I first saw The Abominable Dr Phibes, the 1971 Robert Fuest movie, back in the ’80s, on a late-nite horror retrospective hosted by RAI 3, the “intellectual” and “left wing” channel in Italy’s state TV. I am pretty sure I saw it in black and white, which of course is a crime, because part of the wonder of this old horror movie is the colors and the looks.
So I re-watched it last night, back to back with its sequel, as I was going through a bout of insomnia.
The Abominable Dr Phibes is classified as a horror-comedy (or vice-versa), and still it is pretty gruesome and it does have a melancholic streak, and a certain tragic greatness.
The plot in a nutshell: believed death in a car crash, Dr Phibes sets out to kill the men (and one woman) he holds responsible for the death of his beloved wife. He does so following the pattern of the Biblical Plagues of Egypt. Scotland Yard is baffled.
A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.
Portrayed by Vincent Price, Dr Anton Phibes – musician, theologian and mechanical genius – is a tragic and sympathetic character, which casts his complicated murder schemes in a very ambiguous light – he is killing people whose actual responsibility in the death of his wife is highly debatable, and yet his fury and his madness all come from a deep, all-consuming love for the dead Victoria Regina (portrayed “in absentia” by Caroline Munro).
This ambiguity helps thickening a pretty straightforward plot, simple but masterfully served by an excellent cast that includes Joseph Cotten (in a part that was originally offered to Peter Cushing) and Terry-Thomas, and the tragically underrated Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout – apparently one of the only two intelligent men employed by the Yard. Virginia North, as the silent and disquieting Vulnavia, helps increasing the surreal feel of the movie.
And indeed it is in the surreal set-up, filled with art deco sets, jazz-playing automatons and garish, bright colors, that the movie turns from run-of-the-mill (but fun) thriller into an object of art. Together with the off-beat period music (the movie is set in 1925), the scenes and costumes elevate the movie to a fevered dream, and a monument to pulp sensibilities: what is after all Dr Phibes if not one of those recurring arch-villains that peopled the pages of the pulps, complete with disfigured face and strange costume, sexy and silent assistant, and a diabolical plan or two up his sleeve?
Everything in the movie goes to reinforce this element, up to the strangely off-beat finale, creating an almost self-contained universe.
It is the whole cinematic experience that makes The Abominable Dr Phibes a memorable experience, and to me one of my favorite Vincent Price movies. We end up rooting for the bad guy, but it’s OK.
Of course, Dr Phibes would rise again in 1972, with Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
That I saw back to back with this one, but we’ll save for another post.