Howdy folks, Blair here.
I gotta say, the first official day of my 31 Days of Halloween/Hallow Fest (I did a preview night of sorts for Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which you can read here) didn’t wind up going that smoothly, so I wound up watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes all by me onesies, and honestly, it’s probably good that everybody else canceled because this movie was dryyyy.
I mean, the film IS very English, so a certain amount of aridity is expected, but jeez, nearly every performance in the picture is about as expressive as a professional bowling announcer. Nevertheless, I made it through.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes takes us to 1920s London— not that the film makes this clear AT ALL aside from some period dress and vehicles, as the production design makes it ludicrously apparent that the pic was made in 1970 or thereabouts— where a mysterious figure (three guesses who) goes through some of the most laborious, Rube Goldbergian machinations to carry out the murders of a number of high-profile surgeons, chief among them Dr. Vesalius (the enjoyably stoic Joseph Cotten).
Naturally, Scotland Yard gets involved in the investigation, leading Inspector Trout to discover that the murderer’s modus operandi is the Ten Plagues of Exodus, at least as the universe of Dr. Phibes envisions them (I don’t recall the plague of Bats, and I’m reasonably sure that fruit bats wouldn’t eat a man’s face). The whole business plays out like a campy 70s version of Se7en.
The perpetrator is, of course, Vincent Price’s Dr. Anton Phibes, a multidisciplinary scientist who also holds degrees in music and theology, who, when not ritualistically killing the surgeons who failed to save his wife (who was killed in the same car accident which left him horribly scarred and mostly dead) enjoys building eerie, Tin Pan Alley-performing automaton orchestras and playing virtuoso concertos on his neon-fuchsia Plexiglass pipe organ. Is he a catch or what?
Trout and his detectives comically fail to stop eight out of the nine murders, leaving the plague of the First Born, a role here filled by Vesalius’ son, who’s kidnapped by the fiendish Phibes. Here Joseph Cotten takes over the narrative and we get a solid climax which prefiguring the Saw movies, sees Cotten’s son rigged up to a timed acid bath, and only a key implanted near the boy’s heart can free him from the trap.
Unfortunately, this is definitely one of those “hit pause to see the time remaining” movies. Despite the imaginative story, the presentation is too staid to engage the viewer (director Robert Fuest would go on to make Shatner, melting Satanic cultists and a goat-suited Ernest Borgnine a slog to get through in 1975’s The Devil’s Rain).
most convoluted best way I can think of to describe The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Take a theologically-obsessed schizophrenic’s fever dream, and have his monotone psychologist relate to a lecture hall filled with bored but colorfully-dressed academics. In the hands of a better (or at least, more interested) director, this might have been a classic. As it stands, it is merely a curiosity.
Watch it for Joseph Cotten and a restrained, and yet somehow also over-the-top performance of Vincent Price.