Directed by Robert Fuest
Written by James Whiton, William Goldstein, and Robert Fuest
The classic period of AIP's horror cinema dates from 1960 to 1964, beginning with The Fall of the House of Usher and ending with The Tomb of Ligeia—and hence, it's coextensive with Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, seven of them with Vincent Price—and I think it's fair to say that by-and-large the company's horror films, especially their Gothic or Gothic-adjacent ones, became significantly less iconic after Corman stopped. Now, even many of Corman's collaborators were gone: Floyd Crosby finished with Corman's Poes even before Corman had; Daniel Haller returned for one more H.P. Lovecraft adaptation in 1970 with The Dunwich Horror; and in 1971, even Les Baxter only had three film scores left in him, two for AIP, of which only one was horror (and it was Frogs). Price was still very much in the picture, of course, enjoying spending much of his time in Great Britain after AIP had planted him there back with The Masque of the Red Death, as the principal American component of their ongoing scheme to exploit British tax subsidies. But, generally speaking, Price's horror films of the late 1960s and 1970s are lesser-seen and lesser-liked, and this is correct because they're, on average, just lesser altogether. Besides today's subject, Price has but one other star vehicle from after 1964 which maintains a reputation as outsized as his Poevian horrors of the first half of the 60s, and whether or not I agree that it should have the reputation it does, I trust we can agree that Witchfinder General offers neither the kind of performance nor the kind of movie that first enters one's mind when the words, "Vincent Price," are uttered.
But then, you noticed I said "besides today's subject," and The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a true outlier for Price's later period, for it is undoubtedly the most significant feature lead in Price's whole post-60s career. It might be the single biggest component of his legacy, period, regardless of what part of Price's career it came from; short of the way that nostalgists like John Landis and Tim Burton wheeled him back out for a couple of valedictory turns in the 80s, and Laura, I'm not certain anything else he ever did is in fact more widely-screened today. It is, sure as hell, iconic; and it's absolutely the kind of performance and the kind of movie that you'd think of immediately if somebody said "Vincent Price," to the point that many will claim it as their favorite Vincent Price performance, while even more would call it the definition of what that phrase, "a Vincent Price performance," actually means. And it is also a terrific movie in and of itself, which is also important, worthy of standing alongside anything he did with Corman or anyone else over the decade prior. It is not (as I suppose it's worth mentioning) my own favorite Price performance (at best, it might hit no. 5). Even so, I could be willing to own it as the performance most revealing of the inimitability of Price's magnificent screen presence, and the sheer extent of his range within the narrow niche he'd carved out for himself. And for this I think it would be quite possible to accept it as at least a defining performance of a man who gave us a hundred performances and more*, for the way that it combines the archetype forged by he and Corman on their second Poe, Pit and the Pendulum, with the one he'd been working on since all the way back in his horror villain debut, House of Wax, in 1953. In the form of one Dr. Anton Phibes, Price derives from the basis of the cosmically-wronged and forever-mournful widower (such as Price here finds himself playing for the tenth time in as many years) a perfected version of that other major category of Vincent Price roles, the colorful proto-slasher maniac.
So then: it's to his credit that the, for lack of a better word, "hero" of Dr. Phibes, Detective Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffrey) of the Metropolitan Police, at least hazily apprehends that a lethal vendetta must be afoot almost the instant the story's begun and the opening credits are over. But what else could it be, but murder, when Trout arrives upon the scene of a most unusual death: a medical doctor, killed in his bedroom, by a flock of vampire bats.
I realize they're not even vampire bats, which might not even as rate as the third-most important objection here; but let's just let the movie get started.
It reminds him of another recent death, which we don't see, where a swarm of bees, their provenance and grievance with the man unknown, left another doctor dead, his face a mass of boils. As we already know, Trout is correct to connect to the two deaths, for it is indeed the most abominable Anton Phibes and his valet, the much less-abominable Vulnavia (Virginia North), who killed them in pursuit of Phibes's vengeance. You see, four years prior, in 1921, his beloved wife Victoria (Hammer girl Caroline Munro, which is to say, a couple of very contemporary-to-1971 photos of her) fell ill, and was commended to the care of eight doctors and surgeons—there was also on hand a nurse—who, in Phibes's view, each failed her with their bumbling medical science; for Phibes, they all had a hand in killing her, and in a sense they also had a hand in killing him, for in his haste to return to his wife's side upon hearing of her sickness, he was also presumed dead, the incinerated victim of a fiery car crash. The report, obviously, was incorrect, and Phibes crawled from the wreckage and hid in the shadows—his face, or what remains of it, he still hides behind stiff and inflexible appliques that give him the approximately human aspect of Vincent Price as an unspeaking walking corpse—and he spent this time laying the groundwork for the revenge he intends to wreak upon this octet of British character actors (most recognizably Terry-Thomas), and especially his final target, the American surgeon in charge of his wife's case, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten).
Now, in 1925, he's ready, with a plan that explicitly calls for ten victims in all—it is clear that the tenth will see Phibes returning his own body to its rest—and, to sanctify his work and to demonstrate to the world that he operates as an instrument of the wrath of God Himself, and perhaps to amuse his own intellect as a doctor of theology (holding two degrees, he is, likewise, a doctor of musicology), Phibes has organized his campaign along the lines of the Ten Plagues of Egypt: the boils; the bats; the frogs; the blood; the hail; the rats; the beasts; the locusts; the firstborn; and the darkness.
And, in case you were about to say something there, halfway through Trout consults a helpful rabbi (Hugh Griffith), and while the rabbi admits that the debates about the precise order of these plagues continue to this day amongst Jewish scholars, he confirms that this is indeed the list of plagues said to have been visited upon pharaoh's Egypt in the Book of Exodus, and therefore this at least must've been what they were in the universe of The Abominable Dr. Phibes—our rabbi even has a scroll handy, with a chart—and I suppose that means the real question is why a British detective in 1925 needs a Jewish cleric to explain something he already learned in Sunday school. And this is without getting into the matter of whether "the plague of beasts" (one of the plagues not mentioned in the Bible of Earth-Prime) is properly satisfied by killing one of the doctors with a sculpture of a unicorn's head launched at him at deadly speed, a scene that probably amounts to the single least-expected thing in the whole movie (at least past the first twenty or so minutes), on account that it's the most dissimilar to the other slayings, but which so exemplifies the nature and tone of The Abominable Dr. Phibes that I've read not one but two reviews of Dr. Phibes in the last 24 hours that use a line relating to that situation as an opening epigraph, while it is also the very first entry on the movie's IMDB quotes page. Let me not break too hard from tradition; that line goes, "A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street, and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen."
It leads into what might be the film's best moment, and I believe its funniest, a bit of conceptual and physical comedy that I would not like to spoil—and this isn't even a Vincent Price part. But you can see from this what Dr. Phibes is up to across its 94 minutes: it is deeply invested in being aggressively strange, and while much of that strangeness is Price, not even most of it is, and that it deigns to spend a whole scene out of those 94 minutes insisting, with the proudest possible counter-factualism, on its own accuracy to the Bible is at least as indicative of how it's going about its work as any brass unicorn impalement. And much is akin to that here: the movie is set in 1925, but so loosely that it's more like a fantasia of the early 20th century and in every instance Bernard Reeves's art direction and Elsa Fennel's costume design and Norman Warwick's cinematography are such 70s renditions of an Art Deco 20s (and its director, Robert Fuest, was a former art department man himself, something that shines through very clearly) that, prior to rewatching it now and seeing all the vintage automobiles, I'd forgotten it wasn't contemporary to 1971, and that Phibes's own predilections towards the early 20th century weren't just whimsical character embroidery. (And of course they still are whimsical character embroidery: one of my favorite small bizarre touches is Phibes's own automobile, which has all the rear compartment windows blocked out with life-sized drawings of Phibes, each window utilizing the appropriate angle, so that the sides are profiles of Price and the rear window is the back of his head. Ultimately, the only thing I really strongly dislike about the whole movie is an art department choice, where a casket beautifully inlaid with images of the sun, the Earth, and the moon has legends etched upon it for "the Earth" and "the moon" in case you couldn't tell.)
It is at its most confrontationally-loopy, perhaps, during the first act, before the shape of any of this has become clear beyond "it was definitely murder," which we spend bouncing back and forth between the cops, looking perlexedly over crime scenes, and an as-yet-silent Phibes and an ever-silent Vulnavia, having inexplicable music parties in Phibes's freakishly-Deco lair, where Phibes plays his glowing pink organ on a raised pneumatic platform and sometimes they dance to 20s (and 30s, and 40s!) pop standards played by Phibes's animatronic jazz band. Even once (a semblance of) story logic enters the fray, Fuest keeps it off-beat, with quiet and not-so-quiet stylistic efforts, and with just all sorts of curious stray ideas, like Terry-Thomas's victim's excitement (cut short by a plague of "blood," probably the cleverest reinterpretation of any of the real Bibilical plagues here) over watching hand-cranked 20s pornography. And even the pornography is off-putting and non-standard (it's a particularly committed version of a woman doing a snake dance).
The film eventually explains much, but it certainly doesn't explain everything—it probably would have some kind of problem explaining Vulnavia, for instance, since the real reason for her presence is (probably) "this AIP movie needs an attractive woman, but Mrs. Phibes is dead." But even that crass requirement gets tuned towards the film's peculiar frequency, who she is or where she could have possibly come from remaining forever an unknowability—she could be lover, daughter, or even protege, enamored not with Phibes but the unplumbable depths of his romanticism—with only the fact of North's human bona fides, and a very late implication about the substance of her construction, to dictate that it's probably not possible that she's just a very advanced and convincing new model of Phibes's other robots. Even on a microscopic scale, this structuring obliquity continues: consider the flummoxing length of time Fuest spends with Phibes and Vulnavia making a brussels sprout smoothie for reasons that aren't clarified until more than just one scene later. This is also why Cotten, as the principal victim, is less dispensable than I think he's given credit for, bringing a buttoned-downed energy that's different from the buttoned-down energy of the English coppers—you'll see folks pout about Cotten because the role had been earmarked for Peter Cushing, his participation preempted by illness, and while I wouldn't say no to Peter Cushing, that does not mean I would say no to Joseph Cotten, either, and he earnestly might be better casting, Vesalius's permanent state of befuddlement reflected in Cotten's own apparently genuine confusion over what the fuck is happening in the movie he's starring in.
"What's happening" is not unlike an answer to the question, "what if a Corman Poe left the house?", the aggrieved and grieving Gothic villain turned outward onto a wider world that finds him entirely incomprehensible, the baroque madness of Phibes versus the squareheaded philosophy of completely out-their-depth cops and medical men. The balance of its comedy—and it is, foremost, comedy—arises out of this collision; this is the case even if its biggest laugh-out-loud moments, nonetheless, remain a function of when it manages to surprise you even on Phibes's terms, with some new and never-expected borderline-surrealist event attending his vengeance quest. Price is more animated (which is certainly the wrongest possible term for this performance of all performances) by the potential of the role than he had been in a while, overacting in harmony with the film around him almost exclusively by way of how he moves his eyes—such as contemplating a daffodil, or re-entering a frame to silently condemn a man he's already tortured to death for his bad taste in art—while he keeps the rest of his face almost (but not quite) stiff as stone. And all this while mostly depriving Price of one of his greatest assets, his voice, separating it from his body and rendering it equally inhuman and stiff as his face, but itself still quite floridly hyperactive, through Phibes's recourse to a steampunk electrolarynx played through a big-ass Victrola horn.
This amounts to an experience that is incredibly fun, maybe too much fun: I can't quite pin it down, but the very thing that's so unique and loveable about Dr. Phibes is also its one big problem, and that's that it is so openly deliberate about being so randomly weird. It is not, I don't think, overcalculating, but it is constantly and palpably "on"; essentially, there's a difficult-to-place quality of trying too hard, and it somewhat keeps you outside of the film as a result. This is particularly visible in the kill sequences, and Dr. Phibes's grand guignol is comedy pretty much without any horror even getting attached to it, at least beyond the vaguest, most nominal sense that murder is horrible; the only salient exception is the plague of "frogs," which is wince-inducingly physical, just one more way Dr. Phibes remains so productively incohesive. (It also has very little to do with "frogs" per se.) And otherwise, Fuest stages all of his kills in ways that basically require, sometimes very obviously, the victim to sit perfectly still and wait patiently for what's coming to them—the "locusts" death taking their tendency towards extreme passivity to such patently ridiculous lengths that I think you'd have to see it to believe it—and this is funny, but it's not scary, nor, more importantly, cathartic. Yet somehow, somehow, this doesn't fully take root in Price, who later laughed about how vigorously he struggled (often failing) not to laugh alongside the movie he was making. It doesn't show up in the product—Fuest is known to have done an uncredited rewrite on behalf of his movie's villain, to make him more sympathetic, and, probably knowing he was getting Price, give him a grander, more operatic flavor, and Price delivers on both counts—and that's why, whether it would still be good or not, Dr. Phibes is indebted to such a degree to its Dr. Phibes, who is eternally camp but never kitsch, and so sincere in his endless sorrow and anger (even on the off chance something manages to make his eyes smile) that you can, almost, take the movie he's in seriously. And maybe we should be able to take it a bit more seriously than we can. But it's a wonderful little bauble of a film as it stands: maybe we already take it exactly as seriously as it ever needed to be.
*The performance, or performances, that most completely pin down Vincent Price's legacy for me, however, are the ones he provided for AIP's television branch in 1970 on behalf of Kenneth Johnson's An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe, where he essentially did cosplay stage recitations of several of Poe's first-person shockers. 50-odd minutes and stagily minimalist, that's why it has not been included in this review series: there's simply very little movie about it to review. But do check it out if you never have: it's heartwarming to witness the enthusiasm with which Price undertook such a meager project, underlining the love that Price had for both Poe and the craft of acting, and it is as unmistakable a signal as anything he ever did how fully he embraced the limitations that his late career had imposed upon him, not as a cage, but as an opportunity and as its own form of glory. It is, in a sense, Price's acceptance ceremony for his enduring place in pop culture, the figure who was and always will be the greatest horror star of all time.