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Film / The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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"Nine killed you. Nine shall die and be returned your loss. Nine times, nine! Nine killed you! Nine shall die! Nine eternities in DOOM!"
Dr. Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a deliberately campy 1971 British horror film directed by Robert Fuest, starring Vincent Price as the eponymous doctor and Joseph Cotten as his nemesis.

Four years ago, in 1921, Victoria Phibes died after only six minutes on the operating table. While rushing to her side, her husband Anton Phibes, a brilliant organist with expertise in theology, medicine and automation, crashed his car, and was thought to have been killed. In truth, the horrifically burned man had survived, only to learn of the death of his wife. In despair, Phibes went into seclusion, swearing vengeance upon those he perceived responsible for the death of his only love.

Now the year is 1925, and doctors have been perishing in disturbing and bizarre ways. At first, the only connections between them seem to be that the manner of their death is related in some way to one of the ten plagues of Egypt as outlined in the Old Testament, and that a silent, beautiful woman was nearby when they died. Yet there is one more connection between the doctors; a certain failed operation comes back to haunt them.

But if there were ten plagues, and only nine people operated on Victoria... then for whom is the Plague of Darkness intended?

Followed a year later by a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Immediately after the Dr. Phibes films, Price starred in a Spiritual Successor to them, Theatre of Blood.

Contains examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming:
    • A Running Gag is that people keep getting Trout's name wrong and calling him after other types of fish.
    • Also various characters pronouncing 'Phibes' as 'FIH-bees', which someone else corrects them on.
    • Everybody needs to be corrected on how to pronounce Kitaj (It's Kit-eye).
  • Actor Allusion:
    • In real life, Vincent Price was an excellent chef and art expert. In the movie, Phibes cooks up a Brussels sprouts-based concoction in order to get locusts to eat a woman, and throws a withering Death Glare at Longstreet upon seeing an ugly piece of art in his room.
    • The wax busts Phibes melts after each kill. And, indeed, the casting of Price as a vengeful and disfigured burn victim.
    • Dr. Phibes' wife's full name is Victoria Regina Phibes. Victoria Regina was the name of a 1935 play starring Vincent Price.
  • All There in the Manual: According to the script, Vulnavia is a clockwork creation of Phibes'. The actual movie leaves her nature more ambiguous.Trout and others react to her corpse as if she's human.
  • Animal Assassin: Several of the murders make use of this. Phibes arranges for the first victim, Professor Thornton, to be stung to death by bees to emulate the plague of boils. The second victim, Doctor Dunwoody, is torn to shreds by bats. The sixth victim, Doctor Kitaj, has his plane filled with rats, causing him to panic and fatally crash it while they bite off pieces of his flesh. Finally, the 8th victim, Nurse Allen, is coated with a syrupy distillation of brussels sprouts so that a swarm of locusts will fatally gnaw her face off.
  • Antagonist Title: The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Locusts are not carnivorous and cannot be induced to eat human flesh, no matter how hungry they are - or how that human flesh is garnished.
  • Artistic License – Religion: The film takes liberties with the nature and sequence of several of the biblical Ten Plagues. This could have been attributed to Phibes playing fast and loose with theology — had the rabbi Trout consults not confirmed the film's version of the list. Word of God confirmed that two of the plagues were changed because the FX budget wouldn't allow them to be effectively shown.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Phibes commits almost all of his murders and then commits suicide in the first film to escape justice and be with his wife in death. Visalius being able to save his son is the only thing that prevents a clean sweep for Phibes.
  • Bedlah Babe: A minor example. The blue movie Dr. Longstreet is watching features a young woman dressed as an Arabian who is apparently planning to do something... interesting with her Feather Boa Constrictor.
  • Big Bad: Dr. Anton Phibes, a madman killing the surgeons his wife died under.
  • Black Cloak: Phibes wears one at the beginning as he flamboyantly plays his organ, complete with ominous black hood. He wears it while committing most of his murders. He dons a white cloak in the climax.
  • Bookends: Phibes plays Felix Mendelssohn's War March Of The Priests twice on his organ. The first time opens the movie. He plays it a second time as he prepares to join his wife in death towards the end.
  • Camp: The movie is full of it, Phibes' lair and mannerism in particular.
  • Clock Punk: Phibes has a clockwork orchestra of automatons, and many of his deathtraps are spring-powered or otherwise fit this motif. Vulnavia may or may not be one of his clockwork automatons as well, but it's left ambiguous. She's explicitly called out as one in the script, but at the end of the film, she is killed after being showered in acid, and while don't see the results, when Trout and the others see her body, their looks of horror look like they're seeing a dead human body, and not merely a mechanism revealed bare.
  • Cold Ham: A rare example from Price, who usually served his ham fresh and hot. Somehow even with a mask-like Frozen Face he's still a Large Ham.
  • Collapsing Lair: Phibes orders Vulnavia to destroy everything in his lair once his vengeance is accomplished. She uses an axe, which is not really appropriate for the task. She can only achieve mere vandalizing with it.
  • Complexity Addiction: Phibes' entire scheme in general, and some of his specific kills in particular. Let's just say it; there are easier ways to kill someone than to arrange for them to be sedated, paint them with boiled-up brussels sprouts, and then fill the room with hungry locusts and wait for them to be Eaten Alive.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Phibes' techniques for killing off his enemies involve such varied methods as impaling a man on a brass unicorn's horn (launched through his window from across the street), a contracting, crushing frog mask, and adorable flesh-eating bats.note 
  • Costume Porn: A couple of Vulvania's costumes are rather extravagant. One in particular has her wearing a pink hat that covers the back of her head with several long prongs sticking from the top.
  • Covers Always Lie: The poster implies that a romance between the disfigured Phibes and Vulnavia is a major part of the plot. It's not part of the plot at all.
  • Death by Disfigurement: Vulnavia is killed by a shower of acid falling on her face, making this rather literal. We don't see the results, but it's safe to say that her dead body won't be very pretty...
  • Death by Irony:
    • Dr. Hargreaves (the crushing frog mask victim) said "I'm a head shrinker!".
    • "I must say, I feel rather like a head of state!" Cue the unicorn head impaling him through the chest.
  • Death Seeker: Phibes himself. He wants to murder the entire surgical team first, but his ultimate plan is to die himself, since even having had revenge, it still won't be enough.
  • Dirty Old Man: Dr. Longstreet is this, watching a vintage blue movie and seeming more interested than surprised or shocked when an attractive woman breaks into his home. Longstreet's housekeeper, Mrs. Frawley, seems well-aware of her employer's proclivities.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: In the whole movie, but especially in the last scenes. Dr. Vesalius failed in a surgery with a team of 9 doctors. Then Phibes reveals his disfigured face, scaring the crap out of him and makes him operate on his son, alone, while constantly reminding him about the acid and playing organ. It's just unfair. More basic than that: the movie gives no indication that Dr. Vesalius and his team were negligent in any way, or committed any sort of malpractice. Phibes is just looking for someone to punish for his wife's death.
  • Dramatic Unmask: When Phibes reveals his disfigured, skull-like face to Vesalius.
  • Dull Surprise: Several of Phibes' victims seem remarkably unperturbed about strangers barging into their bedrooms or opening their car doors.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Vulnavia does this twice, playing a violin as Phibes engineers the deaths of his victims. And Vulnavia is a hottie...
  • Enigmatic Minion: Why never learn exactly how or why Vulnavia became Phibes's henchwoman, assuming she's human at all.
  • Feather Boa Constrictor: The Bedlah Babe in the blue movie Dr. Longstreet is watching has a snake around her neck. She appears to be intending to do something...interesting with it, but Dr. Longstreet is interrupted before he can see exactly what.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Phibes couldn't have faked his death if there hadn't been a chauffeur in his car with him when it crashed; nobody was aware that there was a second person in the car, and nobody noticed the missing chauffeur after his death.
  • Good Is Dumb:
    • Dr. Vesalius could've killed Phibes, then turned off the machine that would pour acid on his son, and then proceed to call the police. He even had a scalpel in his hand! The only reason for him to not do so seems to be this piece of dialogue:
      Dr. Vesalius: Your wife no, Phibes, but you I will kill.
      Dr. Phibes: But you can't, doctor. I'm already dead.
    • Another possible reason is his belief that Phibes has planned for contingencies, as witness this piece of dialogue:
      Dr. Vesalius: (to Trout) Human error won't stop him. He's had years to hide, to plot this damnable thing.
    • Even before, Dr. Vesalius was not the brightest person when he suggested Nurse Allen take a sleeping pill. In fairness, it was a common practice in many movies made before about the middle 1970s for doctors to give upset women sleeping pills or sedative shots if danger wasn't in plain sight, but she could have survived her fate if she was awake.
  • Gotta Kill Them All: For Phibes, every person involved in Victoria's operation must die.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Dr. Whitcombe. With a brass unicorn head.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Longstreet fawns all over a mysterious woman who breaks into his home. She is only able to tie him to a chair because he helpfully obliges.
    • Inspector Trout takes multiple turns at holding the ball, most notably failing to connect the "plague of darkness" with the large, stylized depiction of a SOLAR ECLIPSE on the coffin-for-two Phibes rigged for himself and Victoria.
  • Irrational Hatred: As noted above under Disproportionate Retribution, the movie gives no indication that the surgical team that failed to save Victoria Phibes actually did anything wrong.
  • Jack of All Trades: Not only is Phibes an organist and a theologian as much PR material states, but he is also a tinkerer (presumably building the frog mask and the hail machine, and his band of clockwork musicians), a surgeon (implanting the key near the heart), and a gourmand. Depending on what Vulvavia is, he may also may be even more of a clockwork maker (if Vulvavia is a clockwork), or an occultist (if she's a familiar, as the sequel implies). The only skill he lacks is medallion-making which he outsources and as a result gives the police their lead on him.
  • Kill It with Ice: Dr. Hedgepath is frozen to death with an ice-spewing machine.
  • Lip Lock: Completely averted; Phibes' throat is too damaged from the accident for normal speech, so he communicates by plugging himself into outlets and then – with science – speaking through them. Which is to say, Vincent Price acts his character in mime, and then supplies voiceover later. This made his only dialogue scene a bit tricky for Joseph Cotten, who didn't always know when to start speaking.
  • The Lost Lenore: Victoria Phibes
  • Love Makes You Evil: Evil enough to kill, that is.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Whether Vulnavia is a magical being, a clockwork, or a mortal is never answered. When her face is burned by acid at the end, Trout and others react to her corpse as if she's human.
  • Medium Awareness: Vulnavia keeps striking poses for the audience. She's the only character to do so, which adds a bit of evidence to the "magic" side of the Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane debate.
  • Misplaced Retribution: Once again, the film gives no indication that Dr. Vesalius and his team are actually responsible for Victoria Phibes's death in any way.
  • Murderous Mask: Dr. Hargreaves is done in by a mechanically constricting frog mask that crushes his skull.
  • Necromantic: Despite having a skull-like face, Phibes loving the deceased Victoria is still a little too much.
  • Never Hurt an Innocent: Phibes spares a chauffeur when he could easily kill him. He seems intent on killing only the nine who he considers responsible for Victoria's death. Or Vesalius' son, since Sins of the Father and the Curse of the Firstborn.
  • A Nice Chianti: Phibes briefly contemplates Longstreet's brandy after draining Longstreet's blood. Although he has to drink it through the back of his neck...
  • Nothing Is Scarier: For the most part, we don't actually see all the blood and gore of the murders, only seeing the aftermath, leaving the actual horror largely to the viewer's imagination
  • Not That Kind of Doctor: Phibes has his doctorates in theology and music. Though he does know enough about surgery to safely cut open a boy's chest and plant a key inside him.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: As a virtuoso organist, Phibes naturally loves to play his theatre organ in his lair.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Some of Vulnavia's dresses are pretty elaborate. It says something that her white mink outfit is probably the most modest one.
  • Poetic Serial Killer: All his kills are based off the Ten Plagues of Death.
  • Police Are Useless: Well, except for Trout, and even he is powerless to prevent most of the deaths despite figuring out Phibes' modus operandi fairly early on. And even Trout falls prey to this trope in the case of Nurse Allen, who is sent to bed alone in a room at the hospital, without a constable or even another nurse to keep an eye on her. This, after being advised to take a sleeping pill and riding to her floor in an elevator with Phibes himself in it!
  • The Precious, Precious Car: When Crow drives off in a desperate attempt to save Dr. Kitaj, he takes the first car he finds, which turns out to be Superintendent Waverly's. It is in less than pristine condition when he returns it, and falls apart (off-screen) when Waverly drives off.
  • Pressure Point: Used by Phibes to incapacitate a victim's chauffeur, Vulcan style.
  • Pretty in Mink: Vulnavia first appearance has her in a white fur coat and hat.
  • A Rare Sentence:
    Waverley: A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The whole plot.
  • The Roaring '20s: The story takes place in the early-to-mid 1920s.
  • Rule of Cool:
    • The grandiose gestures a cloaked Phibes does when playing the organ at the very beginning would make it very difficult to play an organ at all, but the theatricality matters the most here.
    • Bats, rats, and locusts eat people when Doctor Phibes says they do, dammit!
  • Rule of Funny: Instant rigor mortis makes unscrewing someone from a wall that much goofier.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Phibes, after watching Kitaj's plane crash.
  • Sickening "Crunch!": The frog masks that crushes Hargreaves' head does so quite audibly.
  • Sins of the Father: Phibes takes revenge on the nine people he blames for his wife's death. He uses the Ten Plagues of Egypt as his theme, meaning that the ninth murder will be death of the first born, aimed at the surgeon's son rather than the surgeon.
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: Both this film and its sequel have a very dry sense of humor, are well aware of Phibes' epic hamminess, and generally don't take themselves all that seriously.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: One of the victims dies rather horribly at a fancy-dress party to the strains of "The Darktown Strutter's Ball".
  • Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey).
  • Talking to the Dead: Phibes keeps his dead wife's body preserved and frequently speaks to her.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: And Phibes intended himself to be the last.
  • Terrifying Pet Store Rat: The "plagues" of rats and bats are suspiciously well-groomed, and clearly aren't aggressive or even particularly excited.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Phibes prepares to join his wife in death once his vengeance is accomplished.
  • That's All, Folks!: Phibes's Evil Laugh is heard at the end of the closing credits.
  • Theme Serial Killer: Dr. Phibes used the first nine plagues of Egypt to carry out his revenge. the tenth, the Plague of Darkness, he reserves for himself.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Phibes' disfigured face was supposed to be The Reveal. It's right there on the poster.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Vulnavia dons a different outfit in almost every one of her scenes.
  • Scotland Yard: This institution is on the case of tracking down Phibes and investigating his string of murders.
  • Villain Protagonist: Dr. Phibes.
  • The Voiceless: Phibes' assistant, Vulnavia. Though she is apparently capable of speech (a several people say she talked when she arranged business with them, but not much), her only utterance on-camera is an agonized scream as she dies.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: No one wonders where Phibes' chauffeur went when Phibes' car crashed. There's only enough ash to make up one body. Everyone except Trout assumes that the one body is Phibes', but if he's known to have a chauffeur, they would wonder where his ashes went. And if he died... someone would notice he was gone.
  • Wicked Cultured: Phibes is very adept at the organ, loves being theatrical, and is knowledgeable of the arts and Egyptian history.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Phibes.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Averted, as Phibes hurts Vesalius' son. A lot. Although he spares a chauffeur.