One of the most stylish horror movies of the ’70s, The Abominable Dr. Phibes combines an outlandish storyline with divine art direction and a wickedly funny star turn. Vincent Price, perfectly threading the needle between camp and fright, plays Dr. Anton Phibes, a ghoulish genius preying upon 1920s London. Some years ago, his wife died on the operating table during emergency surgery, and Phibes himself was severely injured in a car accident while racing to her side. Presumed dead and hiding in an underground lair, Phibes methodically murders members of his wife’s medical team, basing his killings on plagues from the Old Testament. For example, the victim of the “plague of frogs” is tricked into donning an ornate frog mask for a costume party, unaware that the mask is designed to tighten until the wearer’s skull is crushed.
Much of the action surrounds the last man on Phibes’ kill list, chief surgeon Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), and the bumbling English cops assigned to protect him. However, the real fun is watching Phibes float through his surreal existence. Accompanied only by a mute assistant, the opulently costumed beauty Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes occupies a fortress that’s a cross between a theater and a throne room. His figure swathed in long robes, Phibes plays classical music and silly Tin Pan Alley tunes on a giant pipe organ, accompanied by a group of animatronic musicians identified as “Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards.” Left speechless by his injuries, Phibes communicates through a tube extending from his neck to a speaker, so Price gets to pull faces while his unmistakable voice reverberates on the soundtrack.
Surrounding this eccentric protagonist is resplendent imagery created by director Robert Fuest. Whether he’s forming arch compositions with a masked Phibes in profile—or meticulously depicting how Phibes kills victims with bats, locusts, rats, and the like—Fuest treats every shot like an art project, giving the piece a rarified air that amusingly contrasts the lowbrow narrative. Brisk, funny, and completely strange, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is truly one of a kind.
The rushed sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, benefits from the return of key players Fuest and Price, but it’s less compelling than its predecessor. Without spoiling the wonderful ending of the first film, suffice to say that bringing Phibes back requires some fancy narrative footwork. Unfortunately, neither the method of Phibes’ revival nor the reason for his return is persuasive.
Furthermore, the storyline of Dr. Phibes Rises Again is confusing and convoluted. Phibes and a mysterious explorer named Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) travel to Egypt in search of a mythical river supposedly capable of bringing the dead back to life. Phibes resumes committing elaborate murders, though his motivation is rather thin—a group of people snatched a scroll from the good doctor’s safe. Meanwhile, the inept policemen from the first movie join the hunt when they realize Phibes is back. Although Fuest’s imagery is just as kicky the second time around, the slipshod storyline disappointingly transforms Price’s character from a heartbroken romantic to a bloodthirsty bogeyman.
Still, the sequel has wry flourishes, like the bit in which Phibes feeds a forkful of fish into his neck, “chokes,” and then retrieves a piece of bone. It seems Price had fun playing the character, and his enjoyment is contagious. Costar Quarry, known for the Count Yorga movies, unwisely plays the material straight, though he summons pathos in the climax. Horror icon Peter Cushing is wasted in a minor role, while starlets Fiona Lewis (as Biderbeck’s lover) and Valli Kemp (taking over the silent role of Vulnavia) provide attractive decoration. FYI, actors Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas appear in both Phibes movies, but they play different characters, adding to the murky quality of the sequel.
The Abonimable Dr. Phibes: GROOVY
Dr. Phibes Rises Again: FUNKY