The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey claimed that the main character in this Vincent Price film was based on him. Well, his name is Dr. Anton Phibes and he’s an organist, researcher, medical doctor, biblical scholar and ex-vaudevillian who has created a clockwork band of robot musicians to play old standards at his whim. Seeing as how nearly all of these things match up with LaVey, I can kind of see his point.

Director Robert Fuest started by designing sets. While working on the TV show The Avengers, he got excited about directing and ended up working on seven episodes of the original series and two of The New Avengers. Soon, he’d be working in film more and more, starting with 1967’s Just Like a Woman. Between the two Phibes films, And Soon the Darkness, The Final Programme and The Devil’s Rain!, he became known for dark-humored fantasy and inventive sets, several of which he designed himself.

This movie is one I can’t be quiet about. It’s one of the strangest and most delightful films I’ve ever seen.

Dr. Anton Phibes died in Switzerland, racing back home upon hearing the news that his beloved bridge Victoria (an uncredited Caroline Munro) had died during surgery. The truth is that Phibes has survived, scarred beyond belief and unable to speak, but alive. He uses all of the skills that he’s mastered to rebuild his face and approximate a human voice. Also, he may or may not be insane.

Phibes believes that the doctors who operated on his wife were incompetent and therefore must pay for their insolence. So he does what anyone else would do: visit the Biblical ten plagues of Egypt on every single one of them.

Phibes is, of course, played by Vincent Price. No one else could handle this role. Or this movie. There’s hardly any dialogue for the first ten minutes of the movie. Instead, there are long musical numbers of Phibes and his clockwork band playing old standards. In fact, Phibes doesn’t speak for the first 32 minutes of the movie. Anyone who asks questions like “Why?” and says things like “This movie makes no sense” will be dealt with accordingly.

After the first few murders, Inspector Trout gets on the case. He becomes Phibes’ main antagonist for this and the following film, trying to prove that all of these murders — the doctors and nurse who had been on the team of Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten!) — are connected. Phibes then stays one step ahead of the police, murdering everyone with bees, snow, a unicorn statue, locusts and rats, sometimes even right next to where the cops have staked him out.

Dr. Phibes is assisted by the lovely Vulnavia. We’re never informed that she’s a robot, but in my opinion, she totally is. Both she and the doctor are the most fashion-forward of all revenge killers I’ve seen outside of Meiko Kaji and Christina Lindberg.

Writer William Goldstein wrote Vulnavia as another clockwork robot with a wind-up key in her neck. Fuest thought that Phibes demanded a more mobile assistant, so he made her human, yet one with a blank face and mechanical body movements. I still like to think that she’s a machine, particularly because she returns in the next film after her demise here. Also — Fuest rewrote nearly the entire script.

After killing off everyone else — sorry Terry-Thomas! — Phibes kidnaps Dr. Vesalius’ son and implants a key inside his heart that will unlock the boy. However, if the doctor doesn’t finish the surgery on his son in six minutes — the same amount of time he had spent trying to save Phibes’ wife — acid will rain down and kill both he and his boy.

Against all odds, Vesalius is successful. Vulnavia, in the middle of destroying Phibes’ clockwork orchestra, is sprayed by the acid and killed while the doctor himself replaces his blood with a special fluid and lies down to eternal sleep with his wife, happy that he has had his revenge.

If you’re interested, the ten plagues Phibes unleashes are:

1. Blood: He drains all of Dr. Longstreet’s blood

2. Frogs: He uses a mechanical frog mask to kill Dr. Hargreaves at a costume party

3. Bats: A more cinematic plague than lice from the Biblical plagues, Phibes uses these airborne rodents to kill Dr. Dunwoody

4. Rats: Again, better than flies, rats overwhelm Dr. Kitaj and cause his plane to crash

5. Pestilence: This one is a leap, but the unicorn head that kills Dr. Whitcombe qualifies

6: Boils: Professor Thornton is stung to death by bees

7. Hail: Dr. Hedgepath is frozen by an ice machine

8. Locusts: The nurse is devoured by them thanks to an ingenious trap

9. Darkness: Phibes joins his wife in eternal rest during a solar eclipse

10. Death of the firstborn: Phibes kidnaps and the son of Dr. Vesalius

I love that this movie appears lost in time. While set in the 1920’s, many of the songs weren’t released until the 1940’s. Also, Phibes has working robots and high technology, despite the era the film is set in.

There’s nothing quite like this movie. I encourage you to take the rest of the day off and savor it.

How does Phibes live up to being a Satanic film? In my opinion, Phibes embodies one of the nine Satanic statements to its utmost: Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek. The men and woman whose negligence led to the loss of Phibes’ wife were never punished. Phibes had to become their judge, jury and yes, destroyer.

On the other hand — or hoof, as it were — Phibes is the exact antithesis of the ninth Satanic sin, Lack of Aesthetics, which states that “an eye for beauty, for balance, is an essential Satanic tool and must be applied for greatest magical effectiveness. It’s not what’s supposed to be pleasing—it’s what is. Aesthetics is a personal thing, reflective of one’s own nature, but there are universally pleasing and harmonious configurations that should not be denied.” So much of what makes this film is that Phibes’ musical art is just as essential as his demented nature and abilities. Music is the core of his soul, not just revenge.

Another point of view comes from Draconis Blackthorne of the Sinister Screen: “This is an aesthetically-beauteous film, replete with Satanic architecture as well as ideology. Those who know will recognize these subtle and sometimes rather blatant displays. Obviously, to those familiar with the life of our Founder, there are several parallels between the Dr. Anton Phibes character and that of Dr. Anton LaVey – they even share the same first name, and certain propensities.”

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