The 1960s saw Vincent Price, who had appeared in films at the tail end of the 1930s and onward, experience the beginnings of a second life at the movies. He had made the popular 3-D movie “House of Wax” in 1953, but it was still a few years before he delivered back-to-back-to-back horror hits: “The Fly” in 1958. “House on Haunted Hill” in 1959 and more. Not to mention – although I will – a series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for American International Pictures in the 1960s.
So by the time “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was released in 1971. Price was something of a horror institution. Like Boris Karloff before him, he had transcended the role of horror movie actor and become a personality.
So the Phibes movie, and its sequel, “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” – with their revenge-driven plots, gory killings and campy trappings – might have seemed a little out there, but Price could be counted on by American International Pictures to deliver an audience of horror fans.
Keep in mind, the Phibes movies came out at the tail end of a particular era in horror films. Within just a half-dozen years, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and its many imitators changed horror movies forever. (I’m deliberately overlooking “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 1974 because the effectiveness of the film was considered a fluke, a very nearly dirty pleasure, like the porn films that flirted with social acceptance at the same time.)
The first Phibes movie acquainted us with the character Price would immortalize: He played Anton Phibes, a physician who was apparently burned to death in a car accident as he rushed to the side of his wife in emergency surgery.
Phibes survived, but was horribly disfigured. His wife did not survive her surgery. Now, years later, in 1925, Phibes and an always-silent assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), murder, one by one, the surgical team who Phibes believed botched his wife’s operation. Phibes’ revenge comes in the form of Biblical plagues: One doctor is stung to death by bees, while a nurse is eaten by locusts, for example.
As one of the doctors, played by Joseph Cotton, and Scotland Yard inspectors try to track him down, Phibes enacts his revenge and camps it up with Vulnavia and a clockwork orchestra even as his wife (a beautiful corpse played by cult movie actress Caroline Munro) awaits one final voyage with her beloved husband.
As oddball as “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” is, there’s a classic and classy feel to the movie because the murders are accomplished through such elaborate and arcane means. Within a few years, Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees and a host of other killers would chop and impale their victims and it all became so very ho-hum.
You might roll your eyes or even shake your head when Phibes enacts Biblical revenge on someone. But you won’t think, “Well, I’ve seen that before.”