Terror in Transition: The Fifty-Year Legacy of ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ [Gods and Monsters]

In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.

Precariously placed on the cusp between classic and modern horror sit several films of the late 60’s and early 70’s that bridge the gap. Of these, the most original, stylish, and outright bonkers is 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. With its callbacks to gothic classics, contemporary visual flair, and anticipations of things to come, the film feels like a piece out of time, existing on its own temporal plane. It is a film of contrasts, juxtaposing the surreal with the ordinary, the beautiful with the grotesque, and the sacred with the profane. It is simultaneously a last gasp of old school horror and forging into entirely new territory for the genre. At its center is one of the most indelible performances from one of the all-time great horror icons, Vincent Price, just as he was beginning to assume the mantle of genre “elder statesman” from his forebears. 

Right away, director Robert Fuest thrusts us into the strange world of Dr. Phibes with an opening that evokes The Phantom of the Opera. A dark cloaked and hooded figure, whom we are correct to assume is the titular doctor, plays a red-glowing theater organ in a dark, cavernous lair. He rises to conduct an ensemble of life-sized tin-toy musicians—Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards—as a beautiful, angelic woman in white enters the room. Phibes joins the woman in a rhapsodic waltz, written by the film’s composer Basil Kirchin, before she departs with a wave. Phibes then lowers a covered birdcage through an opening in the floor to the woman we have just seen and a car waiting below. He joins her in the car, and they drive to another house with a clearly affluent owner, who we see sleeping in his bed. A skylight is opened, and the cage lowered through it. We then see the cage’s covering ascend through the skylight followed by the now empty cage, a trapdoor in its base flapping open. The man in the bed is then attacked and practically devoured by giant bats.

This opening sets the tone for the entire film without uttering a single word. Purely through music, image, and sound we are transported into a time and place that is foreign to reality and logic, but simultaneously, somehow familiar. This is the balancing act of the film, and it performs it flawlessly. There isn’t all that much to the plot and the mysteries are revealed quickly, but it is the style and execution of the film that make it so compulsively watchable and utterly entertaining.

Boiled down to its essence, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a revenge movie. Yes, there are elements of the police procedural, but there is little mystery involved as Phibes’ motives and methods are revealed relatively early on. In a nutshell, the plot involves Dr. Phibes, who was disfigured in a car accident, killing off the nine members of a surgical team, led by Dr. Vesarius (Joseph Cotten), who failed to save his wife during an operation. His method of choice is the curses God brought upon the pharaohs before the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. His intention in using these plagues, or G’Tach—with more than a little artistic license involved, is that it will condemn the nine to eternal hell. As Phibes intones in the shrine he has set up to his dear departed wife, “nine killed you, nine shall die. Nine eternities in doom.” The bulk of the movie involves his revenge being carried out in some of the most inventive ways ever captured on film.

It is not really this plot, however, that has led to the film’s fifty-year legacy, but its many idiosyncrasies that cause it to endure when so many other films fade. Though Dr. Phibes is set in the 1920’s, there is a great deal of anachronistic music, fashion, and technology surrounding Phibes and his mysterious assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North). Dr. Phibes’ disfigurement has taken his ability to speak, but his knowledge of acoustics (from his doctorate in musicology) has allowed him to re-create his voice through use of a port in his neck, a wire, and the horn of a gramophone. In a nod to one of Price’s earliest important horror roles, 1953’s House of Wax, Phibes conceals his disfigured face with a number of prosthetics. Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards play more 40’s jazz standards than anything else and Vulnavia looks and dresses like she belongs in the mod-populated London of the swinging sixties.

But the most memorable anachronisms of all are the creative ways in which Phibes and Vulnavia dispatch their perhaps undeserving victims. Though it does not exactly follow the biblical plagues of Egypt, the theological template for murder anticipates the work of John Doe in David Fincher’s Seven (1995). And as with John Doe, Phibes’ final plague is reserved for himself. Several of the murder methods are evocative of Jigsaw’s traps from the Saw franchise in their personalization and Rube-Goldberg-like mechanics. The final trap even involves removing a key from inside a body in order to open a pair of padlocks and save a life. Other methods include a frog mask with a fastening device designed to crush a head, freezing a man alive inside his car with a mobile hail-making device, and creating a sticky goo from brussels sprouts and releasing an army of locusts to feed on it—along with the flesh of the person encased in it. Every method is symbolic, imaginative, and brutal in ways that remain memorable long after the final fade to black. 

Though The Abominable Dr. Phibes is filled with true horrors, it is also a film of great humor and well-aware of its high-camp tone. Detectives Crow (Derek Godfrey) and Trout (Peter Jeffrey) are not exactly the Keystone Cops, but they are always a step or two behind Dr. Phibes. Even when they do manage to get to one of his victims, Dr. Whitcombe (Maurice Kaufmann), ahead of time, Whitcombe is impaled by a unicorn statue that has been launched by catapult from across the street. They then proceed to untwist him from the wall as the unicorn’s horn is grooved like a woodscrew. Phibes himself enjoys a meal with Vulnavia, pouring wine through the port in his neck as his facial appliances do not allow him to open his mouth. Even some of the most brutal scenes in the film, such as the rat-provoked plane crash, are served with a healthy dash of levity. The film stands comfortably alongside memorable horror-comedies like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), A Bucket of Blood (1959), and Evil Dead 2 (1987).

Dr. Phibes is packed with endless bizarre details and oddities in characterization and visual design that the director, Robert Fuest, not only approved but encouraged. He created a welcoming space for experimentation from his cast and crew. According to producer Deke Heyward, “the creativity was flowing like crazy. Everybody contributed because Fuest encouraged that.” Star Vincent Price adored working with him as well. As quoted in a biography of the actor written by his daughter Victoria, Price found Fuest to be “one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with in my life because he was making mad films. He’s a mad man!” 

This “madness” certainly shows throughout the course of the film in multitude ways and Fuest’s experience as a production designer served him very well in its creation. Despite being a low budget production, Dr. Phibes is filled with magnificent sets, fascinating visual compositions, and lush imagery. His eye for aesthetics is on full display from the grandest set-piece to the tiniest detail. The film is brimming with art, music, poetry, and all kinds of beautiful grotesqueries. 

The performers are clearly having the time of their lives as well. “I giggled and laughed the whole time, day and night,” Price said of his experience on the film. It was also an opportunity to work with his old friend from his brief stint with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, Joseph Cotten. Cotten had been the star of some of the most revered films ever made including Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) among many others. As often happens, his star faded as he aged and he began to take jobs wherever he could, often in low budget exploitation films or in the large ensemble casts of disaster movies. But the creative freedom offered actors like Price and Cotten on the set of Phibes was invigorating. Though both had grown weary of the Hollywood hustle, here they give vibrant and engaging performances, particularly in their final showdown in Phibes’ lair. Virginia North as Phibes’ mostly silent assistant Vulnavia is mesmerizing, not only because of her beauty, but her style, grace, and overall presence on screen. Every member of the supporting cast, from the largest to the smallest part, is pitch perfect.

Everyone involved on the project knew they had something special. The humorous tone of the film carried over into the marketing. In a play on the famous line from the massive tearjerker hit of the previous year, Love Story, AIP (American International Pictures) came up with the tagline “love means never having to say you’re ugly.” This little poke in the eye of the Hollywood mainstream plastered above a picture of Price in his full “skull” makeup from the end of the film in what appears to be a prelude to a kiss with Virginia North somehow perfectly captures the humor, horror, and camp-satiric tone of the film. Unfortunately, it did not transfer to an audience seeking more hard-edged, straightforward horror in the early 70’s, at least in its opening weekend. AIP, however, was a particularly savvy company when it came to marketing and course-corrected for the second weekend of release. The film quickly became a cult hit and an equally bonkers, though less engaging, sequel was put into motion and Dr. Phibes Rises Again was released the following year.

But horror was changing rapidly in the early 70’s and gothic horrors would soon give way to Last Houses on the Left and Chain saws in Texas. Horror icons shifted from being actors and stars to directors and makeup effects magicians. The Abominable Dr. Phibes represents an unusual meeting of horror star and visionary director in the limbo between worlds. In many ways, the film itself is a limbo between various worlds—the antiquated and the modern, campy humor and visceral horror, and low-budget exploitation and sublime aesthetic beauty.

It is a rare treat that such a film exists.