Produced under the aegises of American International Pictures -- and featuring the underrated skills of director Robert Fuest, along with a whole host of top British character actors -- "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is one of those curious oddities from the early seventies that, on paper, doesn't sound like it could possibly offer much to get exited about: just another cheap horror flick, financed by kings of schlock Arkoff and Nicholson, with two great actors--Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten--forced into slumming it at the tail-end of their careers. In fact, however unlikely it's provenance, the film stands as one of the most enjoyable and original horror/comedies of the seventies. Much loved by those who remember it from their youth, its unique strangeness can now be fully appreciated curtesy of this fine DVD release from MGM.
The story, at first glance, seems like standard b-movie stuff: an eccentric musician, Dr. Anton Phibes, starts killing off, in a variety of imaginative ways based loosely on the ten plagues of Egypt, the surgical team he blames for failing to save the life of his wife after a car crash. Meanwhile, a detective manfully struggles to protect them, while also trying to capture the vengeful doctor. The film, basically, consists of one murder set-piece after another, but it's originality and inventiveness comes in the execution of the story rather than the story itself. Director Robert Fuest takes a linear plot with rather static structure, and infuses it with character and atmosphere by way of fluid direction, amazing production design, some wonderfully eccentric characters conceived by writers James Whiton & William Goldstein, and a bunch of enjoyable cameo roles by the likes of Terry Thomas. The actual murder scenes themselves are often rendered in an almost painterly fashion -- often taking on the look of some weird pop-art-come-surrealist picture. The first two murders--one featuring a basket of vampire bats lowered into a victim's bedroom through his skylight and the other, a man strangled on a staircase at a masked Ball by Phibes' specially constructed toad mask--are two of the best examples; they look like they could easily have existed in a Salvador Dali painting. An atmosphere of detached unreality pervades all of the scenes between Price, as the bizarre Dr. Phibes, and his mysterious but beautiful mute assistant Vulnavia, played brilliantly by Virginia North. In-between the murder and comedy segments of the movie come these dreamy scenes between the two, set on a gaudily decorated 1920's style dance floor in Phibes' mansion, where they dance to the music of a mechanical quintet named 'Dr. Phibes' Clockwork Wizards"! So vividly colourful are these scenes they could almost have come straight out of "Suspiria"!
As a matter of fact, appraising the film in 2004--with it's curious dreamlike illogicality and colourful, baroque set design--this unusual combination of American finance and British talent often feels more like something conjured from the fevered imagination of Dario Argento or some other European art-house horror legend! If this sounds far-fetched, just compare this brief synopses of the film with a mid-period Argento, or even something from Franco's 60's/70's horror repertoire: a selection of victims are killed off in a series of bizarre and inventive tableaux by a mysterious antagonist who resides in a cavernous mansion adorned with plush, art-deco furnishings! One man tries to fathom the mystery, but is always several steps behind his adversary--until a climactic meeting in the killer's lair. But even then, he is left with more questions than answers!
The lavishness of the film's art direction, and those surreal interludes that tend to mimic the surface aesthetics of Spanish/Italian horror, sit surprisingly comfortably alongside scenes of light comedy that were absolutely typical of the Amicus/Hammer-style horror of the period. This material mainly centres on Peter Jeffrey as the bumbling but sympathetic Inspector Trout. Jeffrey had a long career in both film and TV in the UK and gives a nice performance here: his character's vain attempts to save the threatened surgical team while trying to placate his impatient Chief provide some light-hearted moments and also give us the small amount of necessary information concerning Phibes' objectives, to move the plot forward. As Dr. Vesalius -- the head of the doomed surgical team -- Hollywood star Joseph Cotton has little to do but provide a big name to sit alongside Price's on the theatrical poster; although he does get a big suspense scene at the end of the picture when Phibes threatens his son.
Price himself is actually very restrained here for someone who has a reputation as a bit of a ham. His character is peculiar and idiosyncratic enough as written -- so Price, wisely, plays him rather straight. Phibes is a once famous organist (with a degree in theology) who now exists on virtually nothing but the energy supplied by his all consuming desire for revenge--his face consists of nothing more than rubber appliances, wigs and make-up (the real one having been burned away in the car-crash that killed his beloved wife) and his ruined vocal cords have been replaced by a gramophone player plugged into a hole in his neck (through which he must also eat and drink) forcing him to speak the passionate monologues he habitually delivers to the shrine of his dead wife in a monotonous, electronic voice. Phibes' devoted assistant Vulnavia is a bit of an enigma--we never learn anything about her--but the character is essential in helping to provoke the detached strangeness and fantastical nature of the piece. She is also rather pleasing to the eye!
After starting out by directing episodes for "The Avengers" TV series, Robert Fuest's career seemed to tail off in the early eighties, ending in some fairly unmemorable British TV series' such as "Cat's Eyes". A shame, because the two Dr. Phibes films and his excellent thriller "And Soon The Darkness" directed in the early seventies, certainly hint at a major talent. In particular, a talent for striking visual compositions. Available on both region 1 and 2 from MGM, the disk delivers a great 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks wonderful. The vivid colours are particularly evident with the luminescent gels in Phibes' mansion leaping off the screen. Unfortunately, we get no extras apart from a trailer, which is not in great shape--but this film is an essential part of any horror fan's collection.