Saturday, October 31, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: The Good Doctors Get Their Just Desserts in The Abominable Dr. Phibes

For the majority of his career, Vincent Price was not taken seriously as an actor and was most often associated with the horror genre. But just watch him in a small role like Laura (1944), which he plays straight, and you’ll witness a fine actor at work. Or have a look at Champagne for Caesar (1950), a rare comedic opportunity for the man, which he pulls off with the greatest of ease.
The lanky gent always brought a touch of class to his pictures. Many of the horror films in which he starred had an otherworldly quality (e.g., 1958's The Fly or 1953's House of Wax), and his acting style grounded these stories. Some critics considered his acting too theatrical, but his particular method made it easy to embrace his characters, men who could rise above the viciously fanatical odds -– like being the only one left to battle a world ripe with vampires in The Last Man on Earth (1964).
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) is Vincent Price at his absolute best. Dr. Anton Phibes is presumed dead from a car crash, but the doctor has survived and is hideously disfigured. He had been speeding to the hospital to see to his sickly wife, Virginia. Unfortunately, Virginia dies, and Phibes blames the doctors and nurse present during the failed operation. He consequently unleashes his vengeance in the form of murders inspired by the Biblical Plagues, such as frogs, locusts, blood, etc. This leads to a number of highly creative death sequences, particularly the one to signify "frogs" (hint: don't accept masks from strangers, even if you've forgotten to wear one to a costume ball).
Price is smashingly good as the determined and crazed titular character. His plan is absurd and unbelievable, but he executes it with such gusto that you cannot help but to completely sympathize with him. One such example of the audience's empathy for Dr. Phibes is a humorous bit when the doctor is leaving a room and returns to offer Dr. Longstreet a look of aversion concerning a relatively brazen painting hanging on the wall. It is difficult as a viewer to not concur with the doctor's apparent distaste for the painting. It is likewise easy to forget that sitting directly under the picture are eight bottles filled with Longstreet's blood, which has been meticulously drained by Dr. Phibes.
Virginia North plays Dr. Phibes' seemingly emotionless and never-speaking assistant, and despite the fact that she has not a single line of dialogue, she is remarkable. Director Robert Fuest offers a stylish interpretation of Dr. Phibes' bloodthirsty setpieces. The only notable shortcoming for the film is a rather bland performance from Joseph Cotton, playing one of the doctor's potential victims. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a film that can turn a Vincent Price novice into a fan.
A sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, followed the next year and was just as good as the first. Although not an additional sequel, Theatre of Blood (1973) was very similar in terms of plot and style, the story of a former Shakespearean actor targeting his critics with murders based on Shakespeare’s plays. The two Phibes movies and Theatre of Blood would make a first-rate triple feature!


  1. Sark, this is another marvelous review and a fitting way to end the Cafe's "31 Days of Halloween" movie/TV marathon. Plus, TCM is showing THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES today at 12:00 EDT! Your description of the scene with the painting reminded me of some trivia. Valli Kemp, who played Phibes' silent assistant in the sequel, did paintings on the side. When Price (a well-known connoisseur of art) saw her work, he set up a very successful gallery show for her. She quit acting and modeling and became a successful painter and art teacher. Again, this was a perfect pick; I'm off to set the VCR.

  2. I am a great fan of Vincent Price, and this movie and the sequel are Price at his campy best. I love the look on his face while he dines with Vulnavia, forking food into his throat. Theatre of Blood is an absolute favorite of mine. I love Shakespeare, and Price as a vengeful ham actor is priceless. Wonderful review, Sark, and I'm going to pull out my copies of all 3 of these movies to watch this weekend.

  3. Thanks for the compliments, friends! Any Vincent Price fans can click the actor's "label" above, where you can find two more selections from the "31 Days of Halloween" starring Vincent Price (written by Becky and Rick), as well as Becky's excellent focus on the wonderful actor.

  4. I do indeed remember this movie, Sark. It is just pure Vincent Price. Only he could pull off the character of Dr. Phibes. I love the ways he craftily murders the people he blames for his wife's death. Enjoyed reading your review.

  5. Great post of a strange movie; great early model of later 1970's films. I like these "serial revenge" flicks. A great "bad" one is "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of England?". My favorite scene is when Morley (?) discovers he has eaten his favorite dog....
    Thank you again for your review.

  6. Sark, I have not seen this wonderfully quirky little film. However.. Iam a huge Vincent Price fan. Loved reading your review.