The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)


Several years ago, Dr. Anton Phibes raced to the hospital after learning his wife had died on the operating table. His car crashed off a cliff and he was burned alive. Or was he? After a series of elaborate murders rob London of its top doctors, Scotland Yard is on the case, barely able to keep ahead of the eccentric doctor as he exacts vengeance on the nine doctors and nurses who let Mrs. Phibes die. "Nine killed her.  Nine shall die.  Nine eternities in doom!" he proclaims, able to speak only with the assistance of a gramophone connected to his throat. In accordance with scripture, Phibes reenacts the plagues on the unsuspecting doctors, executing intricate plans and unleashing all variety of vermin to avenge his beloved wife.

The revenge scenario may not sound original, but The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a beautifully well-made film that turns a well-trodden formula into a cinematic feast of style. Vincent Price, in his 100th film performance, plays Phibes with just the right combination of remorse and determination — and without ever opening his mouth. Director Robert Fuest, a veteran of the long-running British TV series The Avengers, demonstrates a keen eye for composition and cinematic staging. The soundtrack is another powerful element at play in the film. Basil Kirchin’s original score incorporates Phibes’ organ playing, electronic sounds, music boxes, and operatic vocals.  The cumulative effect of this potpourri approach is a musical representation of Phibes himself – classically trained, passionate, and dangerous.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an alluring mash-up of kitsch and elegance, horror and dark comedy. I try to watch it a few times each year.

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