Director Robert Fuest first came to international attention with his work on the last series of TV’s The Avengers, his idiosyncratic visuals a natural match for a show whose style was its substance. Fuest’s fourth feature film, The Abominable Dr Phibes has the feel of an extended, unusually gruesome episode of The Avengers - but here, instead of doing battle with diabolical masterminds, the sophisticated man and glamorous woman at the centre are the diabolical masterminds. The goodies here are grouchy Joseph Cotten and a gaggle of more-or-less incompetent detectives (Peter Jeffrey’s Inspector Trout being the least). The baddies are a far more interesting proposition: Dr Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) is a world-renowned organist and theologist, believed to have died in a car crash but in fact hiding out in a sumptuous underground lair and plotting revenge on the medics he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. Mrs Phibes is played by 70s horror icon Caroline Munro, but we only see her in photographs and, at the film’s climax, as an embalmed corpse – the female half of the deadly duo is the beautiful Vulnavia (Virginia North), who assists Phibes for reasons that remain entirely mysterious. One thing that's missing is the witty repartee shared by The Avengers’ protagonists: Vulnavia is silent throughout, while that car crash robbed Phibes of the power of speech, meaning that for most of the film Price is an entirely physical presence, in a manner more expected from Christopher Lee (and one which seems downright perverse for an actor known above all for his distinctive voice). We do eventually hear Price’s voice in distorted form, played through a device Phibes has invented to speak with. The doctor’s face was also horribly disfigured in the crash, meaning he wears a ghastly, pallid mask of his own former visage.
The climactic reveal of his horrifically burnt face at the film’s climax (a callback to a similar scene in an earlier Price vehicle, House of Wax) was severely diminished by the heavy use of his skull-like features in the film’s publicity.
Phibes’ 1920s setting is a refreshing novelty, and in keeping with it the plot is as diaphanous as a flapper’s dress: Phibes kills each of the medics in a manner based on one of the 10 plagues of Egypt (he’s very big on the Old Testament), and the police try to stop him with the assistance of Dr Vesalius (Cotten), whose name’s on the list. That’s it, but it’s all strung together in highly entertaining fashion. Any real theologist is likely to raise an eyebrow at the film’s interpretation of the plagues: the plague of lice is replaced by one of bats, and despite sucking the blood of poor Dr Dunwoody (Edward Burnham) they’re played by fruit bats rather than the genuine vampire variety. Presumably these were chosen for their impressive size, but they look entirely unthreatening.
Later, the plague of wild animals is represented by Dr Whitcombe (Maurice Kaufman) being impaled on the horn of a brass unicorn, which seems tenuous to say the least.
The most impressively staged of the murders see Dr Hargreaves (Alex Scott) garrotted by a gorgeous, bejewelled frog’s head mask, and Dr Kitaj (Peter Gilmore) eaten alive in the cockpit of a plane by rats.
Phibes’ dousing of the sleeping Nurse Allen (Susan Travers) in pureed sprouts through a hole in the ceiling before setting a horde of locusts on her is agonisingly drawn out, but the pay-off of her fleshless face covered in the crawling insects is nearly worth it.
There are some witty lines in James Whiton and William Goldstein’s script, and a distinctive score by cult favourite composer Basil Kirchin, but it’s how Phibes looks that makes it unforgettable, and Brian Eatwell’s remarkable art deco sets and Elsa Fennell’s costumes (particularly Vulnavia’s striking ensembles), beautifully photographed by Norman Warwick, linger in the mind longer than anything else.
· Familiar faces in the cast include Hugh Griffith and Terry-Thomas, billed third and fourth but with minimal screen time as an exposition-spouting rabbi and a victim of Phibes who’s bled to death respectively. John Laurie makes a tiny appearance (that looks like it’s been heavily cut) as a senile music seller. Future Doctor Who companion Ian Marter and Inspector Morse’s boss James Grout both appear briefly as policemen.
· Joanna Lumley had a small role as a lab assistant, but her scenes were cut from the finished film.