The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Look at that poster. Look at it. That is probably one of the greatest works of art of the modern era. And it has the objective kind of tag lines to boot. How did this 1971 Vincent Price jam NOT smash it in the box office with that creative? Well it didn’t, and B-Movie legend AIP was forced to rebrand it in more of a traditional horror light for it to garner the recognition it deserves. Phibes is one of those classics that can very easily slip under your radar if you aren’t careful, but should you let it? Well you’ll just have to read on to find out. What we will say here is that if you are at all intrigued by one of Vincent Price’s odder roles, you can jump into the trailer or just watch the whole damn movie on Youtube before continuing onto our face-meltingly-spoilerific review of this 45 year old movie.

 
 

As we discuss at length below, this movie is available in totality online (legally) for free. Check out this link to just watch the damn thing. It's a horror classic, what else are you planning on doing with your evening?


Don't feel like reading our long and rambling review? Try listening to our long and rambling podcast instead.


Jake: The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It’s about goddamn time, eh Mark?

Mark: Errr… yes? I guess so. The movie is nearly old enough to be in AARP so I suppose you could say that. Were people clamoring for us to see this? You picked this one, right? Aside from the fact that it’s freely available on youtube (gotta love that British approach to IP rights), why did we watch this thing?

Jake: Well, primarily because I just wanted the chance to see and review this thing with you clowns. We will get into the gory details ad nauseum, so I’ll refrain from specifics right here, but it’s one that has numerous memorable qualities. The other reason is that stupid fucking game we played when we selected this crop of reviews. We reviewed A Nightmare on Elm Street per Jack’s selection, and I was left with a hard decision. Ultimately, I went the route of selecting based on involvement of a horror icon. Now let’s unpack “horror icon” a bit, too. I picked Phibes because of Vincent Price, not the character of Phibes. We’ve existed for over a year, and somehow never taken a look at one of his flicks. Freddy Kreuger may be a horror icon, but Price is a founding fucking father of horror. He might be on the Mt. Rushmore of horror… You know, if one existed.

Mark: If we’re including characters from movies then the mount would be almost entirely masked, which seems weird. If we’re including only the actors that built the genre that would be a fun exercise. You got Bela Lugosi, Chrstopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., probably? Max Schreck isn’t even up there… who are you planning on bumping for Price? Not that he’s not a scary guy... he was pretty spooky in the Brady Bunch movie.

 

Master of horror right there.

 

Jake: Personally, I’d probably slot him in on the mountain and move Chaney Jr. out. It’s a tough call, but Price was in so much genre shit it’ll make your head spin… Anyway, I think plot summary is lame and we can get it out of the way really quickly with this one in order to focus more on the juicy morsels. Price plays Dr. Anton Phibes, who is vaguely introduced as a wealthy hermit who is beyond eccentric. He plays an organ, has a wench at his beck and call, and has a fucking animatronic band called the Clockwork Wizards that he jams out with because reasons.

 
An artists rendering. You see, mom? I am an artist!

An artists rendering. You see, mom? I am an artist!

 

Mark: Normally, when people say “because reasons” they mean that the narrative they are discussing does not provide ample justification for an action occurring. And in that light I would like to object to Jake’s characterization here. You don’t need any justification to jam out with an animatronic band that you built yourself. I would do that all day every day if I had them at my disposal like Phibes does. To Jake’s point though, it is quite a strange introduction. Also, since the band wasn’t actually animatronic (it was humans made to look like robots made to look like humans) there’s a weird uncanny valley issue with this scene, but what the hell it was the 1970s.

Jake: Phibes's backstory is this. He had a wife and she died during an operation. He subsequently was in a crash and is now presumed to be dead, as well. This works out great for Phibes, as he is actually a sadistic fuck hellbent on exacting revenge on each and every one of the 9 (yes, 9) doctors who were present in the operating room when his wife died. See, he believes they murdered her, and he’s pissed. How do you get back at these folks?

Mark: Wait, why did you write 9 twice? What reader is unconvinced by the first 9, but then sees the second and assumes that you did your research? Hey! Speaking of research there’s a lot of the bumbling detectives that are following his trail of blood-crumbs doing research into the 10 plagues of Egypt (or at least a close approximation thereof). The film opens with bats, references another attack with bees, and then you get frogs, hail, rats, locusts, blood, beasts, death of the first born, and darkness.

 

Plague 11: Incomplete Easter Egg Dying Kits.

 

Jake: It’s actually a really novel concept that certainly would have the modern horror viewer thinking of another evil mastermind; Jigsaw from the Saw series.

Mark: You know what, I think you accidentally stumbled on a good point there. Dr. Phibes is basically the world’s original Jigsaw. The dude, haunted by the people and society that lead to his wife’s death, exacts revenge via various rube goldberg machines that are supposed to have higher meaning but that meaning is probably utterly lost on the people are having revenge exacted upon them. Also, hot sidekick. As I said earlier, the film opens with the duo dumping a cage full of “bats” directly into this guys room while he sleeps. Why is that a problem? Because he’s been unknowingly doused in pheremones or something? They eat his face clean off of his face.

Jake: Despite the use of flying foxes as vampire bats, this is still a pretty incredible scene. It has those B-movie staples in terms of schlocky, unbelievable kill effects, which successfully comes across as charming. Additionally, there is some added value gained from the flying foxes because they are big, eyeball-y motherfuckers. It’s a strange sight to behold when they start crawling on a dude’s chest.

Face your death.

Face your death.

Mark: Eyeball-y yet cute motherfuckers, I think you meant to say. Totes adorbs. Interestingly enough, this is technically the second kill in the spree. The detectives, as they are being introduced, reference another similar attack that had a preponderance of bees involved. I can’t help but wonder why they cut that one from the film. Maybe it was an effects thing, or maybe some intern did the math wrong when they were writing the scripts so they had to lazily fix it with a line of dialogue. Either way, I’m a little let down that they didn’t just also include a bee killing.

Jake: This is a good time to mention that not all of these implementations of the ten plagues are very close to the mark in terms of the plague itself. For example, kill 3 is a convoluted shitshow of a spectacle. The setting? Masquerade party. The mark? Psychiatrist. The plague? Frogs. Murder implement? A frog masks that slowly closes on homeboys head and crushes it into a jelly. Basically, a classic reverse-reverse bear trap situation.

 
Your classic reverse-reverse bear trap. Someone should really make something like this. I bet it could be used to trap things.

Your classic reverse-reverse bear trap. Someone should really make something like this. I bet it could be used to trap things.

 

Mark: I gotta say that one and the next one are my two favorites from a purely horror perspective. The frog mask is still pretty unique among horror deaths to this day. The next victim is a doctor that is just trying to get his his jollies off by turning his crank. Not a euphemism. He’s activiely turning the crank on a movie projector which is playing what is presumably a smut film, but in actuality is just a woman dancing (fully clothed) with a snake. After Phibes and Vulnavia walk in on him playing with his crank (still not a euphemism) they tie him down and steal about 6 gallons of blood from the guy. There’s a chance that this guy was Johnny Depp from Nightmare on Elm Street’s grandfather or something because he is bursting at the seams with blood.

Jake: Whereas the frog kill was my favorite of the movie, this is my least favorite. First qualm is the porn. Dude, I get that it’s the 20’s but there has to be better smut than a belly dancer with a literal snake on a wind up video. If you’re a rich doctor like this guy, can’t you just hire some strange? Also, like Mark said, this guy has way too much blood.

Mark: I don’t know what to tell you, man. People just had more blood back in the day. Us young’ns are soft and very light on blood. The next kill is arguably the most puzzling. The poor doctor guy pulls over to help Vulnavia-posing-as-a-distressed-motorist, and winds up getting Mr. Freeze’d. Seriously. Phibes invents an ice gun, and the doctor basically poses for it. There seems to be an incredible willingness to comply with being murdered among these victims.

Jake: Yeah this application was pretty fucking stupid as well but in the defense of the filmmakers, I think I’d prefer the creative license than some shitty effects had they tried to implement an actual hailstorm in some way.

Mark: Well if you like that creative license then the hits just keep on coming, because Phibes packs this hobbyist guys plane with rats and also presumably pheremones. What’s that? Rats weren’t one of the original plagues? Yeah, see earlier comment about creative license.

Jake: Yep… I’d have prefered it if Vulnavia had snuck a cow with Mad Cow Disease onto the bi-plane. That would have been much better for the film…

 

I received this joke in an email in 1996. I’m glad to see that it made the transition to youtube.

 

Mark: Probably would’ve been harder to hide a pack of cows on that plane though. Not that that would affect the outcome of anything. It seems these doctors are really really compliant with getting dead.

Jake: We’re down to just a few more plague kills. Next on the list is locusts. This one is awesome, but carries the same amount of charming reckless abandon for all things that could be considered rational. The bumbling authorities, now wise to Phibes’ aliveness and plans, put a nurse under lock & key in an attempt to protect her. They have her take sleeping pills to pass the time and she must have taken the whole god damned bottle because she manages to sleep through Phibes drilling a hole in the ceiling, pouring a shit load of brussels sprouts goo on her head and unleashing a swarm of locusts who eat her face off of her face.

Mark: You know… there is a lot of faces being eaten off of faces in this movie. Is this perhaps a face eating sub-genre? In any case that basically gets us to the last plague: death of the first born. In this case, the final doctor alive races home to find that his son has been kidnapped. He seeks out Phibes, and finds that his kid has been sedated, a key has been sewn into his heart, and there is an elaborate contraption that will drop some molecular acid directly on the kids skull if the doc can’t surgery the key out and unlock the gurney. That was a hell of a long sentence. Thanks for sticking with me. Here’s a Simpsons clip to ease the tension.

 

Plague 12: Uhhh… bus drivers?

 

Jake: This is the most Saw-like of the scenarios in the movie. It’s an elaborate situation that forces the person to act, rather than just stand by and be killed with zero ability to do anything about. Luckily for Dr. Vesalius, he’s good and most definitely did not murder Phibes’ wife like that psychopath accuses. He gets the key out in the nick of fuckin’ time.

Mark: By most Saw-like, you mean almost literally was recreated in the first Saw movie, right? Because that was the whole conceit of the reverse beartrap scene. This one just has acid instead of a head exploding spring jaw. As the last doctor gets the gurney unlocked from the acid fountain, and the authorities all converge on their location, Vulnavia haphazardly plants herself directly below the acid. Seems like a poor decision as she is immediately disintegrated, but perhaps that was all part of the plan to tie up any loose ends.

Jake: Phibes bows out by enacting the 10th plague, darkness, on himself. He opens up a hidden area of his house and we see that he’s perfectly preserved his wife in a chamber, where he hooks himself up to a tube of embalming fluid and closes the tomb. Then the movie just sort of ends...

Mark: Yeah. Fade to darkness man. Maybe the 10th plague was actually enacted on the viewer. Woah. Did I just blow your mind?

Jake: Nope. Ratings?

Mark: Fuck you. Yeah I did. Ratings.


RATINGS

For 1, think of how the Fresh Prince would rate his desire to say that this cab was rare:

 
 

 

For 10, think of how the guys from the Lonely Island would rate the quality of Google Maps versus the other available services:

 
 

STORY:

Mark: 7 - I would say this a great example of story, particularly for an older movie. It’s also helped out by the fact that it’s meaning to be a comedy, so a lot of the silliness can be hand-waved away. That being said, it did seem like they were really reaching on a lot of the plagues. Pestilence, or “:beasts” as they call it in this movie is just a guy getting impaled on a unicorn statue. We kinda glossed over that one, but it’s a good example of how far they had to stretch the narrative in places.

Jake: 6 - I feel a bit bad for giving this a 6. It feels so much more innovative when I take a step back and think about it, but even from a conceptual standpoint, there are some schlocky weirdnesses here that, even if by design, don’t make for a shining beacon of a story.

 

WORLD BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Mark: 2 - Comedy and horror are really hard to combine while maintaining immersion. This film does not do it satisfactorily. If you are paying attention, then you’ll see all the issues with the plot. If you aren’t paying attention then you’re probably enjoying it more. That’s not a good thing when it comes to immersion. They do get a point for the “world building” aspect of Dr. Phibes’ layer.

Jake: 3.5 - Aforementioned conceptual schlocky weirdnesses are absolutely immersion-shattering in their application. This is a dark comedy of a horror flick, and there are some scenes truly worthy of some Yackety Sax. You won’t be glued to the screen with this one.

 

SCARE-FACTOR:

Mark: 4 - The blood scene is decent if a little strange in its setup. The frog scene is also pretty creepy if you can suspend disbelief on the efficacy of the contraption. I suppose if you have the phobia associated with each of these ten plagues, then something could hit a chord here, but largely the “scary” side of this one didn’t age well.

Jake: 4 - Despite being humorous and ridiculous, this isn’t totally bereft of scare. The bats scene in particular is somewhat uncomfortable. For the most part, the scares are in the concept of each elaborate kill. It’s not going to keep you up at night by any means, but it’s also not the least scary thing ever. Plus, Phibes is pretty gruesome looking.

 

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):

Mark: 7 - They really went all out for this thing. They crashed a goddamn plane. No film that straight up crashes a plane is going to get less than a six. The effects folk on this one did a lot of work, took a lot of risks, and they mostly paid off. On the negative side, the blood looks pretty bad (basically just red water), there are a lot of anachronisms, and as interesting as the clockwork wizards are they are smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley.

Jake: 7.75 - The effects in this film are really fucking good for the most part. I like the practical, even when it’s decidedly ‘B’ in nature. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards stand out in particular, because they are creepy as fuck in their execution.

 

OVERALL:

Mark: 5.5 - I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. I had never even heard of it before it came up in our conversation. I was planning on having to be in the same mindset as watching Nosferatu or Cabinet, but in reality this one feels a lot more like modern horror movie than an older classic. Granted, Phibes is closer to being released today than it is to Cabinet, but I was told there would be no math. Plus, it’s free. I like free.

Jake: 7 - I’m tilting this one up because it’s a fun, fun horror flick that stars a powerhouse in Vincent Price (in his 100th role, debatably, mind you) with really good set pieces and some hilarity to boot. Great flick to watch with your buddies and drink some beers to.