The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)

Another one of those films I probably should’ve seen years ago. If nothing else, this is a film that knows how to make an entrance: Vincent Price’s eponymous doctor rising through the floor playing a theatre organ, followed by music from a small cafe orchestra composed of, well, mannequins, before going to kill a man with a cage full of bats. No dialogue until about ten minutes in. Even when you know the outline of the story, it’s an opening that still makes you want to see just what’s going to happen next. In broad outline, Phibes is a revenge story; Dr Phibes spends the film exacting vengeance for the death of his wife upon the surgeons he believes killed her on the operating table. Essentially, it’s a killing spree film. It’s the baroque nature of said vengeance that’s the selling point here, with Phibes basing his plans upon the Biblical plagues sent to try the Egyptians (like Scott Ashlin, I was perplexed by the policeman’s odd ignorance of same); the end result is totally preposterous, and yet magnificent in its preposterousness, containing at least one line of dialogue of such brilliance—”A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen”—that you can only bow to it. Director Robert Fuest places all of this in eye-catching art deco period settings (the mid-20s period seems exactly right somehow for this story), and this review draws an interesting parallel with the Italian gialli of the same period, though obviously this is a lot funnier; there’s a particularly amusing running gag involving names constantly being gotten wrong. The mix of  fairly black humour and the oddly straight face with which the murders are (mostly) presented gives the whole film a particular air of the fantastic and not-quite-right that makes for quite remarkable viewing. Like I said, I should’ve seen this years ago.


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