LAST NIGHT: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”
The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with Vincent Price in a latex hood and cape, playing a lite-brite organ and conducting a clockwork band in an art-deco mansion. And so I thought, “This is going to be AWESOME.”
Which it was. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of those tongue-in-cheek horror movies from the 1970s that is almost – but not quite – meant to be taken seriously. The plot follows our mad doctor as he and his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) go around murdering a lot of medical doctors, following the Biblical precedent of the plagues of Egypt. Sort of. I’m pretty positive there were no unicorns in the Old Testament. The reason for this? Well, his dear wife Virginia died on the operating table and he’s really, really pissed off about it. Anywho, he’s chased by Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is in turn ably assisted by Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, in a role that Peter Cushing was supposed to take). The whole weird plot is really an excuse for Price to be very freaky and concoct some pretty nasty and spectacular deaths for his victims. His victims, by the way, include a hilarious Terry-Thomas as the libidinal Dr. Longstreet; if you know anything about British film or TV from this period, this will delight you as much as it did me.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes owes most of its value to Vincent Price, who is evidently having the time of his life as he annihilates one doctor after another. There are some lovely little asides – applauding the death of a pilot, doing a double-take at a painting in Dr. Longstreet’s office, everything that has to do with Vulnavia – that speak to Price’s charisma and humor. Few actors can do what he did and still seem so classy. Phibes is a crazy but sympathetic villain, his passionate love for his dead wife more sad than terrible.
What surprised me more, though, was the humor infused into the police investigation. Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout is delicious, as is Superintendent Waverley (John Cater). It’s a very British film with very British humor, despite having an American production company behind it. As with most films of this type, it’s fun because the cast are game for their parts. They’re more than aware that it’s all a bit of a joke.
As always, though, there are problems. Price has one of the most recognizable voices on film and here he’s all but silent, save when he ‘speaks’ through a gramophone attached to his neck (Phibes was horribly injured in a car wreck), and then in such purple prose that you wish he would shut up. There are dull patches, a bit too much build up to the murders, and the characters figure out what’s going on long after the audience.
For all that, it’s a grand piece of camp and worth it for Vincent Price alone. You’ll never look at brussels sprouts the same way again.