Ah, Vincent Price. Widely known as one of the greatest actors and called a “national treasure” by some, he is truly awesome. In the 1971 schlock cult classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Mr. Price gives a performance worthy of such praise; the surprising aspect of this role is that he hardly speaks at all, with his voice filtered through a microphone of sorts. No, he lets the murderous doctor and famous concert organist’s actions “speak” for themselves, and in the process delivers a juicy part that is sinister, creepy, and monstrous while still remaining a bit sympathetic.
Meanwhile, the British Inspector Trout finds himself dealing with a rash of odd and cruel murders, as doctors who shared a single operation are dropping like flies. Men are killed by bees, frozen like popsicles, drained of blood-and that’s just a sampling of the crazy deaths that happen in this film. Assisted by the lovely yet speechless Vulvia, Dr. Phibes plays dead while raining down his Old Testament inspired vengeance, with his methods coming strictly from the 10 plagues that God imposed upon ancient Egypt.
While the plot itself is nicely inspired and consists of gothic horror and dark comedy, the film has other great attributes. The set design, particularly Phibes’ mansion, is absolutely stunning and colorful. I loved how he has his own little wind up mechanical band, and the organ which he plays in the style of The Phantom of the Opera is vivid, lively, and awe-inspiring. Furthermore, I loved that the director brought in Orson Welles’ old acting buddy Joseph Cotton to play the head surgeon who is forced to go on the offensive with Trout; the two of them have a decent rapport even though early on the film establishes the relationship between Trout and the policeman assisting him.
Another wonderful aspect of the film is its humor, which often pops up unexpected and therefore is even funnier than it really should be. Like I mentioned before, what we have is relatively dark, dry, black comedy that draws from the murder and violence that Dr. Phibes has in ample spades. One of the killings is actually so incredibly silly that it becomes humorous right off the bat, and the expressions of Trout and his assistant make the mood even more laughable.
Proudly displaying an eerie and strange finale that is also oddly touching, this picture is one of the highlights of the 70s horror scene. Price was truly one hell of an actor, and the films that he often was a part of are sadly long gone relics of an older age. 90