The Abominable Dr. Phibes October 3, 2016
The two things I like best about Vincent Price have to do with the ways he never gave a performance that was half-assed and always seemed to be in on the joke that his various personae, though common in their showcasing of his serpentinely Shakespearean affect, were more campy than actually scary. Such makes him one of the most entertaining genre-specific stars of all time. Unlike your Bela Lugosis and your Boris Karloffs, the unique sense of humor Price holds dearly pushes aside the limitations of age. His best films remain wickedly delightful horror romps notable for having their tongues being placed firmly in their cheeks time and time again.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) goes especially far and wide with Price’s miraculous ability to play lip-smacking madmen on the prowl, the frights laced in devilish laughs, the tone slightly resembling that of a playful 1960s mod thriller. Keith Phipps of The Dissolve sources it as the film in which Price’s films started to place “quotation marks around every scary moment,” but that’s part of the fun to be had. To watch a horror icon let all his most spectacular inhibitions loose in his old age is a wondrous thing to witness, and the film, effectually bananas, is a crowning achievement in an undeniably exceptional career.
In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Price, predictably, plays the eponymous villain with heinous pizazz. A mentally unstable organist who partakes in the comfort of his crumbling, gaudily decorated mansion for most hours of the day, Phibes is obsessed with avenging the death of his wife (a cameoing Caroline Munro), whose demise, he believes, was the result of malpractice at the hands of a select medical team. “Nine killed you. Nine shall die. Nine eternities in doom!” he lustily preaches to her corpse during the film’s beginning.
Assisted by young and beautiful mute assistant Vulvania (Virginia North), he fashions his spree after the ten plagues of Egypt, which, of course, entails that many of the offings involve locusts, frogs, bats, and a great deal more I better not reveal for the sake of reserving the film’s murderous comicality. With incompetent Scotland Yard detectives following in his wake, unable to figure out how to stop the fiend, Phibes seems to be all but unstoppable — and he’s saving his wife’s head surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), for last.
The film more or less serves as the basis for the slightly more superior 1973 Price vehicle Theatre of Blood, in which the actor portrays a has-been stage great who thematically kills his harshest critics in a way that imitates Shakespeare’s finest tragedies. Whether you find the latter to be an homage, a rip-off, or a spoof is dependent on how much The Abominable Dr. Phibes tickles your fancy. Because I find Theatre of Blood to be hysterically funny and a more adroit utilizer of Price’s campiest performative ticks, I prefer it.
But The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a joy nonetheless — Price is, as always, a riot, a connoisseur of Elvira approved faux insanity, and Robert Fuest, who played a huge part in the development of the underrated The Avengers series, directs with cartoonish perversity that only amps up the thrill of it all. Nobody’s a better cinematic scoundrel than Price, anyway, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes is proof that his witty snakiness doesn’t have an expiration date. B+