Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Title: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Director: Robert Fuest

Stars: Vincent Price, Virginia North


There’s a passage in the bible in which the Israelites (who were a nation of slaves to the Egyptians) ask the Pharaoh to let them go into the desert so they can worship their god. The Pharaoh refuses this request and does not allow them to do this. Moses, the leader of the Israelites (and best buddy with god) warns the Pharaoh that if he doesn’t let the Israelites go, that god almighty would inflict Egypt with ten deadly plagues. The Pharaoh doesn’t believe him so he doesn’t let the Israelites go. And of course God then proceeds to curse the Egyptians with the ten biblical plagues. Many films have used the premise of the ten biblical plagues for example, Charlton Heston played Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956); a film which showed the ten biblical plagues in all their deadly glory. Most recently director Stephen Hopkins’s directed The Reaping (2007) which used the ten plagues as a plot device as well. And in 1971 Vincent Price starred in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a film that also uses the ten plagues as a plot device to tell its tale of revenge.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is about this crazy organ player who wants to exact revenge upon the nine doctors who were incapable of curing his wife from a deadly decease. He executes his revenge by killing these nine doctors by using the ten deadly plagues from the bible. Will the bumbling English cops ever capture Dr. Phibes? As you can see, the plot is incredibly simple. Whacked out doctor wants to get revenge for his wife’s death. As far as I’m concerned, this film is nothing more then a campy slasher with Dr. Phibes as the main villain.

What I didn’t like though is how the movies script is so lazy. I mean, if your going to do a movie about the ten deadly biblical plagues, then at least get them right! There were no rats or bats involved in the ten plagues mentioned in the bible. But, the filmmakers decided to have Dr. Phibes killing some of its victims with rats and bats anyways. So is this movie about Dr. Phibes using the ten biblical plagues to execute his revenge or not? If it is, then the film does a pretty bad job of sticking to its basic premise.

It looked like the filmmakers simply replaced some of the biblical plagues with something that was easier to shoot, or something the considered more interesting. The filmmakers probably thought that the plagues dealing with flies, gnats and deceased livestock would be harder to shoot, so they went with something easier to shoot. Hence the replacement of certain plagues for rats, bats and a brass unicorn statues. If that last sentence failed to make any sense to you, then welcome to the club. I have no idea what the hell killing off one of the doctors with a brass unicorn has anything to do with the ten biblical plagues. Then, as if that weren’t enough, there are 9 doctors. Yet the biblical plagues were ten! They didn’t even stick to using all the plagues with this movie. Why not make them ten doctors and that way you could have used up all the ten plagues? I was a bit disappointed with the carelessness this movie displayed with its premise. To make things worse, they actually have some sort of a priest name the ten plagues one by one, and even the priest gets them wrong! I don’t know what bible that priest read, but there are no rats or bats in the ten plagues! Go back to priest school you bumbling idiot! Oh well, I guess I chalked this one under the “lazy script writing” department. How did the film fare in other areas?

What we all want to see with this movie is Dr. Phibes killing people off in various interesting and morbid ways, right? So how did the deaths turn out? They were nothing spectacular. Problem for me with this movie is that they never showed the actual deaths happening. This is the type of movie in which they do this whole set up for a cool death sequence, right up to the death itself. And then when the actual murder is going to occur, the film cuts away to something else and we don’t get to see the death itself. We only get to see the results of the deaths when the cops come and check out the scene and you see how it all turned out. But the actual killings always happen off screen. You just see the results.

I took in consideration that this film was made in 1971, but if I remember correctly there were a lot of gory horror films coming out in that era, so I’m not going to blame the fact that this movies deaths were bloodless and boring to the fact that this movie was filmed a long time ago. Nope, this movie just plain old chickened out of showing us the goods! Which sucks because what we came here to see were some cool deaths, not set ups to cool deaths. And then some of the deaths were just so that scene with the rats. Did anyone notice that those rats seemed absolutely harmless? They were just sitting there on top of the actor not looking the least bit menacing. Actually, the rats looked kind of lazy and comfortable. Not deadly the way they should have been! On the plus side I will say that I did love the fact that they used real bats for the bat plague instead of the usual puppet bat with strings which they tend to use back in those days in some horror movies. The deaths were probably not graphic in nature because this was never the style of horror films that American International Pictures made. When you look at it, AIP made relatively harmless horror pictures. And horror films were going through that transition, from the more classy "harmless" horror films of the 60s like the horror films Hammer Films and AIP made to the more graphic horror films that were emerging during the early 70s.

 At least Dr. Phibes had hot assistants!

For me, Vincent Price is the only real saving point in this picture. He plays a very interesting and twisted character. He is this world renowned organ player whose wife died and is now obsessed with avenging her death. Don’t ask me how an organ player ends up being able to create robots who do his bidding (and play old jazz songs for him) and don’t ask me how he manages to speak without lips or how he manages to drink wine through the back of his neck. He just does. Don’t ask me where he got that strange assistant who helps him do the killings, because she isn’t explained at all either. Many things in this movie aren’t well explained or developed at all. On The Abominable Dr. Phibes, the ideas where half assed and not taken to their full potential, or where just lamely executed all together. I remember watching this movie and trying to understand why this one is considered such a classic, but alas I didn’t find any real reasons for doing so. The movie seemed to be a silly mess. Many things bothered me about this one, the lameness of the deaths, the unexplained plot holes (of what exactly did his wife die off?) and the inaccurate script just made me feel a bit disappointed with this one.

On the positive side of the spectrum, The Abominable Dr. Phibes has managed to influence many modern day horror films. The biggest and most obvious one to me are the SAW films. Let’s see, lonely old guy who wants to show others the evil of their ways by using strange mechanical devices of his own creation to kill them with? Check! Give them a certain amount of time in which to escape from said traps? Check! Put a key inside of someone so you would have to cut him open and get it to escape? Check! The similarities where too obvious here! It seems to me like the filmmakers behind Saw were watching these old Dr. Phibes movies one day and decided to do an update on them! David Fincher’s Seven also has some similarities with this one because of the whole gimmick of using biblical themes to tell a horror story. And lets not forget, the main villain also wants to show its victims a lesson.

But dont go on thinking I totally despise this campy horror flick cause I dont. There were a few things I did like about this movie. For example, Vincent Price playing Dr. Phibes. Vincent Price is a fun actor to watch, specially on cheesy, campy horror movies like this one. I also enjoyed some of the visuals, like that scene where Phibes takes off his mask and we can see him in all his rotting glory. Or seeing Dr. Phibes playing his giant organ. Visually, the movie does have its moments. The artistic design is also worthy of mention. This is something that I always enjoy about these old American International Pictures, their sets always look interesting. Dr. Phibes castle is an interesting place to look at. But as a whole I just can’t bring myself to say that this movie was excellent. It was enjoyable, but there are better Vincent Price movies out there to see.

Rating: 3 out of 5


I Like Horror Movies said...

I feel so reassured in my original impression of the film after this review, although I really do feel like a second viewing may yield more positive results. The film is so excessive and indulgent I just dont felt like I "got" it.

Bryce Wilson said...

I like this film a lot more then you guys did, but I get your frustration.

BUT If you want to see a much better version of "Vincent Price kills people with gimmicks" I whole heartedly urge you to check out Theater Of Blood, where he plays a Shakespearean Actor who avenges himself on his critics by killing them with methods devised by The Bard.

Will there be blood?

Oh my word yes.

James Gracey said...

I love this film - it is just so ridiculously OTT. And it has Vincent Price in it! As camp as his performance can be, there's still something quite poignant there - the fact that he can convey so much with just his eyes.
And I agree with Bryce - Theatre of Blood is also well worth checking out. I also have a big soft spot for the sequel to Phibes. Nice to see he gets a happy ending. Or does he!??

Franco Macabro said...

Carl, I did enjoy it, it has that campy charm to it that only American International Pictures had to them, but some things just bothered me about the film. Still, Vincent Price as the looney doctor is a pleasure to watch.

@Bruce: I will be checking out Theater of Blood soon, Ive heard good things about it.

@James: I saw the sequel to this one, Dr. Phibes Rises Again and was a bit more positive about it, Ill write something up on both these films next week.

Thanks for commenting people!

To all my readers: Sorry about the Bandwith problem, I know the images Ive posted are not showing up, I will be dealing with that today, sorry about the inconvenience!

Bob Ignizio said...

Sorry this one didn't do it for you. It's actually one of my favorites. I know from your background you're very knowledgeable about the biblical stuff. Me, I had no idea what the actual plagues were, and knowing they didn't stick with them to the letter still doesn't bother me.

Movies like Phibes were the last gasp of an era of horror and sci-fi filmmaking that reveled in pure unbridled imagination and fantasy. You can't really compare this to more serious minded horror movies, even from the same era, because that's not what it's aiming for. Had the film been more graphic, I don't think it would have improved it any. Rather, it would have changed the whole tone of the movie.

The early seventies was something of a transitional period for horror. There were some films, notably from Europe, that were more violent and serious, but those weren't particularly mainstream films. It really wasn't until 'The Exorcist' in 1973 and 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' in 1974 that graphic horror started to break out of the grindhouses and drive-ins, and even then those movies were seen by many as having gone too far.

For me, the humor, the set design, the music, Price's performance, the weird kinky sexiness of his assistant Vulnavia, the fun "guest stars" in supporting roles, and the vivid technicolor pop art cinematography more than make up for any shortcomings.


The 10th plague is in the movie. It's the plague of darkness, and Phibes visits it upon himself. There's also an explanation of how the unicorn fits in with the plagues, but I don't remember it now. Regardless, I thought that was one of the funniest scenes in the movie as the inspectors nonchalantly talk while the thing gets unscrewed from the corpse.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree with you Bob, I mentioned a bit of it on the review, but yeah, this movie is defenetly part of that transition from the campy stuff to the more "serious" graphic horror from the 70s.

Maybe I came off to hars on the review, but I didnt hate the film, theres campy fun to be had with this movie, and I love it for that.

The whole biblical stuff was just something that I felt was lazily executed, cause if your gonna have your movie be about something, then get it right, but ultimately, its not a big issue that will stop you from enjoying this film.

I will be giving this one a second watch soon, some time after I watch the sequel.

That Vincent Price Boxed Set rules!

Franco Macabro said...

About the tenth plague, the tenth plague is Darkness. In the bible, what happens is that every light source dissapears, and everyone is left in the dark.

He might have done the last plague on himself, but ultimately, he really didnt because he returns in the sequel. Plus, saying thats the 10th plague is stretching things a bit me thinks.

They left out the one about the live stock dying. And they left out the one where people get attacked by flies and gnats.

A unicorn cant fit anywhere, cause theres no unicorns in the bible.


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