MGM // 1971 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 15th, 2001
Love means never having to say you're ugly.
Part black comedy, part horror movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes remains a memorable piece of '70s filmmaking and one of Vincent Price's best loved roles. This film and its sequel remain among my favorites of horror films of this era, and I was thrilled to finally see them arrive on DVD. MGM has provided a surprisingly crisp and clear picture for a film of its age, but has let us down in the extras department.
Dr. Anton Phibes, a concert organist, scientist, and biblical scholar, is quite mad. Mad that a team of doctors failed to save his beloved wife Victoria's life, and is out for revenge on a Biblical scale. Using as his model the ten plagues of the Pharaohs from the Old Testament, he exacts his cruel revenge on the nine medical people involved using rats, bats, locusts, and hail, among others. Each doctor in turn falls prey to his mad scheme, as Phibes and his silent partner, the lovely Vulnavia, outwit the London police with ease. Only Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey, Midnight Express) can see who is behind the plot and has a chance to stop him.
Vincent Price is the master of creepy, over the top horror character portrayals, and he is in rare form as Dr. Phibes. Obviously from the beginning he is not what he seems, which is creepy enough as he wails away as a latter day Phantom of the Opera on his organ, accompanied by his robotic Clockwork Wizards. The fact that his mouth never moves, he must speak through a device attached to his neck, and he drinks from the other side of his throat adds a macabre feel to an already bizarre character. Price manages to evoke sympathy while being a fiendish killer without remorse, all in an almost silent role. Only his monologues told to the picture of his dead wife hold up as dialogue until the end of the picture and its climactic showdown. His portrayal shows great subtlety even when he is at his most bizarre.
As he did again in his Theater of Blood two years later, Price plays a mad artist who has been wronged, this time by the medical profession. This time an Egyptian feel is given to the character and his lair, along with the modus operandi of his quest for revenge. Set design is both unsettling and campy, making this one of the creepiest comedies I've yet come across. The film is funny, but almost as an afterthought, since Price plays his role almost straight, and only a flamboyant flair gives away the tongue in cheek. This balancing of horror and dark comedy is masterfully done thanks both to Vincent Price and director Robert Fuest.
Other performances range from the ridiculous to the serious, though even the ones playing things straight have a comic element. Peter Jeffrey has an almost Monty Python-esque role, surrounded by a headstrong idiot for a boss and inept Keystone Cops as his fellow policemen. Most of the victims play things straight, but only get enough screen time for Price to kill them in ever more inventive ways.
Looking at the film on its surface, it may seem too camp or over the top, but it is here that casual viewers miss the point. This is a dark comedy as much as it is a horror film, and the camp is part of the point. The Clockwork Wizards are laughably poor substitutes for the real musicians playing for them, and it is obvious that such flat and robotic hands could not have produced such music. This could have easily been hidden from view. While I'm talking about the music, it varies from broad orchestral themes to happy calliope type music wholly out of place with the subject at hand. This is also by intent, which adds a lighthearted feel to what might otherwise be a gruesome serial killer film.
My expectations haven't been high when MGM comes out with a catalog title, but I have to admit that at least they got the picture quality right. I've never seen the Dr. Phibes films in widescreen since they first aired in the early '70s, but now they are back in the original aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The film is surprisingly clean and free of dirt or scratches, and colors are vibrant and rich. The picture quality absolutely belies the age of the film, though the color schemes and style of filmmaking will give it away as a product of the 1970s. I'm not saying there were no flaws at all, but nothing that I found distracting in the least, and I was enthusiastic about the quality of the image as I watched this old favorite again. Sound is an adequate two-channel mono, which is clear and free of hiss or crackle. Dialogue is clearly understood, and even the music sounded fairly full for such an aged and limited track. Certainly I'd have liked a remix, but I really can't complain.
This film isn't for everyone, to say the least. Some parts of it are quite gruesome considering its PG-13 rating, and the mixture of camp humor with horror will put off some fans of each. Production values are high when it comes to set design and costuming, but the special effects will never be accused of anything but low budget. Some of the killings are perhaps even more comic than intended, such as a "plague" of rats that might have numbered a dozen, and should have been escapable by the victim. This film isn't really meant for that level of scrutiny; just watch it and have a bit of fun while appreciating the masterful Vincent Price at work.
My biggest complaints about the DVD presentation are the lack of meaningful extras, the lack of English subtitles, and the cover art. The only extra content is the theatrical trailer, and the cover art is actually one of the original posters, but both give away key elements of the story that should remain hidden. If I could I'd actually recommend that you not look at the case before watching the film. Studios still give away far too much of films in their marketing, remaining one of my pet peeves.
Fans of Vincent Price or campy horror will be glad to get this film on DVD, extras or no. I'm waited for it for a long time and am happy to have it now. The film itself, especially with a fine anamorphic transfer and clear soundtrack warrant a purchase.
The makers of the film, especially Vincent Price, are given as a verdict a resounding Not Guilty. MGM is given a pass for at least giving a good picture and anamorphic enhancement to a catalog title, which is more than they have done for some wonderful films in the past.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13