The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Director: Robert Fuest
Screenplay: James Whiton & William Goldstein
Stars: Vincent Price (Dr. Anton Phibes), Joseph Cotton (Dr. Vesalius), Virginia North (Vulnavia), Peter Jeffrey (Inspector Trout), Derek Godfrey (Crow), Norman Jones (Sgt. Schenley), Terry-Thomas (Dr. Longstreet), Sean Bury (Lem Vesalius), Susan Travers (Nurse Allen)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: U.S. / U.K.
Country: 1971
The Abominable Dr. Phibes / Dr. Phibes Rises Again Blu-ray
The Abominable Dr. Phibes

In Danse Macabre, his nonfiction study of the pleasures of horror, novelist Stephen King notes quite rightly and quite obviously that the one leveler, the one thing we all as human beings have to fear, is death. As he puts it, “Without good old death to fall back on, the horror movies would be in bad shape.” King further delineates between good death, which King describes as dying peacefully in bed at age 80, and bad death, which is what horror movies thrive on. The first example he offers of a movie that generates its best effects from the “fear of bad death” is The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a low-budget horror-comedy starring Vincent Price as a disfigured genius seeking revenge of Biblical proportions.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was produced for American International Pictures by founders James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the same team who together produced some 60 B-movie gems such as It Conquered the World (1956) and X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). It is a clever, slightly over-the-top homage to the mad-scientist flicks of the ’30s ridiculously and humorously intertwined with high-stakes melodrama worthy of Wuthering Heights (little surprise that director Robert Fuest’s previous project was a screen adaptation of Emily Brontë's literary classic, also for AIP).

The screenplay by James Whiton and William Goldstein (neither of whom forged much of a career afterwards) uses eternal love as an excuse for a revenge plot involving the gruesome deaths of nine people. They structure the narrative in the form of a police procedural that takes place in London in the mid-1920s. Peter Jeffrey gives a delightfully hammy performance as Inspector Trout, an investigator with Scotland Yard who becomes suspicious when three doctors are found dead under unusual circumstances. One victim is stung to death by bees, leaving his face covered with enormous boils (unfortunately, we never see this death, as it is only referred to in dialogue); the second victim is sucked dry by a half-dozen vampire bats; and the third is strangled to death by a mechanical frog mask at a masquerade party (one of the most bizarre scenes in the film). Trout soon discovers that all these men knew each other and worked, at one time or another, for an eminent surgeon named Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten).

Trout and Vesalius discover that the only medical case on which all three victims worked was a young woman who died after six minutes on the operating table. The woman was the wife of Dr. Phibes, a concert organist who holds degrees in both musicology and theology. In rushing back from his home in Switzerland after learning of his wife’s death, Dr. Phibes plunged over a cliff and apparently burned to death in wreckage. Or did he?

In fact, Phibes was not killed, only severely disfigured. So, covered in a mask of latex skin that forms the waxen visage of Vincent Price, Dr. Phibes sets about his exacting plan of vengeance in which he kills each of the nine doctors he feels were responsible for his wife’s untimely death. And, since the murders are the primary engine driving the plot, they aren’t simple. Rather, Dr. Phibes decides to kill each doctor in a manner that mirrors one of the ten deadly plagues sent down on Egypt in the Old Testament story of Moses freeing the Jews from enslavement. Thus, blood, rats, hail, grasshoppers, and the aforementioned boils, bats, and frogs replace guns and knives as Dr. Phibe’s instruments of death.

The movie’s devious kick is watching Phibes execute these bizarre methods of vengeance, some of which are positively ludicrous. (He seems to be working overtime to earn the adjective “abominable” attributed to him in the movie’s title.) Some of the comic high points are also its grisliest moments, such as when the police have to literally unscrew a victim from where he has been pinned against a wall by a giant brass unicorn bust that has been propelled via a catapult. The movie has its share of blood and few quick glimpses of gore, but it is all done in a comic spirit that turns what might have been repulsive into the merely creepy, bordering on laugh-inducing.

Everything in The Abominable Dr. Phibes is ratcheted up one notch high enough to elevate it above any pretense of seriousness. Director Robert Fuest, who had established himself directed episodes of The Avengers in the late 1960s, seems to delight in the ridiculousness of the whole thing—its very B-movieness is his inspiration. The special effects are mostly effective, with the exception of one flying bat whose fishing line support is all too obvious.

Set designer Brian Eatwell (who has worked with Nicholas Roeg and Sam Fuller, among others) outdoes himself with Dr. Phibe’s gloriously overdone mansion, which is centered around a huge ballroom done in gaudy art deco colors and featuring a mechanical orchestra named “Dr. Phibes’s Clockwork Wizards.” The opening scene, in which Dr. Phibes, draped in a shiny black hooded cloak, bangs away deliriously on his massive organ and then engages in a bit a ballroom dancing with the mysterious woman (Virginia North) who assists him in his murders, sets the movie’s off-kilter tone right away.

Vincent Price plays his lead role completely straight, glowering through his performance in a way that is set off from the high camp around him. Because of his disfigurement, Dr. Phibes cannot speak. To counteract this, he uses his knowledge of musical instruments and acoustics to devise a mechanical system that allows him to “speak” through a hole in his neck attached to a microphone system. Thus, we never see Price open his mouth, but we watch his wild eyes dance and his throat move in and out as the soundtrack fills with the echoing, disembodied sound of his voice crying out such anguished lines as, “Nine killed her, nine shall die, nine eternities in doom!” Silly, yes. But, also lots of fun.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes / Dr. Phibes Rises Again Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 (both films)
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural (The Abominable Dr. Phibes)
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural ( Dr. Phibes Rises Again)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    The Abominable Dr. Phibes
  • Audio commentary by Director Robert Fuest
  • Audio commentary by film historian Justin Humphreys

  • Dr. Phibes Rises Again

  • Audio commentary by film historian Justin Humphreys
  • Audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas
  • Radio spots
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateApril 12, 2022

    There is no indication that either of the films in this new double-feature two-disc set has been given a new transfer, so I have to assume that they are both older high-definition scans (I haven’t watch either film since the DVD days, so I am in no position to make any comparisons with previous high-def releases). That being said, both films boast strong transfers that don’t look like they have much room for improvement outside of bumping up to 4K. Not surprisingly, color is paramount in replicating the gaudy spectacle of the Dr. Phibes duology, and these discs do a great job. The intense colors of Dr. Phibe’s elaborate ballroom (the dominant colors are pink and purple) are well-saturated and nicely presented without any noticeable bleeding or shimmering. The images on both films maintain good detail throughout, which sometimes works against the low-budget special effects and make-up (that fishing line holding up the mechanical bat in Abominable probably wasn’t so obvious on fuzzy video copies back in the day). Darker scenes manage good shadow detail and don’t come off as overly grainy, although there is a nice sheen of texture to the images. Both films have DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, with Abominable in one-channel monaural and Rises Again in two-channel monaural. Both sound fine for their age, with the over-the-top organ score and use of period songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sounding relatively good even though there is little range and not much of a low end. The dialogue sounds crisp and clear, and there is no distracting hiss or other aural artifacts.

    As for the supplements, set aside some time because there is a lot of audio commentary here for fans of these cult gems. Granted, three of the commentaries have been heard before: the Abominable commentaries by director Robert Fuest and curator/collector/film historian Justin Humphreys, author of the 2015 book The Dr. Phibes Companion, originally appeared on Shout! Factory’s 2013 “Vincent Price Collection” boxset, while film historian Tim Lucas’s track on Dr. Phibes Rises Again appeared on Arrow Video’s 2014 Blu-ray. However, this set also includes a new track by Humphreys on Rises Again, and it is a great listen, as he imparts all manner of information about the film, especially about how it was mangled in post-production and everything we are missing. The disc also includes radio spots for Dr. Phibes Rises Again and trailers for both films, as well as a trailer for Scream and Scream Again (1970), another British horror film starring Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing.

    Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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