), who gets most of the juiciest lines. Also worthy of mention are Trout’s assistant, Crow (Derek Godfrey from Hands of the Ripper), the jeweller played by Aubrey Woods and why not, a second mention for the incomparable Terry-Thomas (also in the Phibes sequel, and Vault of Horror).

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Trade ad showing Peter Cushing was originally cast but had to drop out due to his wife’s death

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Director, Fuest, had cut his teeth directing many episodes of classic 60s TV show, The Avengers, only slightly suggesting the visual feast and engaging plot he delivers in the film. He also directed the sequel and the enjoyable Shatner/Borgnine romp The Devil’s Rain

Highgate Cemetery

The Elstree-filmed sensational ‘thirties era’ set design came from the hands of Brian Eatwell, who later worked on Sam Fuller’s White Dog and the David Bowie-starring The Man Who Fell to Earth. The vibrant colours simply boil on the screen. The eerie cemetery scenes were shot in then partly derelict Highgate Cemetery, North London.

The sound of the film is one of its greatest stars. The music-loving Phibes doesn’t speak until half an hour into the film, indeed there is no dialogue at all for the first ten minutes. Instead, we are treated to one of Basil Kirchin’s masterpieces, his score a combination of ominous, thundering organ work and boozy, swooning jazz, enticing and suffocating. Watching Phibes conduct his creepy clockwork orchestra, The Clockwork Wizards, is one of the great cinematic treats of 1970s British film. The drunken trumpet playing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ over the closing credits absolutely nails the genius of the film; Phibes has indeed been wronged, driven to madness by love and grief – we can’t help but slightly feel for the ‘monster’ just as we had for Frankenstein’s creation, forty years previously.

The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971)

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How ironic the plaudits were for films such as the original Saw and Se7entheir traps and conceits being hailed as revolutionary. What a shame this film beat them to it with more style and panache they could ever dream of, decades before.

As the end credits roll (the cast splendidly split into  ‘The Protagonists’, ‘The Girl’, ‘The Victims’, ‘The Law’ and ‘Interested Parties’) we hear the unmistakable laugh of Price, indicating his inevitable return.

Although there was a sequel, Doctor Phibes Rises Again, this was the only one of many earmarked, said to have been Doctor Phibes in the Holy LandThe Brides of PhibesPhibes Resurrectus and The Seven Fates of Doctor Phibes. Alas, we can only dream.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA

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Second review:

Of course, the film belongs to Vincent Price. While some have complained that the role doesn’t allow him to use his distinctive voice (not true, incidentally; Phibes still has a fair amount of dialogue), they are missing the point, as this is Price at his campest, a wild theatrical performance that allows him to be fearsome, tragic, comedic and ludicrous by turn, never taking things too seriously and yet able to give the part more intensity that you suspect many actors could. It’s hard to think of anyone else playing this role – Price’s willingness to go over the top is perfect for a film so utterly extravagant and kitsch.

David Flint, MOVIES & MANIA

Other reviews:

“Price fans have long held this film and its sequel close to their hearts thanks to its deft blend of nasty wit and gimmicky shocks. The potentially sick and morbid subject matter is kept in check by the script’s dashes of silly humor, ranging from Trout’s hilarious discussions with his superiors to Phibes’ bizarre methods of communicating via gramophone and consuming champagne through…” Mondo Digital

” …flat, unimaginative visual style […] contriving to be coy and tongue-in-cheek without ever being witty.” David Pirie, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1971

Joseph Cotten and Peter Jeffrey in Highgate Cemetery, North London

” …its intriguing mixture of suspense, parody and camp black comedy elevated it more or less immediately to the status of a cult.” Graham McCann, Bounder! The Biography of Terry-Thomas

“The plot, buried under all the iron tinsel, isn’t bad. But the tone of steamroller camp flattens the fun.” The New York Times, August 5, 1971

Cast and characters:

  • Vincent Price … Doctor Anton Phibes
  • Joseph Cotten … Doctor Vesalius
  • Peter Jeffrey … Inspector Harry Trout
  • Virginia North … Vulnavia
  • Hugh Griffith … Rabbi
  • Terry-Thomas … Doctor Longstreet
  • Derek Godfrey … Crow
  • Norman Jones … Sgt. Tom Schenley
  • John Cater … Waverley
  • Aubrey Woods … Goldsmith
  • John Laurie … Darrow
  • Maurice Kaufmann … Doctor Whitcombe
  • Sean Bury … Lem Vesalius
  • Susan Travers … Nurse Allen
  • David Hutcheson … Doctor Hedgepath
  • Edward Burnham … Doctor Dunwoody
  • Alex Scott … Doctor Hargreaves
  • Peter Gilmore … Doctor Kitaj
  • Caroline Munro … Phibes’ wife, Victoria Regina Phibes

Filming locations:

Elstree Studios, Hertfordshire, England
Highgate Cemetery, North London, England
Caldecote Towers at Immanuel College on Elstree Road, Bushey, Hertfordshire, England – The exterior of Phibes’ mansion

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