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The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1970)

"Nine killed her… nine shall die… Nine eternities in doom!" A high-camp mixture of comic brilliance, insane ingenuity and genuine freakishness, Doctor Anton Phibes has to rank as one of Vincent Price's greatest creations - and as all genre fans know, that's up against some pretty stiff competition - not least of which are Edward (Theatre Of Blood) Lionheart and Matthew (Witchfinder General) Hopkins.

Abominable Doctor Phibes himselfThe Abominable Doctor Phibes is a tale of misguided revenge, where the hero is the villain and pretty much everyone else is “cannon fodder”.

Years ago, a brilliant musician who went by the name of Anton Phibes and his beautiful wife Victoria were involved in a car accident. He was presumed dead and she was rescued from the wreck, but died later on the operating table despite the best efforts of a team of surgeons.

However, Phibes didn’t die, but he did end up horribly disfigured (and barking mad). Now he plots the death of those he considers responsible for the death of his wife Victoria - namely the operating team and anyone else who happened to be in the room at the time of her death. But being the man he is, Phibes isn’t happy with just following the assorted doctors and nurses up a dark alley and twatting them one with a big stick, oh no. Instead he devises a series of elongated, ludicrous and disgusting deaths for them, all mimicking the plagues of Egypt (for some unfathomable reason).

"A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen."

Phibes works his way through the operating team, always managing to stay one step ahead of the law – a psychiatrist (or “head shrinker”) gets a taste of his own medicine when his head is crushed inside a clockwork mask, a sleeping nurse has boiled Brussels sprouts dripped onto her face as she sleeps, Phibes then introducing a plague of locusts to her room. A surgeon (Terry-Thomas) sits down to watch a dirty movie only to have a snake charming actress walk out of the screen and drain him of blood. Each murder is more elongated and elaborate than the next (although our murderer does seem to get a bit bored at one point, deciding to finish off a doctor quickly by simply firing a brass unicorn at him from across the street). Eventually there is just Phibes and the head surgeon, Doctor Vesalius (Joseph Cotton), left. The final part of Phibes' insane plan has seen him implant a key into the body of Vesalius’ son. The surgeon must operate to remove the key in order to save the boy from a hail of acid, which is working its way along the pipes above him…

Even in 1970 The Abominable Doctor Phibes must have been seen as a bit "off the wall", and 30 years of late night TV showings have not diminished its power to shock and amuse. Phibes is a totally amoral killing machine, ably assisted by his faithful servant Vulnavia (Virginia North). Does he have any justification for his crimes? No - the only thing his victims are guilty of is trying to save the late Victoria's life - which, with the best will in the world, is no reason to find yourself: a. drained of blood; b. eaten by locusts; c. devoured by rats; etc, etc.

But Phibes isn’t just a series of grisly deaths. Even armed with the knowledge of exactly who is responsible for this series of murders, why he’s doing it and what for, the viewer can still derive a great deal of enjoyment from the wonderful faux 1920s sets, the sparkling dialogue and the utter craziness of the premise.

And then there’s the little things. Due to his injuries, Phibes now speaks through a device in his neck, and eats by depositing food somewhere behind his head. His "face" is a rubber mask, which he removes to reveal a skull-like visage. Because of his disability, Price delivers poetic lines like the following in voiceover, with his bobbing Adam’s apple the only clue that he’s speaking: "Where can we find two better hemispheres, without sharp north, without declining west? My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears, and true plain hearts do in thee faces rest. Within twenty-four hours, my work will be finished, and then, my precious jewel, I will join you in your setting. We shall be reunited forever in a secluded corner of the great elysian field of the beautiful beyond!"

And the beautiful writing doesn’t end there, with everyone getting in on the act. The bumbling police: "A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen."

A long cherished classic from the days when films were made to be entertaining, The Abominable Doctor Phibes has perhaps suffered a bit from 30-odd years of praise – there is a temptation to think it isn’t as good as you remember it. Rest assured, it is.

Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Director: Robert Fuest Writer(s): James Whiton & William Goldstein

Cast: Vincent Price - Dr. Anton Phibes, Joseph Cotten - Dr. Vesalius, Virginia North - Vulnavia, Terry-Thomas - Dr. Longstreet, Sean Bury - Lem Vesalius, Susan Travers - Nurse Allen, David Hutcheson - Dr. Hedgepath, Edward Burnham - Dr. Dunwoody, Alex Scott - Dr. Hargreaves, Peter Gilmore - Dr. Kitaj, Maurice Kaufmann - Dr. Whitcombe, Peter Jeffrey - Inspector Trout, Derek Godfrey - Crow, Norman Jones - Sgt. Schenley, John Cater - Waverley

Updated: April 20, 2010

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