The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Starring Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas and Caroline Munro. Directed by Robert Fuest. From American-International Pictures.
Dr. Anton Phibes (Price) was supposedly killed – burned to a cinder – in a car crash in Switzerland that left his wife, Victoria (Munro), in critical condition. A team of doctors lead by Dr. Vesalius (Cotten) couldn’t save her and she died after only 6 minutes on the table. Years later, members of the team are turning up dead in the most peculiar ways. Inspector Trout (Jeffrey) discerns that a maniac is using the Ten Plagues of Egypt to eliminate the doctors. One is shredded by a cauldron of bats, another has his head crushed by a frog mask and yet another is frozen to death by a hail machine.
Vesalius joins with Trout in his investigations and it is discovered that both coffins supposedly containing Dr. and Mrs. Phibes are empty and the two men conjecture that Phibes is alive and eliminating the doctors that let his wife die. That is indeed the case. Phibes and his silent assistant, Vulnavia (North), conjure up unique scenarios to ensnare and murder the medical team. Phibes was in fact horribly burned in the accident and has had to use his genius to create a face to wear and a device to help him speak. He plays his organ and celebrates with Vulnavia each time another life is taken. Eventually, the wrath of Phibes is centred on Vesalius and his son – the “first born” – and acid and embalming fluid play a part in the final chapter of this tale of horrific retribution.
Once upon a time, in a land not completely populated by polite, hockey-playing Mounties, there was a wonderful channel called Drive-in Classics. Started in 2001 by the mighty CHUM Limited, the Toronto radio giant that had given us the legendary 1050 CHUM, Drive-In Classics was a Category 2 specialty channel that focused on “Drive-In B movies and series, as well as occasional magazine-style shows focusing on the genre”. I mean, how perfect is that? One night while watching this channel, I quite accidentally stumbled on The Abominable Dr. Phibes (it’s pronounced “Ph-eye-bes”). Instantly, I was attracted to its bonkers look and the performance of Vincent Price. It always stayed with me, this film among the many I have came upon purely out of the blue – I love when that happens – and I always looked forward to watching it every Halloween. Sadly but typically in this day and age, my beloved Drive-In Classics was too cool to be left alone, I guess, and was rebranded in 2010 as the snoresville Sundance Channel – started by Sundance, himself, Robert Redford, in 1996 – which shuttered altogether in this country in 2018.
Motörhead’s Lemmy once said that being a “cult favourite” unfortunately meant that you were also “f****** broke”. Makers of cult classic films may lament the same problem upon release of their films but, over time, these movies can come to be cherished by many and generate legions of devoted fans. Additionally, “camp” has been defined as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical…so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal”. Both terms apply in spades (the “Ace of Spades”?) to the film we’re looking at today.
The story began as a screenplay written by two men who never wrote another one, before or after. One of them did provide the “screen story” for The Amazing Dobermans (1976), a movie about crime-fighting dogs starring Fred Astaire, James Franciscus and Barbara Eden. Most of the screenplay, though, was reworked by director Robert Fuest, an Englishman who had been a production designer who had transitioned to directing with work on The Avengers television show. Neither the writers nor the director have another notable credit to their names.
The “names” behind the scenes of this movie belong to my beloved American International Pictures and Executive Producers and founders of the studio James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. The studio had made many horror pictures with Vincent Price and the two founders were happy to continue their association in the Seventies making two Dr. Phibes movies in England. Jim Nicholson came up with the brilliant tagline “Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Ugly”, a play on the ads for the film Love Story, popular at the time. This was one of the last films Nicholson worked on at AIP before striking out on his own and then sadly dying shortly afterwards. AIP had American Louis M. Heyward running their London office at the time. Producer Heyward had worked at the studio for years first as a writer penning such gems as Pajama Party (1964), War Gods of the Deep (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Planet of the Vampires (1965).
At this point in his career, Joseph Cotten was making all manner of movies all over the world. He signed on for Dr. Phibes after Peter Cushing had to bow out. He would carry on working prolifically throughout the Seventies. I talked about him in my review of the excellent The Grasshopper (1970). England’s Peter Jeffrey does well as the earnest Inspector Trout. He handles the comedy well while maintaining his dignity as an officer of the law. Jeffrey can also be seen in the sequel to our film as well as The Odessa File (1974), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and Midnight Express (1978). Virginia North, Lady White plays Vulnavia, the silent assistant to Dr. Phibes. She was born in London of a British mother and American father and began working as a swimwear model before embarking on a brief film career. At least four of her five films are notable. She appeared in the first two films of the second Bulldog Drummond franchise that I didn’t know existed. She also played Olympe in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 before wrapping her career in our film. In 1974, she married wealthy English industrialist Gordon White, Baron White of Hull, “one of the most successful corporate raiders of the 1970s and 1980s known for his uncanny intuition and ruthless takeover tactics”. This swashbuckling, modern-day buccaneer was one-half of Hanson plc, one of the largest British-owned conglomerates and White made himself a legendary and ruthless company takeover artist. Virginia North married White, becoming Lady White, and bore him a son, Lucas. Baron and Lady White lasted until 1991. The Baron would wed again but sadly Virginia North died after a battle with cancer in 2004. She was 58. Baron White achieved such a status that the character of Sir Larry Wildman, played by Terrence Stamp in 1987’s Wall Street, was based on him. When the Baron died in 1995, he left his £70 million fortune to Lucas, his son with Virginia.
Nice to see Hugh Griffith pop up. The Welshman with the penchant for appearing in big movies earned an Oscar for his charming work as horse-loving Sheik Ilderim who loaned his team to Judah Ben-Hur for the big chariot race in Ben Hur (1959). He was also in the large-scale Exodus (1960), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Tom Jones (1963) and Oliver! (1968). Popular British actor Terry-Thomas is on hand, a guy who always reminds me of the wonderful It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The prolific Thomas Terry Hoar-Stevens has over 120 credits to his name. And though she had already appeared in half-a-dozen films by this time, Caroline Munro as the late Mrs. Phibes is seen only in portraits and once briefly at the end. Amazingly, the pretty Miss Munro was also a singer. In 1967, she released a single on Columbia called “Tar and Cement” that featured accompaniment by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker – that’s Cream! – and Steve Howe later of Yes. She’s probably best known for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) but also took a notable turn in Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 with Lee, Cushing and Stephanie Beacham.
We started by talking about camp and cult. This film certainly qualifies. But The Abominable Dr. Phibes is not a slight and silly movie but instead an intense, atmospheric piece peppered with black comedy. While it is intentionally over-the-top in some ways, it is still a horror film that takes delight in unsettling the viewer. First of all, Vincent Price is typically brilliant as Phibes making much of his silence and his speaking device. His make-up is appropriately repulsive as it should be as it is meant to represent imperfect materials made and used by someone to take the place of a burned visage; close-ups should bring a shudder. As I’ve said, Peter Jeffrey strikes a fine balance between comedy and his devotion to catching Phibes and Cotten does well as the tortured Vesalius. Speaking of “Vesalius”, that odd and ostentatious name and “Vulnavia” both actually add much to the macabre tone of this film. North’s character is interesting and makes the viewer ponder her origins with Phibes. Directer Fuest does well featuring the two in brief, well-staged scenes – some that roll out the action and some that occur simply to create a grotesque tableau. The sets and the locations used are gorgeous and classy enough that they add a good counterpoint to the terrible things that happen in them.
Other elements that add to the frightful atmosphere are bizarre violin playing, Phibes’ “orchestra” and the otherwise cheerful songs they play and the unearthly sounds of Phibes’ organ. The Abominable Dr. Phibes may be camp, sure, but there is something else going on here. Something decidedly grim and disquieting to the viewer. It’s a fine line but this film combines black humour and horror perfectly. The result is a wonderful, late-night movie with both a distinctly ghastly overall ambience and startling individual scenes that will keep the viewer in a state of perturbance.