The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) ***
Forget about William Shatner. Forget about Ricardo Montalban. The Abominable Dr. Phibes establishes incontrovertibly that Vincent Price is far and away the most talented bad actor who ever lived. Price plays the titular abominable doctor, and he somehow manages to ham in a role that requires him never once to change his facial expression or even open his mouth. It would seem that this could not be done, that nobody could possibly overact while wearing exactly the same expression in every single shot, but Price pulls it off, apparently without even trying very hard. Amazing.
The movie as a whole (which is set in England around 1930) comes across as a sort of deranged James Bond film, with the requisite evil genius pursuing his insidious ends by means of a wildly fanciful scheme that even Rube Goldberg would envy. Dr. Phibesís objective is that which, after world domination, is closest to the hearts of evil geniuses everywhere-- revenge. Specifically, Phibes seeks to avenge the ďmurderĒ of his beloved wife, who died on the operating table as a team of eight doctors and one nurse struggled to save her from some unspecified life-threatening ailment. The method of his revenge is truly astonishing: each of the nine people responsible for the death of Mrs. Phibes is to suffer a fate derived from the ten plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians as described in Exodus. Some of these plague murders are really ingenious. Take, for example, the Plague of Frogs. Now, I personally always thought that this was sort of a lame plague; frogs, after all, are inoffensive creatures, even by the tens of millions. They neither bite nor sting nor spread disease, they donít compete with humans or their livestock for food, and-- most damning for the purposes of a plague-- they are extremely cute. It seems fairly obvious to me why God would need to follow up with eight more plagues to get the Egyptians to change their tune. (The frogs were plague number two.) But Dr. Phibes is not troubled. His take on the Plague of Frogs: He and one of the doctors are both attending a costume party. The unfortunate surgeon is wearing a large and elaborate frog mask. Donít ask me how, but Phibes somehow tampered with the mask such that it will slowly constrict until it crushes his victimís head. Marvelous.
Anyway, these doctors are dying in extremely bizarre ways, and the whole business captures the attention of Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard (Peter Jeffrey, of Countess Dracula). Despite the disbelief of his colleagues and superiors, he pursues the hypothesis that all of the crimes are related, that there is a pattern to be found if only one looks diligently enough. His investigation leads him to Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten, from Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Latitude Zero), the head of the surgical team that operated on Mrs. Phibes, who provides Trout with the information that the Phibes case was the only one on which all of the victims (three at the time) had collaborated. He also gives Trout the names of the other five members of the team, in the hope that Scotland Yard can do something to protect them. Further investigation-- meant to uncover the meaning of the Hebrew inscription on a silver amulet that was found near the body of the fourth victim-- brings Trout to the office of a Talmudic scholar (Hugh Griffith, from Legend of the Werewolf and Cry of the Banshee), who tells him that the symbol stands for the Plague of Blood, one of the ten curses of the Pharaohs (Aha! The victim had been completely exsanguinated, you see, and his blood placed in a row of pint jars lined up on the mantlepiece!), sent by God to punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews. This scene with the scholar is really quite fascinating, in that it presupposes a degree of ignorance about the Old Testament that I wouldnít have expected in a 1971 audience. The old man not only has to tell Inspector Trout what the individual plagues were (that, I can understand) he must also tell him the circumstances under which they were imposed. Shit, man-- this was 1971! The hippies hadnít had a chance to breed yet, so the number of Americans who had been raised godless would still be comparatively small, and the U.S. has long been the most religious nation in the Western world. Is it possible that the audience to which American International Pictures was pitching this movie wouldnít have known the story? Either way, this business about biblical plagues dovetails nicely with what Trout knows about Dr. Phibes-- one of the manís many degrees is a Ph.D. in theology. Only trouble is, Dr. Phibes is dead, killed four years ago in an auto wreck, on the same day that his wife died in the hospital.
Or is he? As it happens, thereís nothing but a little box of ashes in his coffin (ashes which could honestly have come from anyone or anything), and thereís nothing at all in his wifeís coffin. Uh oh. And meanwhile, Scotland Yard is not doing a real good job of keeping those surgeons from dying. While Trout conducts his investigation, one doctor is frozen to death by this unlikely gizmo that Vulnavia (Phibesís lovely and apparently mute assistant) planted in his limo (The Plague of Hail! The Plague of Hail!), and another is eaten alive by rats in the cockpit of his private plane. (Iím going to save my comments regarding the Plague of Rats for later, if you donít mind.) Before long, even the skeptics have bought into Troutís theory, and the question becomes, ďhow many men do we have to assign to the doctors to keep Phibes away from them?Ē It appears that the answer to that question is a number well in excess of Scotland Yardís total employment figures, because the goddamned U.S. Post Office would have done a better job. Nevertheless, the movie finally does work its way around to Phibesís secret headquarters, with Dr. Vesalius facing a fate based on the plague that killed the firstborn sons of all the Egyptians. We also finally learn why Dr. Phibesís face never moves, and why he has to plug this little cylindrical thing into the side of his neck in order to speak.
Now, about that plague of rats. Go find a bible. The Plagues of the Pharaohs begin in Exodus, Chapter Eight. Read through until youíve counted ten plagues. You will note that there is no plague of rats. Neither is there a plague of bats, nor anything that is remotely suggested by the death of the one surgeon who gets impaled on the horn of the brass unicorn head that Phibes and Vulnavia fire from a catapult (!) from across the street. I suppose the plague substitution makes some dramatic sense. After all, we already have a victim getting eaten alive by locusts (yeah, I know, locusts are herbivores), and another who gets stung to death by bees (the Plague of Boils). Perhaps it would be redundant to have two more insect-themed deaths (one for the Plague of Flies, one for the Plague of Lice/Gnats/Maggots [I consulted three different versions of the Bible, and none of them could agree on exactly which unpleasant bug it is into which all of Egyptís dust turns]). And letís face it, the plague that kills off all the livestock is somewhat lacking in terror value as an instrument of private revenge-- whatís Dr. Phibes going to do, poison one of the doctorsí dogs? But, to me, the whole business is still pretty funny. I mean, Phibes is a doctor of theology, right? And Iím-- what?-- a guy with a passing familiarity with the Bible? Yeah, so if my ďartistic licenseĒ alarm goes off in the second scene, when one of the surgeons is killed by fruit bats, somebody wasnít trying hard enough.
That said, I really enjoyed this movie. Itís just so weird. Vincent Price is simply unbelievable, talking, by the power of voice-over, through an old-fashioned phonograph, giving exactly the same megalomaniacal speech on at least three separate occasions, and maintaining that wonderful look of sheer dementia, without the slightest change, throughout the entire film. And then thereís Virginia North (of Deadlier Than the Male) as Vulnavia. I always thought it would have been fun to be an evil genius when I grew up, and now that I know one of the fringe benefits is the possibility of having Virginia North for a pet, Iím really thinking I need to find myself a university that offers a graduate program in Advanced Evil. You wonít be disappointed. Itís much better than any of the Bond films whose overall tone it rips off.