The Abominable Dr. Phibes isn’t just another cult horror movie. It’s so much more. A half-century on and there are enough die-hard ‘phans’ to warrant conventions, online communities, and a lively market in replica props. It’s since been recognised as a bona fide work of art, as the New York museum of Modern Art has screened it as such. Earlier this year, Dr. Phibes’ 1926 Rolls Royce came onto the market and the classic car auctioneers made a key selling point of it featuring prominently in the film. Alas, I couldn’t drum up the funds to make a bid!
In the film, the car is driven by the glamorous Vulnavia (Virginia North) as she chauffeurs her super-stylish serial-killer master, Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) from one murder to the next. Phibes has at least two doctorates, in music and theology. One assumes it’s the latter that inspires him to base each elaborately staged killing on a Biblical plague as he works his way through a list of nine victims. Eight of those nine are also doctors; medics he blames for the death of his wife, Victoria (Caroline Munro), who died under the surgeon’s knife some eight years prior.
Though this might bring to mind its cinematic descendants, such as Se7en (1995) or Saw (2004), it avoids revelling in sadism and never descends into sordid torture-porn. The true genius of The Abominable Dr. Phibes lies in its ability to be macabre without becoming morbid; to temper its horror tropes with a knowing sense of humour. Rarely, if ever, have the two genres blended so successfully. It’s also beautiful to behold. The pop-art colours, art nouveau costumes, and deco sets all contribute to a pervading, seductive strangeness. It’s a whole otherworld unto itself—a lucid dream in which the willing viewer becomes complicit.
It belongs as much to the world of Jeeves & Wooster as it does Hammer horror. Its somewhat anachronistic period setting marks the end of the Roaring Twenties, a carefree era of post-war excess that just couldn’t last. Payback was looming in the form of the Great Depression and a concerted effort to reassert ‘traditional’ values. Likewise, the film was made at a similar watershed as the hedonistic, post-war period of the Swinging Sixties gave way to reactionary conservatism as another international recession approached. But don’t worry, The Abominable Dr. Phibes can hardly be called a political movie.
It’s only overt social relevance is a brazenly amoral push-back against the increasing influence of the Nationwide Festival of Light. The British Christian organisation officially launched in 1971 to declare ‘war’ on pornography, permissiveness, and ‘moral pollution’. One of their targets had been the ‘tea-time brutality’ of Doctor Who! Come to think of it, Phibes has a similar vibe to the John Pertwee era—perhaps it’s those velvet jackets and cloaks, the art deco accents of the TARDIS interior, Bessie the retro-fitted classic car, and the platonic relationship between an old gent and his young female companion?
Despite the American leads, The Abominable Dr. Phibes embraces that same English eccentricity with enthusiasm. It feels like an extended episode of The Avengers (1961-69) in which Steed and Mrs Peel fail to turn up, allowing our titular villain free rein. In some ways, that’s pretty much what it is…
Although ostensibly produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Ronald Dunas for American International Pictures, Albert Fennel was the ‘hands-on’ line-producer in the UK, and he’d co-created The Avengers with Brian Clemens—who also had a hand in the writing here, contributing key scenes for the Phibes finale. And by key, I mean they ingeniously involve an actual key!
Fennel and Clemens were both close associates of director, Robert Fuest, who’d directed seven episodes of The Avengers during the final 1968-69 seasons, and the trio were fresh from working together on the taut euro-thriller And Soon the Darkness (1970).
It seems a lot of the key production personnel remained uncredited due to international contractual wrangling, and neither Fennel nor Clemens are listed for these essential roles, though Albert’s sister, Elsa Fennel, gets a credit for the sourcing the period costumes. There’s not a costume designer credited, so one assumes she had a hand in dressing Vulnavia who turned out to be a seventies fashion icon in a series of fabulous ensembles that are simply ‘to die for’.
Apparently, author William Goldstein, the creator of Dr. Phibes, literally dreamt-up the story, writing his first 17-page treatment as suggested by a linked series of strange dreams he’d been enjoying. He then collaborated with James Whiton, who’d already contributed stories for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) TV series. The duo touted their finished script around Hollywood, eventually capturing the interest of Ronald Dunas, an aspiring actor with only one production credit to his name for The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (1967), the pilot for an abortive Hardy Boys television series. Nevertheless, he managed to sell the script to AIP.
Although he has no writing credit, it seems that Fuest also had significant creative input with the screenplay. He adapted the overall setting and changed the opening scenes to give us the strikingly beautiful barrage of baffling imagery that doesn’t sully itself with explanations or any interruptions of dialogue for at least 10-minutes.
A pipe organ, rising from a pit whilst being played, was once a familiar sight to cinemagoers. I only witnessed such a thing once, whilst awaiting Moonraker (1979) to start at the Odeon Llandudno. I think that was a big Christie, but often they were referred to as ‘Wurlitzers’ regardless of their brand.
So, when The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with the familiar tones of a theatre organ, Fuest’s already playing a game across the fourth wall. This time, the impressive instrument is a specially constructed 1970s neon pink and perspex vision of 1920s futurism. The music’s a rousing rendition of Mendelssohn’s “March of the Priests” played by an overly dramatic black-cowled figure. It crescendos as the organ comes to rest, flanked by a tableaux of stuffed birds of prey in what appears to be a large, glass-roofed conservatory.
More music follows as the hooded man cranks up an entire band of life-sized automatons. These ‘Clockwork Wizards’ play swing jazz as a doorway opens and, from a corridor of blazing brightness, the figure of a beautiful woman appears, She wears a fantastic art deco outfit in white and gold. The man in black and the woman in white waltz across a vast ballroom. We shall later learn these are Dr Anton Phibes and his devoted companion, Vulnavia, our ironic protagonists who lead the aspirational supervillain lifestyle. The marvellous sets, designed and dressed by Brian Eatwell, are one of the film’s stand-out features throughout.
We follow their classic Rolls Royce as the duo deliver a covered cage through a skylight of the well-appointed dwelling of Dr Dunwoody (Edward Burnham) and leave the contents to do its work. The scene’s played for maximum suspense as the doctor awakes to the sound of leathery fluttering and glimpses flitting shadows until we get to see what has been released from that cage. Which turns out to be… several adorable fruit bats. I suppose, in those days, bats were bats and the bigger they were the scarier but, even if we hadn’t already realised, we now know that we’re not to take things so seriously. The whole affair is a celebration of theatrical artifice.
It’s not until the next morning, when the butler arrives with breakfast, that the victim’s lacerated body’s discovered and the first dialogue delivered! Detective Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) arrives to investigate and learns from his colleague, Sgt. Schenley (Norman Jones) that the week before, another doctor had also died in unusual circumstances—covered in ‘boils’ which turned out to be bee stings.
Soon after, a Dr Hargreaves (Alex Scott) dies at a fancy dress ball when the exquisite art nouveau frog mask he’s presented with turns out to be fitted with a clockwork ratchet that relentlessly tightens until his head’s crushed. Not long after that, Dr Longstreet (Terry-Thomas) is found looking deathly pale because all his blood’s been syphoned-off to fill a row of bottles arranged on his period sideboard. And Dr Phibes is just warming up!
At the time, Terry-Thomas was one of the most recognisable of British character actors, more usually associated with playing comedy cads and upper-class twits in tweeds. Though he’d recently appeared Mario Bava’s seminal comic-book-to-film adaptation, Danger Diabolik (1968), which is one of the film’s few antecedents and also centres on a mad genius anti-hero, with a secret lair and a loyal femme fatale ‘sidekick’. Another cinematic precedent would be The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), one of ‘The Mad Doctor Cycle’ starring Boris Karloff as a man back from the dead, devising rather inventive methods of murder for those who wronged him. And, as Phibes does, he also rigs up his house with loudspeakers, through which he addresses his victims.
Detective Trout manages to piece together a pattern to the weirdly creative killings of medical personnel when he hears of the ten plagues of Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn… and what’s more, another factor to link the victims seems to be they all worked at one time or another with the eminent surgeon Dr Vasalius (Joseph Cotten).
Under police protection, Vasalius steps into the amateur sleuth role to assist Trout, and quickly narrows down the number of cases involving all the victims so far to a single patient: Victoria Regina Phibes. This doesn’t seem to help identify any suspects as she died on the operating table and, tragically, her husband Anton was apparently killed in a terrible car crash as he rushed to be at her side. Though it does help Trout to predict who the remaining victims might be and, rather ineffectually, try to prevent their murders.
Joseph Cotten came ready cast with the production package and is a fine choice but, as far as American International Pictures were concerned, the whole thing was a Vincent Price vehicle and would mark his eighth film to be shot in Britain. It rapidly followed-on from the grim folk horror of Witchfinder General (1968), familiar Poe territory in The Oblong Box (1969), mad scientist misadventures in Scream and Scream Again (1970), and another ‘witchfinder’ role for Cry of the Banshee (1970).
Price is pitch perfect as Phibes. He is Phibes! It’s hard to imagine any other actor who could’ve pulled it off with such aplomb. Certainly one of his best, and possibly most challenging, roles. Not only is striking the balance between mischief and malevolence no mean feat, but he also had to act almost entirely with eyes and gestures. Phibes can only speak when plugged into one of his loudspeakers and his face is a mask, covering the hideous scarring received when he burned in the car wreck. It seems the remains that were buried as his were, instead, those of his driver. Ah, it all starts to make sense, now! Sort of.
With the assistance of Vulnavia, Phibes continues to kill with great relish and the viewer finds they’re rooting for him. We want to see how he interprets the plagues in his lavish re-enactments. When we learn he’s exacting his warped version of revenge for the death of his wife, there’s even a modicum of sympathy, though we also realise his blame is misguided so our loyalties also lie with his hapless victims and the beleaguered detective.
Fuest is knowingly exploiting horror tropes throughout in a perceptively post-modern way. The film becomes a treatise on why we watch horror films in the first place—to be entertained! Both Phibes and Vulnavia lend the viewer a knowing glance here and there, an unspoken question, a silent acknowledgement. This elevates the proceedings from grand guignol sadism to something closer to vaudevillian spectacle, or perhaps panto. We all love a great villain!
Fuest also made an excellent executive decision to jettison the script’s original ending in favour of Clemens’s cleverer contribution. Instead of Phibes callously killing Vulnavia, evading police and making his getaway in a balloon, we get something much more inventive and entirely more satisfying. As well as pulling the whole narrative together, it has a poetic beauty that leaves an indelible impression.
In hindsight, The Abominable Dr. Phibes seems built to become a cult. For anyone who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, watching shows like The Avengers, Man from U.N.C.L.E, Department S, and Doctor Who, it’s a veritable roll-call of familiar faces. It would’ve been the final film for William Hartnell and it seems he shot a scene with Joanna Lumley that ended up on the cutting room floor. I’m guessing it was a scene set in the forensics laboratory that’s mentioned but never shown. It was also an early role for Caroline Munro—although it’s not a speaking (or moving) part—who went on to become a Bond-girl and recurring Hammer heroine.
The film’s delicious ambiguity also sustains strange fascination. For example, the central character of Vulnavia: Who, or perhaps what, is she? Phibes is madly devoted to his dead wife, yet clearly enjoys the company of his younger companion as a dinner and dance partner. At least nothing ‘improper’ is ever implied. Her enigma still stimulates conjecture. It’s been suggested that she’s Anton’s younger sister or perhaps the orphaned daughter of the chauffeur who whose remains were interred in place of Phibes.
I’m not convinced and tend to favour the theory that Vulnavia was somehow conjured by Dr Phibes. The Hebrew amulets he assigns to each victim and the wax effigies he ritually burns clearly indicate an interest in the occult. Then there’s his Modernist crypt containing the grand double sarcophagus with astrological designs on the lid. Is she, then, some sort of otherworldly sprite? Maybe like Prospero’s Ariel—the film’s certainly Shakespearian enough to support this reading.
Though I’m sure those coming to it fresh will find it beautifully dated, it may well fascinate fans of hauntological sub-genres, like steam and clock-punk. It’s one of those special films that elicits a warm feeling of nostalgia among those who first saw it at the right time in their lives. There’re only a handful of movies I’ve willingly watched as often and revisiting it for its 50th anniversary was still hugely rewarding. For me, it seemed better than ever.
It was a slow burn sensation both in the UK and US and earned a respectable $1.5M back on a middling budget of around $300K, which ensured its sequel, Doctor Phibes Rises Again (1972). Perhaps a surprise success given the changing tastes of the times and the tightening censorship. Although its very clear how the murders are done, they’re too ludicrous to offend anyone who would choose to watch a horror movie. By today’s standard, the gore quota is very modest. Probably the most shocking image is the final reveal when Phibes removes his latex ‘Vincent Price’ mask, and we see his disfigured face, courtesy of make-up artist Trevor Crole-Rees. But that shock had already been spoiled by the prolific press photos and promotional posters.
The BBFC first recommended several cuts, including trimming out the close-ups of rats eating some stringy bits of Dr Kitaj (Peter Gilmore) and the shots of the locusts on the fleshless skull of Nurse Allen (Susan Travers). This was overruled by the then director of the BBFC, John Trevelyan, who passed Fuest’s cut as submitted. Reputedly he loved the film, declaring it to be the best horror spoof he’d ever seen. I, for one, wholeheartedly agree!
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UK | 1971 | 94 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • HEBREW
Cast & Crew
director: Robert Fuest.
writers: William Goldstein, James Whiton & Robert Fuest.
starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Derek Godfrey, Norman Jones, John Carer, Aubrey Woods, John Laurie & Maurice Kaufmann.