Time for another nostalgic time traveling journey to the fun films of my youth and another of our “Lil’ Kitten Classics” reviews…. this time out we’ll be reminiscing about the classic Vincent Price film, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”….
Our simple synopsis reads:“A brilliant man who was horribly disfigured in a flaming, near fatal automobile accident that also took the life of his wife, seeks a macabre revenge on those whom he believes to be responsible for her death.”
As with most of these capsule synopsis, the teaser only scratches the surface of exactly what this one is about… there’s just soooo much more to the film than can be summed up in a couple of lines….. (After all…. it does star Vincent Price!! Ahhhhh!!! Sooo creepy!!) Lil’ Miyuki had a special place in her heart for the great Vincent Price, and there’s still a warm place there even today. I’ve seen all his films, and I’m hard pressed to think of even a one that wasn’t elevated by his participation…. Even the most silly premise was given a measure of respectability and charm when Mr. Price took the screen in them to delight, horrify, and entertain me.
Naturally, you guys are going to want to see just what there was about this one that captivated lil’ Miyuki all those years ago, so watcha’ waitin’ for? “Read On”, by all means!
Vincent Price….. now there’s a classic horror movie star! With a lesser actor in the title role of Dr. Anton Phibes, “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” probably would have faded into obscurity as yet another re-tread of that famous old classic “Phantom of the Opera”. No doubt… the film does share many similarities to that famous old story…… disfigured anti-hero/villain….. beautiful tragic story of lost love… secret lair with creepy pipe organ…. and a macabre series of murders for reasons beyond the understanding of a sane and reasonable man. Yep, the inspiration is easy to see. Even as a popcorn crunching lil’ girl curled up on the couch in the dark, I recognized them. But Dr. Phibes…. he certainly had his very own style and panaché!!
Unlike the dour Phantom, the good Doctor Phibes hides out in a lavish 1920’s London estate, fitted out with the most gorgeous art-deco design and a lavishly bright, almost psychedelic, color scheme. His animatronic band “Dr Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards” accompany him when he plays… or when he and mysterious henchgirl, the beautiful Vulnavia (played to silent perfection by Virginia North) dance the night away in glorious abandon. Yep…. gotta love a villain with that much showmanship.
He’ll need all of it too. Seems the Doctor has one of those burning needs to get some serious revenge. Terrible, deadly, yet ever so intricate and almost “Wile E Coyote” type revenge on the 9 people connected to a botched surgical operation that cost the life of his beloved wife Victoria (played by Caroline Munro, in photos at least… as she never actually appears in the film…).
We start with trusty Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard…. he’s stuck with the weird case of a London Doctor killed in his bed by a swarm of Malaysian Fruit bats…. (although I think we’re supposed to believe they are some sort of voracious vampire bats or something….) Sound pretty out there? Well it’s no less strange than the other case they had the week before in which another surgeon was stung to death by a swarm of bees…. Bats, Bees…. what the heck is going on here?
Hehehehe…. seems that the good doctor isn’t just a world class organist and musical genius… he’s also a medical doctor, and a doctor of Theology as well. Handy for knowing all sorts of crazy stuff like the ancient Jewish Curses on the Egyptians… Why, that’ll do the trick!! It takes yet another way out death… this time by suffocating Frog mask if you’ll believe it, to convince Trout’s superiors that maybe he’s got more of a seriously dangerous serial killer on the loose than they first thought…. Duhhhh!!
Oh well…. none of this is going to slow down the good doctor who already has all his plans in place to get his victims right where he wants them. We get a veritable cornucopia of crazy killings with the police in dogged pursuit always one step behind him or Vulnavia trying hard to make sense of his actions. Little Miyuki wasn’t certain what the heck was going on most of the time back then, but then what other movie has people getting skewered by catapulted brass unicorns? Huh? Answer me that!!
Luckily… the police get some help in the form of Dr. Vesalius (played by Joseph Cotton), head of the team of doctors that originally operated on Phibes’s wife all those years ago, now on the presumed list of victims himself. He’s a smart cookie, and does his best “Nayland Smith” imitation in an effort to head off Dr. Phibes and save the surgical team before it’s too late. Naturally, despite his best efforts, it’s to no avail. We get a death by snow cone machine…. a man eaten by rats…. a creepy death by exsanguination and even a nifty one in which a woman is completely devoured by locusts.
By now, you are probably thinking that “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” is… well… just plain silly. You’d be right… the film is downright wacky, but that’s just the point of it’s charm. It takes an actor of Vincent Price’s style to make such a film work. I absolutely loved watching the campy action and was soooo taken by the mysterious Vulnavia and her gorgeous clothing. I remember wanting a big fuzzy Russian style hat and cloak just like hers for my very own. (And proceeded to pester my mother to buy me that outfit despite her somewhat reasonable objections that little girls didn’t wear clothes like that in the 1980’s) It’s probably the most striking memory I have of this film as a child, and it stands as the first time I remember being interested in costume play at all. (And yes…. in college I finally got that very same hat and cloak and gorgeous riding boots to wear for a Halloween bash…. so sometimes a little kitten’s dreams do come true….)
Eventually the fun comes to an end after Phibes unleashes his final curse… the “Death of the First Born” by kidnapping Dr. Vesalius’ son and placing him on an operating table in his lair above which a container full of acid is perilously poised to destroy the boy’s face. Using his considerable medical talents, Phibes has implanted a small key near the boy’s heart that will free him from this trap, but the catch is that Vesalius must perform the entire surgery within six minutes to get this key before the acid begins to rain down. The operation succeeds and in a struggle, the acid instead strikes Vulnavia, presumably killing her. But… what about the good doctor? Do the police nab him in the end and end his reign of terror? Nope…. always the perfectionist, he’s saved the final curse for himself. The dread “Curse of Darkness”…..
Unaware that Dr. Vesalius has saved his son,Phibes chooses to retreat to a stone sarcophagus hidden beneath his lair to lie at last beside the embalmed body of his beloved wife. In a final macabre gesture, he commits suicide by completely draining out his own blood and replacing it with embalming fluid. Then, to the swelling organ music, the coffin’s inlaid stone lid slides into place automatically, concealing them both in darkness, presumably for an eternity together. Eventually Inspector Trout and his men arrive only to discover that Phibes has vanished….. but they somehow know “Dr. Phibes Will Rise Again”…. But that’s another sequel for another time….
Mmmmm…. a good ending for a truly unique movie. They don’t make them like this anymore. Unfortunately the wry humor and over-the-top camp of “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” belongs to another era. A shame really, as lil’ Miyuki could watch this one and squeal in joy with every crazy murder, unlike the gory and excessive films of today. Thankfully, this one has been lovingly restored on DVD and can still be enjoyed today even though I’m a grown woman with only a glimmer of the youthful zeal of all those years ago. (OK… maybe more than a glimmer…. Hehehe!!)
Neko gives this one a well deserved 4 “Meows” out of 5 for being a fun, silly, campy romp in which murder and musicals actually work, and where crazy mad scientists still waltz the night away. If you haven’t seen it, by all means do!
Trailer you ask? Don’t worry…. Neko’s got you covered. Enjoy!!