The Abominable Dr. Phibes 1971 UK/US
Directed by Robert Fuest
MGM Midnight Movies DVD Region 1
Abominable spoilers included.
There were three reasons why I finally broke down and bought myself the Midnight Movies double bill DVD of the Dr. Phibes movies...
1. I’m how old? 42 and still never seen those damned, well loved Phibes movies! Get a life... or more pertinently... get a DVD copy and watch it!
2. The Dr. Phibes movies are directed by a person who made one of my all-time favourite sci-fi movies, The Final Programme. I really ought to watch some more of this guys work.
3. And then, of course, there was the clincher. This was the one really big reason that made me want to see these two movies... Caroline Munro is in them.
And therein lies my only real problem with the first Dr. Phibes (and is probably true for the second movie too) on my initial viewing. A day or so before I watched it, one of the people I follow on Twitter, BlackHoleDVDs, pointed out to me that the lovely lady in question is not really in them as such... and this is quite true. She actually plays the titular character’s already dead wife and is therefore only seen in a few still photos and briefly at the end of the movie, looking lovely as ever, lying in her coffin. And adding insult to injury... she doesn’t even have a screen credit in the film.
So okay, that major disappointment aside... how did I like the movie?
Well it was great. All the spectacular and off-beat quirks which made The Final Programme the film it is are in evidence to some extent in The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Vincent Price plays a Phantom of the Opera-like serial killer who is killing off the doctors who were unable to save his wife’s life after a fatal accident. Phibes himself is hideously burned but talks through a microphone pressed to his throat, sounding extraordinarily good and Price-like for a person of his misfortunes. The mask and accoutrements which he wears over his grotesquely burned features makes him look exactly like, well... Vincent Price.
He rarely says much and just goes around with his beautiful and silent female assistant, Vulnavia, to commit inventive and sometimes bizarre executions of the aforementioned doctors... when he’s not playing the organ in a clearly unfeasible manner or conducting his brilliant clockwork band on giant and unusual sets which seem to be something of a stock-in-trade for this particular director.
Some of the deaths are wonderful... hands up who else in the history of cinema has despatched his victim by spearing him with a catapulted unicorn? And the giant frog’s head fancy dress mask which keeps tightening as it slowly crushes the wearer’s head was, in the context of when this film was first released, a bit of a novelty death too. Other deaths are more questionable than elaborate. Why, for instance, does Terry Thomas just sit there timidly while Dr. Phibes slowly drains his blood. Did I miss something? Were drugs involved.
And talking of Terry Thomas, the cast is full of little cameos by various well known English character actors and this also includes a brief appearance by writer and one time Doctor Who companion Ian Marter. And in a little bit more than a cameo appearance is actor Joseph Cotton... having a lot more to do in this movie than in the last film I saw him in (Island of the Fishmen)... thankfully. He really is on top form in this one and it’s really nice to see him making the effort.
There is no real story development in this movie. The action keeps flip flopping between Phibes going for a kill and the two policemen who are trying to track him down with Joseph Cotton’s help, Cotton being the last of the doctors that Phibes has set his sights on. Everything is kept very simple and I get the feeling that this is how the director liked it. Frankly the exquisite frame compositions, Dutch angles and suggestively twisted imagery is enough for the eye to concentrate on in the first viewing without adding the extra encumbrance of a slowly developing plot line you really have to concentrate on.
Everything proceeds to its inevitable final scenes where the police rush in and assist Joseph Cotton who has been forced to operate on his son to find a key to remove him from an acid trap (Hmmm... crushing face masks, keys hidden in live people... I only ever saw the first Saw movie but... homage much?) which ends up with Vulvania on the receiving end of the acid instead while Dr. Phibes lies down in a double coffin with his beloved dead wife (did I mention she’s played by the glorious Caroline Munro) and embalms himself as his final trap plays out and he “brings the darkness”... which we don’t get to see because, well, you know, it’s all dark... roll credits.
Despite the lack of “the first lady of fantasy” for the majority of the film, I still really enjoyed Phibes and look forward to seeing the second part soonest... I understand Caroline Munro might be in it.