The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

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Yesterday, I woke up with the most bizarre desire – I wanted to watch a film starring Vincent Price. I have been a fan of the esteemed horror icon for as long as I can remember and yet hadn’t explored his entire filmography – and the recent purchase of a box-set of his best films was going to help me fill in the blind-spots in his filmography. Part of why I wanted to watch a Price film was, honestly, so that I could hear his enchanting, iconic voice that leaves me chilled, regardless of what he said. It stands to reason as a piece of enormous irony that the film I chose was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and if anyone has seen this film, you’ll know that Price’s performance here is almost completely silent. However, let that not distract from the fact that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of the most wonderfully odd and incredibly fascinating horror films I’ve seen in a while.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is about the titular figure, played by the glorious Vincent Price. He lost his wife, and after a terrible car accident, he was thought to be dead as well. However, he is very much alive – just horribly mangled, and thus has to wear a mask to cover his irreparably scarred face, and despite having lost the ability to speak, he still pursues justice by setting out to kill the nine medical professionals that were responsible for his wife’s death – one by one, he kills them in ways inspired by the Plagues of Egypt. Along the way, one of the soon-to-be victims and a detective pursue the doctor, trying to stop his trail of terror before it is too late.

What I found so wonderful about The Abominable Dr. Phibes is how simple it is – much like many horror classics from the era, it has a simple premise and it sticks to it. The film tracks Phibes as he commits these acts of murder, and the entire film just focuses on the point of making the audience (and other characters) wonder if he can indeed succeed with his plan or not. There is very little else to this story, which is a great benefit towards The Abominable Dr. Phibes, because despite having some incredible execution, the story itself is simplistic and very neat, and contained to a limited space, which allows it to grow and develop without getting out of control. This was precisely why I loved The Abominable Dr. Phibes is because it didn’t try and be too complicated or ambitious, which would’ve had a detrimental effect on the experience of this film as a whole had it been made with the intention of being a bit more high-concept.

What is there to say about Vincent Price? I honestly cannot express how brilliant he was. He conquered cinema in such a way that he left a lasting legacy. He helped define horror cinema and became perhaps the most important horror icon in history (second perhaps to the equally wonderful Boris Karloff). Price was a singular talent that can never (and should never) be replaced or imitated. Having said that, it is almost impossible to choose where to start when discussing Price. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is one of Price’s more fascinating performances, mainly because it strips Price of one of his most important, if not his most important, acting commodities – his voice. For most of this film, Price is completely silent, with his only dialogue being spoken through a phonograph, as his character has lost the ability to speak. This forced Price to rely on some of the most underappreciated aspects of acting – gesture, and expression, which are highly vital to a great performance, but very rarely noticed.

At first, I was a bit taken aback, because the role of Dr. Phibes could’ve essentially been played by anyone, and just have someone like Price dub Phibes’ voice later on. However, as this film progressed, I managed to see the precise brilliance in Price’s performance, which proved that it was far more than just a silent performance. He mastered the art of saying so much through saying absolutely nothing at all. It is an odd place to find it, but I do think that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a masterclass of acting, because, through his most subtle movements, Price creates a highly original and very spooky character that is unlike anything he had ever played before, and even existing (for the most part) without his iconic voice, Price still clocked in a truly tremendous performance (and for anyone who doesn’t quite believe me about Price’s voice, if you don’t see why Price remaining silent in this film is a big deal, then you clearly have never heard Price speak – he has perhaps the greatest voice in cinema history)

When you are watching a film led by the incomparable Vincent Price, it is difficult to notice anyone else in the cast – which is strange considering how strong the supporting cast of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is. Occupying one of the central roles is the legendary Joseph Cotten, who holds his own impressively against Price. Playing the ethical and logical Dr. Vesalius, Cotten is the moral center of the film. My only complaint is that Cotten started out playing the character as a Posh Englishman but seemed to lose the accent mid-way through the film, which was unbelievably odd, and it took me out of the film, but only slightly. Cotten was an impressive actor, and sharing the screen with Vincent Price could not have been the easiest task, but he achieved something with great results, doing it with impressive gusto. One cannot neglect to mention Peter Jeffrey, who plays the dedicated detective wonderfully. It is a thankless role, but he often stole the show and is responsible for some amazingly funny bits in this otherwise oddball film.

From the moment The Abominable Dr. Phibes starts, there is a sense that this is a remarkable film, mainly because of the production design. Using classic 1930s sets, Abominable Dr. Phibes becomes an amalgamation of classic horror cinema, combined with retro-chic 1970s production values. It would have been so easy to simply use less-than-impressive sets (the story is strong enough), but it just so happens that there was a particularly great amount of detail put into the visual aesthetic of this film. Throughout this film, the eye tends to wander slightly away from the story and into the deliciously lush environment that this film occurs in. It is this visual detail that is missing from so many contemporary films, and just another reason why The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a remarkable film – it not only features an uncomplicated, compelling story and incredible performances, it also looks so beautiful, with an aesthetic achieved only through meticulous dedication and an eye for detail.

More than anything else, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an incredibly funny film. It has a pitch-dark sense of humor, which is only accentuated by the sense that this is a farce-gone-wrong. The murders that Phibes commits are nothing but lethal pranks, and rather than being straightforward murders, they are entertaining, unique (and probably impossible) acts that I have rarely seen represented elsewhere (where else can you see a woman have her face stripped of the skin by a swarm of locusts?). The Abominable Dr. Phibes has a wonderful sense of humor, definitive in how it approaches the subject matter. This was never going to be a legitimately scary horror film, so to infuse it with generous doses of black comedy was a great decision, and perhaps made it even more terrifying had the filmmakers set out to create a pure horror.

For anyone who is a fan of horror, you can’t go wrong with The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It is a unique kind of horror film, one which doesn’t shy away from being darkly comical and one that evolves into something quite scary. The final act of The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a masterclass of filmmaking, as is the film as a whole – Price is beyond brilliant, but that is hardly surprising. Cotten is also very impressive, and the entire supporting cast – regardless of the size of their roles – do exceptionally well. The Abominable Dr. Phibes isn’t exactly a hidden gem – but it is a film that deserves to be seen by new audiences. It is a wonderfully constructed piece of horror cinema and a film that is just so effortlessly entertaining. It isn’t complex, it isn’t trying to be anything too ambitious. It is a fun, unique and riveting film. If you need a reason to watch this film, I’ll just remind you of one – Vincent Price. There is nothing else to be said. Vincent Price.

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