THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
While it may sound like just another revenge story, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is actually a beautifully well-made film that turns a well-trodden formula into a cinematic feast of style.
The film opens with Phibes (Vincent Price) at a pipe organ, rising from the floor. We see him, covered entirely in black, wind up his peculiar animatronic band, the Clockwork Wizards, and dance with a fashionable young woman named Vulnavia (Virginia North). There are no words spoken by Phibes until much later in the film, and the young woman, while always at his side, never utters a single word. This lack of dialogue sets the tone for the film, one that elevates its simple plot by setting it against an elegant backdrop of malevolent innovation and high '60s fashion.
There is a dark beauty in Phibes' murders, both in their conception and cinematic presentation. One man is exsanguinated alive by Phibes. Bottle after bottle of his blood is placed neatly in a line on the mantle over the fireplace. Another man is killed during a masquerade ball, after he puts on Phibes' ornate but lethal frog mask. As the mask tightens around his neck, the camera's point-of-view shot is bathed in red before he falls down the stairs. Murder is seldom so beautifully performed.
Vincent Price, in his 100th film performance, plays Phibes with just the right combination of remorse and determination. Price doesn't emphasize the eccentric nature of the character - his actions do well enough on their own.
It's a delicious role for Price, performed partially behind masks or makeup, and without ever opening his mouth. Virginia North, as the beautiful screen nymph Vulnavia, may have no dialogue, but still manages to convey a screen presence. There are moments in the film where we'd really like to know more about her. In one scene without Phibes, she sits listening to the Clockwork Wizards while smoking a cigarette. The scene doesn't move the plot forward, but does make us wonder what on earth she's thinking, and how she came to be involved with Phibes. Her affiliation and loyalty to the mad doctor are never explained.
Director Robert Fuest, a veteran of the long-running British TV series The Avengers, demonstrates a keen eye for exquisite composition and cinematic staging with The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Fuest's scenes often convey great depth of action, sometimes plot-driven, sometimes not. In one scene, two doctors are talking in an elevator, concerned that Phibes has infiltrated the hospital. As they leave, we see Vincent Price in the background. Other shots of multi-layered action are more aesthetically driven. When Price is at the masquerade ball watching the doctor in the frog mask, his close-up reaction contains a chandelier in the extreme foreground. And when Vulnavia stands in a field watching a plane crash, there are flowers in the extreme foreground. This is just one way Fuest brings elegance to the macabre subject matter. Another is in his use of clean, symmetrical compositions. Generally rare in film, symmetrical framing usually infers a psychological interpretation, here reflecting Phibes' neatness, order, and precision.
The soundtrack is another powerful element at play in the film. Basil Kirchin's original score stems organically from the Phibes character. Since Phibes was a concert organist before his untimely demise, an organ features prominently in the film. The Clockwork Wizards play an eclectic array of tunes, from moody blues to soaring romantic band music, but always with an otherworldly twist. Kirchin also uses 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 film concludes by suggesting Phibes may strike again (as indeed he does in an inferior sequel). The film cuts to black, indicating that perhaps the audience is Dr. Phibes' final victim, put to rest by a Clockwork Wizards' rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that accompanies the closing credits.
Well, if we have to go, at least we go in style. - Scott Schirmer
6 out of 6 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.