"The Abominable Dr. Phibes" easily ranks among my favorite horror films of all time. Its blend of creepiness, comedy and unique visual style make it a gem of the genre even before we get to the fact that the inimitable Vincent Price takes on the lead role. Every frame brims with goodness--from the dry British humor of the dialogue to the outrageous Art Deco by way of Swinging Sixties London decor, there's not a dull instant in this movie.
The story finds mad scientist, celebrated organist, and Biblical scholar Dr. Anton Phibes (played with a somberness that's downright cheeky by Our Man Vincent) seeking vengeance for his wife's death at the hands of a group of surgeons who failed to save her after a tragic car accident. Scarred mentally and physically, Dr. Phibes works with his gorgeous, mute, and probably-hella-crazy assistant Vulnavia to to bring the Plagues of Egypt down upon the unfortunate medical men. Increasingly baroque modes of murder are employed (I shall spoil none of them here, just in case some of you haven't seen the movie yet!) until the final show-down between Phibes and Dr. Vesalius (an admirably with-it Joseph Cotten). There are bumbling police officers and eccentric scholars peppered throughout the movie, but the element that makes my black little heart sing is the visual design. Let's take a moment to admire Virginia North as Vulnavia, who changes outfits in virtually every scene (sometimes even between walking from one room to another):
THIS is perhaps the best sexy chauffeur outfit in cinema. Everything is perfect, from her cropped gloves to her translucent silk blouse. Not shown here are the bloused black silk breeches and knee-high patent boots.
The sets are a clever combination of psychedelic Op Art and Roaring Twenties Deco whose flat, comic-book style underscores the fantastical nature of the movie. This is pure escapism whose aesthetic incongruities create a world that's truly one-of-a-kind.
Or... well, one-of-a-kind aside from its sequel, "Dr. Phibes Rises Again." I dig Phibes II because SOME Phibes is better than NO Phibes, but it's so close to its pitch-perfect predecessor that it's all too easy to see where things are getting a little threadbare. The camerawork isn't as elegant, ditching the long-shot Busby Berkeley-inspired establishing shots and musical interludes entirely and integrating some gritty-ish handheld work that does no favors to the material. In this movie, Dr. Phibes and Vulnavia (now played by the Britt-Ekland-ish Valli Kemp) are back, now attempting to revive Victoria Phibes in a mystical River Of Life beneath a pharaoh's tomb. They're pitted against Darius Beiderbeck (Robert Quarry, who I just CANNOT warm up to, alas), an arrogant adventurer in search of eternal life. The dry humor is present and the plot pops along at a pleasant pace. While Vulnavia looks incredible, alas her outfits don't change as much, and some are even--*gasp*--recycled. That shouldn't stop us from admiring some of her signature looks for a moment, though:
ZOMG Shiek Outfit!!!! Granted, in a perfect world SHE would be wearing the robes and headpiece, but Our Man Vincent cuts quite the dashing figure here.
For its pretty much limitless re-watch potential, style excellence, and wicket wit, let's raise a glass or two to the Dr. Phibes films. They just don't make 'em like THAT anymore!