The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)


I love organs. Anyone who read my gushing Quintron review will know this. Anyone who’s had to sit in the car with me as I drive around Tampa trying to find the skate rink on Armenia will know this too. (The latter group is a lot smaller than the former; I promise you.) So when I learned that the great Vincent Price starred in a film about a murderous, revenge-crazed organist, I knew I had to see it.

Luckily, the film, Robert Fuest’s the Abominable Dr. Phibes, came out in 1971, so all I really had to do was read about it and wait for a friend to gift me a copy.

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - Rising

It’s hard to decide what I love most about this film. The amazing poster above, the chauffeured Dr. Phibes-mobile, or the film’s opening sequence. Which has Dr. Phibes playing a organ rising up from the floor accompanied by a group of robotic musicians (“Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards”). The set of which brings to mind the aquatic hideout of the Spy Who Loved Me‘s Stromberg if done up with Art Deco sensibilities – less streams of piranhas, and more ball-room dancing.

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - Phibes and the Frog Mask

Of course if all Dr. Phibes did was dance around to robot jazz all day, he wouldn’t be abominable. He’d be deplorably awesome. So director Fuest throws in a revenge plot concerning doctors involved with Phibes’ wife’s death. Phibes murders them using weapons inspired by the Biblical Plagues. Vampire Bats, (flying) Rats, Frog Masks; i.e. the same tools Moses used against Pharaoh.

The frog mask murder occurs at a costume party where a psychiatrist is outfitted with a frog mask that starts constricting when it’s put on. The doctor doesn’t suffocate though, instead he falls down a staircase as blood flows out the mask.

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - the Phibes-mobile; note the profile window screen

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - unconscious valet

A word about the other star of the movie (besides the Clockwork Wizards) the Phibes-mobile. Phibes is a doctor, so naturally he doesn’t drive himself. He has the lovely Vulnavia (Virginia North) to chauffeur him around. In a vintage car with one key modification: the back windows are covered by screens with Phibes’ profile printed on them! So it looks like he’s in the car whether he truly is or not.

One brilliant touch the movie adds to the murder mystery formula is how the Scotland Yard inspectors know how the doctors are going to die, but not which doctor will be next. Doubly fantastic is how Dr. Phibes is officially as dead as his wife; hiding out in their mutual tomb!

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - Phibes and the Clockwork Wizards

(Phibes’ death makes the mystery of the Phibes-mobile even more confounding. If Phibes wants everyone to believe he’s dead, why decorate his car with his visage? Speaking of which, why does age his visage? Phibes’ face was horribly burnt in his (believed) fatal crash, but the mask he wears projects his face as it would’ve been. Not surprising until you see the face planted on his car windows; which is of young Phibes!)

Car costumary aside, a lot of Dr. Phibes’ great spirit comes from his custom traps. Which, while deadly, all look as if they were created using an adult version of Mouse Trap. The lethal DIY aesthetic of the SAW traps were still decades off; everything used here somehow looks both slapdash and brand new.

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - Phibes becomes Willy Wonka

Nowhere us this truer than with Phibes’ last trap, recreating the death of the first born. Phibes has the son of the head doctor of his wife’s failed operation tied onto an operating table, with acid slowly sliding down a tube leading to a sprinkler system. Dr. Vesalius has the same six minutes it took Phibes’ wife to die to surgically extract the key to his son’s trap from said son’s chest.

Phibes’ last trap, the Firstborn, highlights one of the film’s greatest themes, Phibes’ moral code. Phibes is “Abominable” only because he lives according to the Old Testament (i..e an eye for an eye). As such, his revenge can almost be viewed as just. Phibes’ wife dies while under Vesalius’ care, and there’s no mention of any kind of reprimand following the (failed) operation. No manslaughter trial, no malpractice hearing; so it’s no surprise that Phibes takes matters into his own hands.

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - Phibes, Blood Bottles, and Boobs

This moral code is so just, in fact, that it brings about Phibes’ demise; not the cops. The First Born Plague, while certainly Biblical, does inflict its pain on an innocent; thus taking it outside of the revenge spectrum Phibes operates in. Vesalius’ son being no more deserving of death than Phibes’ wife; ultimately making Phibes no better than his quarry.

A moral deviation that is Phibes’ undoing. Since, after the First Born Plague comes the final one, the Darkness. Which entails Phibes laying down (deeper) in his tomb; sacrificing himself to the final trap. More tubes, this time connecting to Phibes, switch his blood with embalming fluid. Classy to the end, Phibes joins his wife in the tenth Plague, Darkness, while “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays in the background.

the Abominable Dr. Phibes - the beautiful Vulnavia


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