Review Date: October 14, 2011
Released by: MGM
Release date: February 20, 2001
Widescreen 1.85 | 16x9: Yes
There is a lot of talk about how Night of the Living Dead
, The Last House on the Left
or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
, take your pick, paved the way for the modern horror film. Gone were those old costumes, old-fashioned values and tame violence of old Universal, Hammer or Corman pictures that just didnít translate to audiences who had seen the real thing on television during the Vietnam War. Watching the period The Abomindable Dr. Phibes
today, though, Iíd wager to differ that there still definitely was a place for period in modern horror. In fact, Dr. Phibes
likely feels more resonant today than Romeroís, Cravenís or Hooperís classics. Itís been embalmed for almost forty years, but blood still runs through this American International horror classic.
Medical professionals across the city are dying in macabre fashion. One is stung to death by bees, anotherís head is crushed in a retracting frog mask, and still another is slimed with liquefied Brussels sprouts(!) and eaten by locusts. Thatís some demented shit, but it also happens to be right out of the Bible. The person doing this must be well read, and to put that kind of effort into it there must be a sound motive. But what if I told you that person was already dead?
Despite being a grand doctor, Anton Phibes (Vincent Price
) was also a theologist and musician. He could play the organ, much to the pleasure of his wife. When both faced a life threatening car accident, however, she died at the shaky hand of a doctor during her operation. Struck with grief and unable to recover himself, Dr. Phibes soon followed suit and was buried beside her. Only he wasnít dead. In fact, when investigators into the recent spate of Biblical crimes goes to check both their coffins, they find neither of them there. Itís clear that Anton is very much alive, and very interested in getting his revenge in the most creative ways possible. In between murders, he conducts an orchestra of mannequins in front of grand stage backdrops along with his mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North
Phibes has a grand plan, but even he isnít infallible. Somethingís up, since heís unable to speak without the assistance of a self-made voice amplification device. He also canít eat or drink, having to instead ingest his food via a pip in the back of his neck. And just where did his wife run off to? The doctors continue to tick down one by one, until finally only one remains, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton
). To him Phibes reveals the ultimate secret, and the connecting factor that brings all the doctors together.
Despite the vintage 1925 setting, everything about this vicious, menacing tale of revenge feels refreshingly contemporary. What stands out most today, and what likely must have been watershed in 1971, is the sparse, ambiguous plot and its methodical, inevitable stance on death. Murder isnít a device to develop the villain or involve the protagonist. Instead, itís the end to itself Ė a series of creative and outlandish death sequences that have over the years made their mark on other franchises like Saw
or the entire slasher genre before it. Whatís also progressive about the murder sequences is the fact that the victims are hardly victims at all. Most are unaware they are even being killed, which removes the guilt normally reserved for the audience, instead replacing it with a geek show sort of spectacle. This is a film that knew its audience before the Fangoria generation cultivated one Ė a film that delivered the bottom line above all else, and one that had a grand guignol fun in doing so.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
is a mean little movie without the need for any justification, but itís also most interestingly enough one with a rife use of comedy. Thereís a black humor at play throughout, all the more unsettling considering the dastardly deaths the bad doctor hath made. Some laughs follow deaths and some deaths provide the laughs themselves, which is something near unheard of at the time for contemporary horror. Itís scary, but never averse to having a good time with the admittedly outlandish material. Itís this kind of formula that would go on to make the Friday the 13th
series the ďrollercoaster rideĒ that continues to bring in the date crowd from generation to generation.
While much of the filmís qualities have been copied and emulated by the slasher and torture porn genres, there still remain some elements that completely set it apart. The first of which is Priceís portrayal of the doctor. Always a wit, Price was a master at manipulating dialogue, but here he turns in a rare performance with a silent film voracity equaled only by Max Shreck or Lon Chaney Sr. He doesnít even speak a line of dialogue until well over thirty minutes of film Ė but his presence is certainly felt. He commands the screen, even without being able to move his face. Whether heís bombastically playing the organ as some sort of artifice for anguish and expression, or shaking in giddy delight as his experiments transpire, heís as electric as a character whoís supposed to be dead could possibly be. Itís one of the grand horror performances.
The other surprising quality to the film is its almost honest use of camp. Phibes spends almost as much time playing the organ or conducting a mannequin orchestra as he does killing. The scenes arenít devised for a laugh like the bumbling cop or some of the wilder murder sequences are. Theyíre almost touching in the way they seem to zero in on Phibes as a person and his passion for music and love for his widow. Yet they are so grand and elaborate, like something out of Grease
or You Canít Stop the Music
. Vulnaviaís right there with him, pulling strings to bring down new set pieces or props. Strictly speaking, the scenes are show stopping uses of art direction, but wedged in between moments of brutal horror or dark comedy, they possess a real otherworldly quality. That the film ends with a bizarre rendition of ďOver the RainbowĒ further cements the filmís fresh, almost post-modern approach to mashing genres and meanings together in a search for truth.
Over the years, The Abominable Dr. Phibes
has managed to endure both as a landmark, trendsetting horror film that has inspired many since, and also one so unique, bizarre and original that it still intrigues today. You wonít likely forget any of the death sequences (especially after having seen many of them, like the compressing head mask or the key lodged inside a body part in the Saw
movies) and you certainly wonít forget those odd orchestral interludes in between. Itís a biting, wild little masterpiece that was ahead of its time, and only now, forty years later, has time caught up.
Fitting that a film that still feels so contemporary still looks that way, too. The DVD may be a decade old budget title, but it still looks excellent in an anamorphic, progressive 1.85:1 transfer. Shot mostly on sets in an era when Roger Cormanís stylized, colorful no budget period movies were dominating genre films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes
retains an impeccably saturated dayglo world. The wild colors really help bring out the eccentricity of the film and its lead, and MGMís transfer here vibrantly preserves that rainbow full of colors. The transfer is also impeccably sharp, maybe a bit too sharp, since a lot of the prosthetics start to show their flaws when you get that close to the footage. You can see individual pores on Priceís face, and the little hairs on the locusts are evident. Aside from intermittent specks youíd be hard pressed to tell this is a forty year old movie. Ph
plays the organ in mono only, but itís a surprisingly clear mix. Not an ounce of hiss or background noise can be discerned, again likely because the film was done in controlled environments on stages. The wild musical performances throughout the film register fully and without any shrill topping. The low end is marginal, but again, weíre dealing with mono here. Again, the Phibes makeup must do wonders to film preservation too, because the sound quality here is also a delightful surprise.
Considering the filmís pedigree, Priceís notoriety and the fact that it remains as relevant as ever today, it really is a shame there isnít more than the theatrical trailer included on this Midnite Movies release.
As someone who delights more in the immediacy of modern, realistic horror, I was quite surprised at the quality, impact and contemporary relevancy of The Abominable Dr. Phibes
. It masterfully goes between humor, horror and genuine pathos with Vincent Price giving a performance for the ages. Itís a movie like no other, one that has no doubt inspired a number of the films and trends in horror today, yet one that has never come close to being emulated. Itís a one of a kind experience that feels more modern by the day, and considering MGMís top notch visual and audio transfers, it looks and sounds that way too. The disc can probably be found for a fiver and itís worth much more than that. The Abominable Dr. Phibes
may not get mentioned in the same breath as seminal seventies classics like Halloween
, The Exorcist
or The Last House on the Left
, but it has every right to be. Itís one of the seminal films in the foundation of horror, and a masterpiece that still delights today. Horror phans, the doctor demands a dose of Phibes
Movie - A
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B
Supplements - C-
- Running time - 1 hour and 34 minutes
- Rated PG-13
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- French mono
- Spanish mono
- English closed captions
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles