Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Joseph Cotten, Virginia North, Norman Jones, and John Cater
Director: Robert Fuest
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars
A series of doctors are being murdered in elaborate ways that seem to be inspired by the Biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt. The only suspect that Police Inspector Trout (Jeffrey) can identify is a musician and mechanical genius who has been dead for ten years (Price). But as he tries (and fails repeatedly) to stop the killings, he eventually proves that Sherlock Holmes wasn't quite right--sometimes even the impossible must be true.
"The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is one of the best-mounted horror comedies ever made. Its story line is a great send-up of pulp stories and horror/mystery films of the 1920s and 1930s that often featured caped and masked villains killing their victims in impossible elaborate ways, and where the bumbling cops always had to turn to some outside, smarter source to help them solve the crime. But while it pokes fun at those classics without which the horror genre would never have come into being, it does so with an affection that shines through in every scene and in every performance by the film's stellar cast, some of whom got their start in those films. From beginning to end, the film strikes all the right chords and is perfectly paced.
Some have described Dr. Phibes as Vincent Price's greatest role. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but he does give a fabulous performance. Equally impressive is Virginia North, who plays his mysterious and silent hench-woman, whose outlandish wardrobe is as much a spoof of the Vera West-designed gowns that were seen in so many of the early horror films from Universal Pictures as the movie is of the masked killer-type horror pictures.. Although police detectives Trout and Schenley (played Peter Jeffrey and Norman Jones) are the movie's beleaguered heroes, it's Price and North who are the real stars of the film. Whenever one or both of them appear, they command the scene.
Another star of the film are the fantastic art-deco sets and overall production design that bring to life a sort of Platonic Ideal of the elegance and grace of the 1920s that is then defiled by the strange and sometimes silly antics of the characters who inhabit it. The sets and the bizarre activities of Phibes and his seductive sidekick also bring the film a bizarre atmosphere that helps to both heighten the comedy and horror as it unfolds.
The only complaint I can mount against the film is that the only way that several of his elaborate methods of executing his victims work is that they remain passive. For example, what was there to stop the victim who was killed by bats from simply running out of the room? One could argue that in another instance Dr. Phibes' assistant is so bewitching that she keeps the victim from fighting back or running away, but there is otherwise no reason why he should have just sat there and been killed. However, these criticisms amount to little more than nitpicking at a film that isn't supposed to be taken all that seriously.
If you haven't seen this certified classic, you must not let this Halloween season pass without rectifying that!