4 out of 5
Direct by: Robert Fuest
Dr. Phibes (Vincent Price) plays a fancifully designed organ amidst an arc deco set, while his assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North) prances about, and his automaton band plays along. Soon, the duo will be off the kill someone, using an elaborate trap of bees, or locusts, or perhaps, I dunno, a sling-shotted head of a statue, stabbed through someone’s heart.
The Abomable Dr. Phibes very clearly has camp on its mind, with director Robert Fuest framing everything severely, amidst overblown staging, and against the most wild colors and designs, while Price is decked out in either garish makeup or a zombie mask, narrating in wonderfully villainous “they’ll rue the day..” style dialogue. …Narrated because Dr. Phibes can’t speak normally, but only through an electronic voicepiece embedded into his skull, natch.
But during all this wonderfully amusing over-the-top pulpiness, there’s something of a bitter edge to the movie, perhaps owing to its premise: Dr. Phibes is revenging against the doctors he believes botched his wife’s surgery, himself disfigured from a supposedly fatal car crash, and using the biblical plagues as (loose!) guidelines for his elaborate torture setups. But the film was significantly rewritten to add in comedy, and play up Price’s theatrical style. This revisionism is apparent in a slight disconnect: the movie is rife with comedic bits, and then also has this Hammer-ish under-tone of morbidity, which comes out in a willingness for bloodshed and cruelty. Phibes never quite connects its characters and plot the way a full-on horror / drama film might, feeling more comedic in that regard – just a series of events – but also isn’t solely hi-jinx, and it’s way too polished to be lumped in with fully camp stuff either, though the Price lineage is probably the strongest of all things going here.
However, where Dr. Phibes as a character may fall somewhat flat, Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout fills in, his team of order-barking superiors a funny poke at politics while Jeffrey’s himself well balances bumbling with a dedication that puts him on the right track for finding the abominable doctor. Somewhere swirling between Price’s bravado and the Keystone Kops moments, the movie finds a winning balance of tone, only hiccuppy at points when swinging for something a bit too cheeky or mean-spirited,
Then again, this is a cult-classic for reasons, and that What Is This Movie? offness is one of them. Additionally, though, The Abominable Dr. Phibes exceeds most cult markers: it looks great, it sounds great, and though presented campily, there’s a story in there that’s a ton of fun to experience alongside all its vamping.