The Abominable Dr. Phibes can only receive this mediocre rating if you conclude that you are meant to be laughing at certain points. Like Phantom of the Paradise, it blurs the line between horror and comedy. Although it is about grotesque murders, it also is full of humorous dialogue that one cannot help but conclude is meant to make us laugh. Other instances of absurd plot points and bad acting make us laugh for unintentional reasons.
Vincent Price stars as Dr. Phibes, a man who is thought to have died in a car accident following his wife’s death on the operating table. The man is very much alive, however, though horribly disfigured. He pastes on a false face to hide his scars and is able to talk only via a cord attaching his neck to a speaker. When it comes to eating/drinking, he seems to do that via a hole in the back of his neck (cue laughter).
Dr. Phibes lives in an old mansion with a beautiful young woman (Virginia North) who also fails to utter a word and whose relationship with the doctor is never explained. The man plays an organ and directs a “mechanical” orchestra while also taking time out to waltz with the woman. It all seems to be part of a ritual that leads up to the duo hitting the road and murdering surgeons.
Investigating the crimes is Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), who is assisted by the head doctor on Mrs. Phibes operation, Dr. Vesalius, played by an older Joseph Cotton. The two discover in their inquiries that the murders –via means such as bats, rats, and bees– are all related to the 10 plagues that preyed upon the Pharaoh of Egypt. The crime-fighters fail to avert any of the deaths, however, until we reach the final plague: death of the first-born. Dr. Vesalius, with a teenage son, is the recipient of that torment. He is forced to operate on the boy to save his life and in a manner that could have inspired the modern Saw movies.
Even the brutal deaths in The Abominable Dr. Phibes seem to employ a degree of comic timing. Having just located one doctor, the authorities lead him out of a building only to have a brass unicorn head catapult through the open door and impale the victim. A concentrated brussel sprout syrup entirely coats the head of a sleeping nurse, whose sleeping pills keep her unconscious during the eating of her face.
Jeffrey, whom I remember as being equally comical in The Return of the Pink Panther, certainly lightens the mood throughout by being fairly incompetent –leaving the critical thinking to Dr. Vesalius– and prattling off humorous lines here and there. Cotton, meanwhile, gives a superbly appropriate performance. A reader commented last week on the post about Cotton’s Walk Softly, Stranger that he has never seen the man give a bad performance. I cannot agree more. Like Bette Davis, Cotton was not immune to appearing in a bad movie, but he always gave a great show, here avoiding the melodrama Price tends to bring to his parts. I think it’s safe to say we expect a certain degree of camp from Price, however, and he certainly delivers that here.