Thursday, February 03, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Dr. Anton Phibes, genius, holding advanced degrees in theology and music (a world-famous organ player) was presumed dead, killed in an automobile accident. But if that were true, then who is killing the doctors who worked on his deceased wife?

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was Vincent Price's 100th film, and the last film he appeared in for American-International Pictures. Filmed in England, it it is set in the mid- to late-1920s, but there is also a contemporary look to the sets. The art direction of the Art Nouveau sets and the costuming is reminiscent of the Twenties as seen through the prism of the early Seventies, with that Swinging London vibe. I'm not sure if floor-to-ceiling mirrors were in vogue at the time.

Price ends his run with AIP with a bang, and he heavily chews the scenery here, even if the character really doesn't "say" anything, as it were. Phibes takes his revenge on the medical team who treated his wife (what the surgery was for is never mentioned) by using his theological knowledge -- each murder is a meticulously-planned recreation of the Plagues of Egypt.

When Phibes leaves a clue to that effect at the scene of one of the murders, Scotland Yard begins to put the pieces together. This is an interesting part of the editing. We follow Phibes as he plans, carries out, and celebrates each murder, then we cut back to follow the police investigation. I haven't timed it out but the movies feels almost like two separate films in that respect.

Although these are senseless, murderous acts, we feel some sympathy for Dr. Phibes. He seems to be fully in command of the situation, his brilliant mind always several steps ahead of the hapless police. I think that might be the preferred reaction, as it really only works as a black-comedy/horror film. I'm a huge fan of Mr. Price, but I think I still prefer many of his other films over this one. Still, it's only a personal observation, as this is one of the landmark films of the horror genre, and can be seen as a progenitor of the "deathtrap" horror film, eventually leading to the Saw franchise. Two years later, Price starred in another British production, this time for United Artists, Theatre of Blood, with a similar premise: an actor shunned by the critics for a Best Actor Award in his final season has his revenge by killing them in methods based on various Shakespearean plays.

Bonus cult movie fact: The photos of Phibes' wife are of the uncredited actress Caroline Munro.

I watched the MGM Midnite Movies disc with the trailer being the only extra feature. It was later released as a Midnite Movies double-feature with the sequel, Dr. Phibes Lives Again!, and the same double-feature disc was included in the Vincent Price MGM Scream Legends box set.

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