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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!"

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.

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 one of his victims upon seeing an ugly piece of art in his room.
    • The wax busts he melts after each kill. And, indeed, the casting of Price as a vengeful and disfigured burn victim.
    • Advertisement:
    • 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.
  • 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 mauled to death by bats. The sixth victim, Doctor Kitaj, has his plane filled with rats, causing him to panic and fatally crash it. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Black Cloak: Phibes wears one at the beginning as he flamboyantly plays his organ, complete with ominous black hood. He dons a white cloak in the climax.
  • Book-Ends: 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 (she's explicitly called out as one in the script, the film leaves it a lot more ambiguous)
  • Cold Ham: A rare example from Price, who usually served his ham fresh and hot.
  • 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 batsnote .
  • 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.
  • Cute Mute/The Voiceless: Phibes' assistant, Vulnavia. Though she is apparently capable of speech, her only utterance on-camera is an agonized scream as she dies.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 for nurse Allen to 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.
  • 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.
  • Kill It with Ice: Dr. Hedgepath is frozen to death with an ice-spewing machine.
  • Large Ham: All through mime, yet.
  • Lip Lock: Completely averted; Phibes' throat is too damaged 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.
  • 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.
  • A Nice Chianti: 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. Her white mink outfit is probably the most normal 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.
    • 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!
  • Posters Always Spoil: Phibes' disfigured face was supposed to be The Reveal. It's right there at the top of the screen.
  • 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: Bats 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.
  • Scotland Yard: This institution is on the case of tracking down Phibes and investigating his string of murders.
  • Sins of the Father: Phibes takes revenge on the 10 people he blames for his wife's death. He uses the Ten Plagues of Egypt as his theme, meaning that the last 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 films 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 10 plagues of Egypt to carry out his revenge.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Vulnavia dons a different outfit in every one of her scenes.
  • Villain Protagonist: Dr. Phibes
  • 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.


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