The year 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of Robert Fuest’s comedy horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Starring the legendary Vincent Price as a half-dead madman bent on retribution, the first of the Drs Phibes movies is a decadent entry in early 70’s gothic horror with nostalgia for the roaring 20’s. Where elegance meets the preposterous, played straight.
Cultivating a massive cult following for over five decades, the vibes of Phibes have left a dramatic influence on the horror genre.
Revenge in The Best Medicine
In an art deco ballroom stylized with shades of pink and lavender, a cloaked organist rises to the stage. Accompanied by a mechanical jazz band, The Clockwork Wizards, he is Dr. Anton Phibes. The famous concert musician, mechanically gifted and educated in theology. With the assistance of his robotic protégé, Vulnavia, he creates a masterpiece of revenge.
His noble wife, Victoria Regina Phibes, was taken too quickly and too cruelly from this world. Requiring immediate resection, a surgical team of nine lead by Dr. Vesalius were too late to save her. Dr. Phibes rushed to her side only to arrive in a fiery car crash. He rises from the ashes disfigured and seeking justice for those that failed Victoria.
A specter obsessed with aesthetic, Phibes smites each surgeon from existence with a biblical plague. The 10 curses of the pharaohs from the Book of Exodus are executed with precision. Nine killed Victoria and nine shall die… nine eternities in doom.
Our villain remains silent more than half an hour into the film before plugging himself into a modified gramophone. Addressing a photo of his departed wife, Phibes regularly grieves her passing by reciting poetry in his lair. A sort of shrine to her memory with images papering the walls. A false, unmoving face pleads with eyes to join their two hearts together in time. The scene feels like a bizarre fever dream watching Price miming to his own voiceover dialog. Hammer Horror royalty, Caroline Munro is uncredited as the beloved Victoria Regina. Her preserved remains lie in state, awaiting her husband to join her in the Elysian fields of the afterlife.
The Genesis of the Dr. Phibes Movies
Shortly after William Goldstein was widowed in 1961, he had a vivid dream about a man bringing his wife back to life. Developing his nocturnal idea into a 17-page story, he pitched it to Jim Whiton. A longtime friend of Goldstein, who had some success as a television writer. Sparking interest, the two men collaborated on a screenplay. American International Pictures loved Dr. Phibes but the script was drastically altered by story editor, Robert Blees, and director Robert Fuest. The more dramatic elements of the original were maintained by Goldstein, having authored the official novelization of the Dr. Phibes movies.
Following the success of the first Dr. Phibes movie, AIP hastily commissioned Goldstein and Whiton to write a sequel, with a third planned. Their script stuck close to the original, following a similar story arc but was again overhauled by Blees and Fuest. Dr. Phibes Rises Again was released in 1972, lacking the humor and flair from the first movie.
Price returns as the murderous doctor, traveling to Egypt in search of immortality. Accompanied by his mechanical assistant and Victoria’s remains encased in a calliope with The Clockwork Wizards.
Goldstein and Whiton had also written a third script for the planned franchise, but it never saw the light of day. Laurel Entertainment would propose two different Dr. Phibes movies in the 80s and Price himself expressed interest in a treatment entitled The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes by Paul Clemens. All would resurrect original characters but shape them into something more reformed. Various plot ideas surfaced of Phibes battling art thieves and occultist Nazis. The revenge of Dr. Vesalius’ son and an undead Victoria becoming something worse than her husband. Even a small screen revival was proposed with a tv series featuring Dr. Phibes fighting crime.
Though nothing materialized, the horror icon would live on through literature. Not only writing the official novelizations for both Dr. Phibes movies, William Goldstein would also create a series of books. Authoring a prequel to the events of the first movie, Dr. Phibes: In The Beginning. Followed by Vulnavia’s Secret in 2013 and The Androbots in 2019.
BlueWater Comics (now TidalWave Productions) introduced the characters to a new medium in their horror comic anthology series, Vincent Price Presents. Running 37 issues from 2008 to 2011, the stories featured retellings of Price’s films and original tales. Including new adventures of Dr. Anton Phibes dolling out his genius wrath. The collected stories were released in 2012 as a graphic novel, Vincent Price Presents: The Seven Lives of Dr. Phibes.
The Kind of Fiend That Wins
The most notable influence of the Dr. Phibes movies had on the horror genre is the Saw franchise. The fiend would construct intricate skill tests and speed traps for rivals to save loved ones in both movies. These deadly games were expanded on with the Jigsaw killer, giving way to 9 entries in the series.
The biblical themed murders would add a different flavor to religious horror. Directly inspiring 1995’s Se7en, the themed murders were reimagined as the 7 deadly sins. Just as Phibes succumbs to his own work as the 10th plague of darkness, John Doe is consumed by his own as the sin of envy. Though revenge driven, these executions are part of a spiritual quest. The stark pageantry of the murder rituals looks like something out of a Jodorowsky film.
Dr. Phibes expresses his passion with an altar of wax heads molded after the offending surgeons. Each bust is adorned with a Hebrew medallion and melted, a surreal act resembling scenes from The Holy Mountain. In an early scene, Phibes assembles his face with crude features and make-up to pass without detection as the living dead.
This off-screen emphasis was also seen in 1990’s horror comedy, Nothing But Trouble. The 106-year-old Judge Alvin Valkenheiser is caught in a candid moment applying his face with similar repurposed prosthetics. Both lovable villains reside in mansions filled with automated engineering and hold multiple degrees of education. There have also been some comparisons between Dr. Phibes and Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Both sophisticated men that could be regarded as a Robin Hood among serial killers. A grim underdog that the audience roots for just like in Sam Raimi’s Darkman.
Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly
The surreal elegance of the Dr. Phibes movies has yet to be matched in the horror genre. Paying tribute to cabaret floor shows with musical interludes dripping with 70’s camp. This horror comedy is a very dry humor with minimalist dialog and bumbling detectives 3 steps behind the assailant. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is also a morbidly romantic movie. Climaxing with the mad organist embalming himself in a tomb shared with his wife. His madness born from a devoted love that transcends this mortal coil and death itself.
The Dr. Phibes Companion by Justin Humphreys
Caroline Munro: First Lady of Fantasy by Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter
Last Updated on February 14, 2022.