Beyond the Slimy Wall: The Abominable Dr Phibes
By Stephanie Star Smith
January 23, 2007
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook-movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture Beyond the Slimy Wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
The Abominable Dr Phibes
The late '60s and early '70s brought the proverbial sea change to Hollywood. As society in general became more permissive and more open to adult subject matter, so too did Hollywood expand its repertoire to include more realistic depictions of life. The trend even extended to the horror genre, as the films of the era began to depict the gore and mayhem that has become familiar to modern-day fans.
But while many Hollywood luminaries embraced these changes, others found them somewhat off-putting. One of the latter was Vincent Price, who felt that the increased use of stage blood and gratuitous violence drained horror films of much of their suspense and allure, and that too often lazy scripters would substitute blood-and-guts for clever ideas and witty dialogue. So after making a brief foray into the gore-heavy trend with Scream and Scream again, Price experienced a de facto retirement from the silver screen , not so much by choice but by virtue of the fact that the scripts he was offered were of the bloodfest variety. For much of the late '60s and early '70s, Price did guest appearances on television shows and pursued his love of fine art, whilst his film career languished.
But in 1973, Price was lured back to the silver screen for the eponymous role of Anton Phibes, brilliant musician, historical scholar and inventor of some genius. The plot for The Abominable Dr Phibes is something of a work of genius itself: Phibes, who feels his beloved wife Victoria was allowed to die on the operating table during what should have been a routine procedure, seeks to avenge her death by killing those he holds responsible. But Phibes isn't for your garden-variety retribution; instead, he seeks - and finds - divine inspiration for his diabolical plan of vengeance. And yes, that is intentionally vague, for to reveal exactly where he finds his blueprint for retaliation would spoil part of the fun of the film.
Vincent Price is, as always, superb as the fiendish Dr Phibes, and he seems to take a special joy in a role that is, in its way, both villain and sympathetic protagonist. And he's supported by a veritable who's-who of British cinema, including Terry Thomas as one of his victims, and Peter Jeffrey as the Scotland Yard inspector who slowly unravels Phibes' devilish plot. Joseph Cotten also takes a turn as the head surgeon of the team now being picked off one by one, and honorable mention must be made of Virginia North as Vulnavia, Phibes' silent and beautiful partner-in-crime. Vulnavia's wardrobe should almost get its own billing for the strong impression it makes, and the set design and decoration also deserves mention for helping to create the memorably atmospheric world Dr Phibes inhabits.
But in the end, it is the titular doctor himself, and the inimitable actor who portrays him, that leaves an indelible impression on the moviegoer and makes this movie such fun to watch. It's no wonder that a sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again, was made one year later, making its own contribution to the more stylish end of the horror film spectrum. One note: when you seek out the DVD at your local video emporium, be sure or pick up the wide-screen version (if you catch it during one of its too-rare airings on TCM, you don't have to worry, as they show it wide-screen), because the vistas in this film are not to be missed.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.