American International Pictures

Shaun vs. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

phibesThe first part of my alphabet of horror.  Throughout October I’ll try to review a horror movie whose title starts from A-Z.  For the first movie, we go back to 1971 with a unique revenge tale called The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  Vince Prince stars as a disfigured genius who believes a team of doctors failed to save his wife’s life and holds each one responsible for her death.  He concocts a series of revenge pieces based on the biblical ten plagues of Egypt in order to gain retribution for the loss of his true love.  It shows its age a lot but still stands as an interesting piece of cinema, from the production design to the unique set of murders and even Price’s delightful performance, the film entertains.

Directed by Robert Fuest

Starring Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten and Peter Jeffrey

Story

A man who supposedly died in a car crash surprisingly shows up alive, though horribly disfigured and unable to speak without a machine, and intends to take his revenge on a team of doctors who failed to save his wife’s life.  Basing each revenge kill on a plague from the old testament, the doctors are eliminated in increasingly bizarre ways until the vendetta is complete.

Review

Genius doctor, Anton Phibes (Price) was believed killed in a car accident as well as his wife who also succumbed to her injuries later on as a group of doctors tried to save her.  Phibes, disfigured but alive, blames the incompetence of the doctors on her death and plans an elaborate death for each one.  Aided by his silent but beautiful assistant, Vulnavia, he plans each murder set piece inspired by the biblical plagues of Egypt, ultimately saving Dr. Vesalius (Cotten) for last.

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Inspector Trout (Jeffrey) believes Phibes to be the culprit though with little evidence to support that theory, Scotland Yard provides little help.  He decides to investigate further by himself and discovers that maybe Phibes isn’t as dead as he seems and eventually figures out the murder pattern Phibes is employing.

As serious as the tone can be at times, there’s always some dark humour to lighten the mood (mostly thanks to Price’s performance, which I’ll get to later.)  It’s delightfully campy through and through, though it knows better than to cross the line and become too silly to carry the seriousness of Phibes motives. 

Phibes really believes in his cause, constantly mourning his wife throughout the movie.  The loss of his true love drives him to see this through to the end despite his disfigurement.  His face is mostly gone, he pieces it together with prosthetics and uses a crank-style record player (this is the 70s after all ) that he plugs into his neck to be able to speak.  He uses his assistant, Vulnavia, to help him get close to his victims.  She never speaks, she only uses her beauty to bring herself close enough to incapacitate the intended victims. 

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Phibes’ comes up with some truly bizarre ways to take out his victims.  Since he’s inspired by the plagues of Egypt, he has to come up with ways to kill using frogs, bats, locusts, boils, rats, etc.  Some are straight forward (bats, rats and locusts do love to chew on things) though the plagues using hail and frogs are a little more original as he devises mechanical devices to carry some of these plagues out.  He’s like a precursor to Jigsaw from Saw.

Vincent Price’s performance makes the movie.  He barely speaks but his few solo deliveries are full of emotion.  When he’s not talking, nay, barely moving his face even, he brings some dry wit to the screen.  His character is very theatrical, always playing music before or after a kill.  He retreats to his mansion and conducts an orchestra consisting of robotic band players.  He’ll dance around with Vulnavia after melting wax busts of his victims.  He certainly knows how to party!

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Overall it’s quite the little revenge flick.  It’s certainly not for everyone, its an older movie that shows its age and full of silly set pieces, like the above mentioned robot orchestra, though Price’s dead pan wit is good for a few laughs in between the kills. 

Rating

Story: 7 – A dead man out for revenge for the loss of his wife, comes up with zany ways to kill doctors.

Blood: 3 – Most of the kills are implied, there isn’t much in the way of blood.

Nudity: 0 – Skeletons are naked, right?

Overall: 7 – It can be a silly and dated film, but I find it a unique combination of serial killer/revenge flick. 

Trivia

-There is a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, where Phibes goes to Egypt and finds the fountain of youth.  He again takes out people in his way in even more ridiculous fashion.

-Joseph Cotten, he actor who played Dr. Vesalius, hated filming his scenes with Vincent Price because Price never had to talk back, due to his voice being added in post production.  Price would also make faces to make Cotten laugh and have to redo the scene again.

-Vincent Price doesn’t speak until 32 minutes into the film.

-Allegedly the last movie Who drummer Keith Moon watched before he died.

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