Rixflix A to Z: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Dir.: Robert Fuest
American-International Pictures (AIP), 1:34, color
Cast Notables: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, David Hutcheson, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, Caroline Munro, Paul Frees (voice)
TC4P Rating: 7/9
"Nine killed you. Nine shall die. Nine times, nine! Nine killed you! Nine shall die! Nine eternities in DOOM!" - Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price)
Poor Dr. Phibes... his wife dies tragically on the operating table after only six minutes in surgery. He gets in a tragic car accident, burnt and disfigured and thought to be dead. And the thought that the chief surgeon, the surgery nurse, and even the seven consulting doctors who presided over his wife's death are still alive fills him with the purest sense of revenge. (His wife's death would drive me mad as well, since Victoria Phibes is played by a young and uncredited Caroline Munro, one of the earliest "loves of my life".) To gain this revenge, he will reconstruct (with slight variations) the Biblical plagues of Egypt, doing in each of the guilty with a different plague (boils, blood, rats, etc.)
It seems simple enough, but this film takes a basic potboiler premise and takes it to an amazing level of sublime and artful horror. Phibes isn't just mad with lust for revenge; he is a genius of high order: a doctor, an inventor, a scientist, and a concert musician. Phibes manages to weave all of his various skills and interests into his revenge, and still takes time out of his murderous rampage for a waltz with his stylish assistant, Vulnavia. A ballroom in his art deco palatial estate is filled with clockwork musicians, and while no one is there to see any of this silliness, the pair seem to stage Broadway-style pageantry with Vulnavia in elaborate costuming, all of which Phibes accompanies on a grand organ, which rises out of the floor and also serves as an elevator to his hidden den. It also lends the film an appropriate nod to the Phantom of the Opera, if not also a reminder of Captain Nemo, himself a creature whose genius is likewise fortified through hatred and revenge against the human race.
And the murders are nothing simple, but sometimes quite involved set pieces of intellectual construct and scheming. Dr. Phibes is always there, lurking about the scene, but as no one believes he is even alive or even that he exists, the police are baffled constantly. It wouldn't do them any good; they wouldn't know him from Adam. Phibes, you see, has no face, and can only talk through a device that he has designed and implanted in the side of his neck. (He has another such device hidden unseen behind his head for drinking and eating, which is used to most humorous effect.) The Vincent Price face that we see throughout the film is merely a mask, and even when we know this for much of the running time, the reveal of his true self is still shocking, even when viewed numerous times.
This film is a delight, a most enjoyable time even for those most hardened against genre filmmaking, because The Abominable Dr. Phibes succeeds outside of this realm as pure, although out of left field, entertainment. It's not surprising that my three favorite films that came out of the same year, 1971, were Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange, and this film. While the intent and the subject matter of the three films could hardly be more different, from three wildly diverse filmmakers, there is still an overriding sensibility at play in all three that appeals to the same exact place in my movie-mind. Call it my need for artful subversiveness (even if Orange still comes on as fascistic). Even with the pretentious strains evident in all three (least of all in this one, though), I love them all equally.
Sequel: Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (1972)
[This review was edited and updated with new photos on 11/14/2016.]