“The Abominable Dr. Phibes” Film Review

November 5, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More


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I was really excited to this film turn up on Turner Classics this past weekend for Halloween.  It’s been at least a decade since I last saw it on television. Not that it hasn’t been on necessarily, but with the channel guides it’s a lot easier to find when some of the more obscure films on.

What excited me about seeing this particular film, was the memories it brought back. WKBD in Detroit used to show vintage horror films on Saturday afternoons. My memories tells me they had “Creature Feature” bumpers on them, but that may be my head playing tricks on me. I fondly remember a number of weekends waiting to see what strange tale would be unleashed on my pre-teen mind. I remember a number of the Hammer Horror films being show. Also, some of the Godzilla films made their way to the air waves.

I remember Peter Cushing in some of these films, because of some film he was in call “Star Wars.” Herbert Lom sticks out a bit in my memory, as well. The most memorable stand out actor, however, was the king of B Horror films, Vincent Price. The voice, the mannerisms, and movements all showed his love of the genre. Which brings us to the subject of this review.

“The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was made in 1971. The film tends to ride the line between campy humor and true horror. It doesn’t quite have the played straight drama of some of its’ predecessors. It also doesn’t have the graphic violence that some of the later ’70s films had.

The overall story is about a doctor seeking revenge for his wife’s death. She died at the hands of a surgeon and 8 other people during an operation. The good doctor is believed dead at the beginning of  the film.

The doctor title is a bit misleading. The obsessed mad man that Vincent Price portrays didn’t study medicine. He is an expert in music and theology. Both of which he uses to further his plans.

The majority of the film shows the Dr. Phibes with a fair amount of obvious make up on his face. This tends to give him a creepy look to start with. When he talks or drinks he doesn’t open his mouth. A rather bad ’70s wig and robes finish out the doc’s ensemble.

The presence that Price brings to the role is classic. As a combination of killer and the Phantom of the Opera, his overacting in this film more than compensates for not being able to move his face. Overall, Phibes tends to be creepy by just being on screen.

To contrast the eerie doctor, there are a couple of bumbling inspectors assigned to the case. The film takes place in 1920’s London, so there’s a reason there aren’t 20 people helping out. Insp. Trout actually is trying hard to solve the case, despite the help of his superiors.  Some of it is campy, but not overly so.

The one scene that stuck with me when I was a kid was one of the medical team being drained of blood while still alive. I have to say, it still works on me today. (I hate needles, blood test, and giving blood. Part of me wonders if stems back to this film.)

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The film moves along at a pretty good clip and doesn’t really bog down like some of its’ ilk. Phibes is using the the plagues of Egypt as a theme for his killing spree, and manages to stay a step ahead of the authorities. It’s the type of film you want to keep watching just to see what elaborate method will be used to eliminate the next person on the list.

If that sounds familiar, the last of Phibes’ murderous methods will resonate with you. A member of the medical team is faced with saving a close relative by freeing a key that has been surgically implanted in their lung. An X-ray is there to show  the key’s placement.

So the plot of the film is basically a psychotic genius is seeking revenge on a group of people that were responsible for the death of a loved one. The genius uses all of his skill to create exotic methods of extermination while following an underlying theme.  Sound like “Saw” to anybody else?

Intentionally or subcounsiously, you have to think the Saw writers were at least partially inspired by this film. The key in the X-ray points more towards intentional. But it’s not a bad thing. Why isn’t it bad? Because Saw isn’t a direct remake or copy. It manages to give respect to it’s predecessor without mocking it.

If you think about it, if  you were going to make “Saw” forty years ago, wouldn’t you have wanted Vincent Price to star? I can tell you if modern day Hollywood was going to remake this film today, they would be calling on Tobin Bell to star.

While not the scariest or goriest, the first of the Phibes’ films is a definite turning point on the evaluation of the horror film. While the kitschy killing methods are memorable, the psychology of the title character is the real scare. Partially because of what he does, and partially because he’s just a regular guy that snaps mentally.

If you a modern horror film fan, or if you, like me, want to remember the old Saturday afternoon Creature Features, check out this vintage flick. Either way, it’s hard not enjoy a psychopath played to the hilt by a master of the macabre like Vincent Price.

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