As a film from the American International Pictures studio I had certain expectations heading in The Abominable Dr. Phibes; lurid Technicolor, a sense of 60’s oddness transposed onto a period setting and Vincent Price taking over the entire film – and on those counts, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The plot, if it can be called that, concerns the titular doctor (Price) and his quest for revenge against the doctors and nurse who, in his view, allowed his wife to die on the operating table.
In this Phibes sounds as if he could possibly be an almost heroic figure and protagonist, out for revenge on those who wronged him. Certainly, he is something of an anti-hero simply by being played by the star, but his gruesome methods, based (loosely) on the plagues of Egypt from Exodus, mean he is the monster.
Unfortunately, what this does is leave us without a real hero. There are various ‘good guy’ type characters, particularly Inspector Harry Trout of Scotland Yard (Peter Jeffrey) and Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), who are, respectively, trying to track down the murderer and avoid becoming a victim. Neither though is ever convincingly effective, as a mixture of bizarre comic relief and lack of charisma render them second players to Price and the mystery thread of the police of the police procedural is never entirely convincing as we see Phibes throughout, and even before we meet the police.
Somehow, this doesn’t really lessen the impact of the film, possibly due to my expectations going in, but mainly because it’s clear that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is built more on the idea of stringing together set pieces than telling a real story. These set pieces are weirdly great, and very well delivered considering the special effects available at the time. The standout is the ‘plague of rats’ sequence with its parallels between Phibes and his pursuers and, had there been more of a sense of mystery, this could have had a similar effect to the tracking down of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs.
Imbalance though is the films main feature. For every well executed set piece there is a comedy moment which falls entirely flat, Price is genuinely disturbing as the disfigured Phibes and his lair seems to come from the same world as Argento’s Suspiria (albeit a toned down version), while the rest of the production design (supposedly the film is set in 1925) feels like as much generic 1960s tat.
In the end though the film falls together just on the right side of fun, and its lineage can most clearly be traced to BBC Two’s The League of Gentlemen (hence their presence in the extra features of the Arrow Videos edition) and Psychoville as well the slasher movies of the 80s even the likes of Saw. As excpected Price comes away from it with his reputation as a genuinely creepy horror icon more than intact while I’m pretty sure the producers also considered it a success – what Terry Thomas was doing here though remains something of a mystery…
And here’s the Arrow Video box-set trailer: