“Long thought dead, the victim of a horrible accident, Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price) still lives, surrounded by art-deco bric-a-brac and attended by mute beauty Vulnavia (Virginia North). Outwardly normal in appearance, Phibes actually wears a rubber mask, covering his hideously deformed countenance; giving away the artifice is the fact that, when he dines, he takes his food through his neck rather than his mouth. Able to speak only when plugging a wire into his damaged vocal chords, Phibes elucidates his plan to murder the medical team whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife. Each of the killings is patterned after the ten deadly plagues. Phibes saves his worst for last: trapping chief surgeon Dr. Vesalius in his lair, Phibes forces the hapless medico into a race against time to save the life of his own son.” – AllMovie Guide
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” If you’re old enough, you probably recognize that quote from Love Story as one of the most famous movie lines ever uttered. If you’re a semi-literate person of any age, you also recognize it as one of the dumbest things to ever come out of a movie character’s mouth since the invention of celluloid. Even John Lennon once quipped, “Are you kidding, love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” So, what better way to establish the dark comedic tone of The Abominable Dr. Phibes than by skewering that iconic utterance on it’s one sheet. After all, despite its Grand Guignol trappings, Phibes is still a love story, just a morbid one with its tongue set firmly in its hollowed out cheek.
And who better to carry such a mixed bag of grisly murders, gallows humor, and tortured lovers than Vincent Price. On the actor’s official website run by his family, the legendary thespian is described thusly…
“Vincent Price is widely regarded as one of the most iconic and beloved horror movie actors in the world. Any fan of classic horror movies knows the name Vincent Price as synonymous with elegance, humor, talent, worldliness, and charm. Throughout his over 60-year movie career, appearing in countless classic horror movies, as well as classic films outside the horror genre, Price established himself as one of the most popular actors--beloved among both his fans and his peers.”
Normally such hyperbole could be written off as the loving words of an adoring family, but in the case of Vincent Price, it’s pretty much spot on. Whether delivering a performance of Shakespearean quality or just hamming it up for the fun of it, there’s very few movies that weren’t made just a little bit better by Price’s presence (yes, even Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), and nowhere is that on better display than in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Of course, while the movie would suffer greatly from his absence, there’s more going for it than just Price. The reliable Joseph Cotton turns in his usual stalwart performance as Phibes’ intended final victim, Dr. Vesalius, and British film staple Peter Jeffrey is spot-on as the inept Inspector Trout. However, it’s Virginia North’s turn as Phibe’s mute assistant Vulnavia that most people remember. Unquestioningly loyal and never flinching, not even while Phibes slurps his drink through a hole in the back of his neck, the fashion model briefly turned actress adds a touch of elegant mystery to the proceedings. Although an early draft of the script hinted that she might be one of Phibes’ mechanical creations, and another script for a proposed sequel named her as a manifestation of the Greek Goddess, Athena (wha-huh?), Vulnavia’s presence is never explained. She is simply there when Phibes needs her, be it for help with a murder or just a spin around the dance floor.
And let’s talk about that floor, why don’t we? If anyone deserves second billing to Price in the credits, it’s set designer Brian Eatwell. His work on Dr. Phibes’ lavishly ornamented lair is a master class in Art Deco excess. The aforementioned mammoth marble dance floor with its ornate geometric designs, the dieselpunk clockwork band that provides the accompanying music, the enormous neon-gilded pipe organ that projects a slide show of Phibes’ deceased wife while Price hammers away at Mendelssohn’s War March of the Priests; there are few horror movies then or now that look as cool and interesting as the Phibes films.
Finally, are there many more memorable murders than the ones found in The Abominable Dr. Phibes? There’s death by having your skull crushed with a slowly contracting frog mask, death by extreme hypothermia from an artificial snow maker hooked up to your car, and death by having Brussel Sprout juice dripped on your sleeping face so locusts will eat the flesh off of it. Suffice to say, Phibes made killing people in overly-elaborate ways fashionable long before the Saw films were even a glint in Lions Gate’s eyes. And unlike the relentlessly morbid Jigsaw, Dr. Phibes did it all with a smile. Each death is delightfully gruesome and each one inspired by the ten plagues God rained down upon Egypt in the book of Exodus.
Not that there were slowly contracting frog masks in the Bible, mind you. The aforementioned murders may have taken their inspiration from the plague of toads, plague of hailstones, and plague of locusts respectively, but did so very loosely. In fact, up until the final plague, most of the curses visited upon Egypt resulted in inconvenience and/or terror rather than the loss of human life. It makes you wonder why God bothered to send so many plagues rather than just skip ahead until the end to achieve what he wanted. Sure, there was the whole hardening of Pharaoh's heart thing (which, as we discussed previously, was done entirely with Pharaoh's consent), but the final plague upon the first born of Egypt put an end to that quite readily. So, why not just go straight there instead of wasting time with frogs and flies and such?
Well, there’s a theory about that (of course). Because the ancient Egyptians believed that all natural phenomena, as well as any number of abstract concepts, were actually sentient divine forces, they had a rather sizable pantheon of gods, over 2,000 by some accounts. But if you just wanted to stick to the biggies, you could knock it down to a handful or two. So the idea is that each of the plagues corresponds to one of these major Egyptian deities and their complete inability to stand up to the power of the God of the Israelites. You could easily make a few substitutions here and there, but a basic list goes something like this:
- Hapi, god of the Nile, couldn’t stop his river from turning to blood.
- Heqet, frog-goddess of fertility, couldn’t control her hopping kin.
- Geb, god of the earth, couldn’t prevent gnats from rising out of the dirt.
- Khepri, god of insects, couldn’t call off all of the biting flies.
- Hathor, bovine-goddess of motherhood, couldn’t save a single cow.
- Thoth, god of medicine, couldn’t cure a single boil.
- Nut, goddess of the sky, couldn’t put an end to the pummeling hail storms.
- Isis, goddess of nature, couldn’t save a single crop from the locusts.
- Ra, god of the sun, couldn’t banish the darkness.
- Osiris, god of the afterlife and resurrection, couldn’t prevent a single death.
In each instance, the Egyptian pantheon was proven to be powerless before Jehovah. And on top of demonstrating the ineffectualness of their deities, the death of Pharaoh’s first born during the final plague also slapped the whole Egyptian belief in the divinity of Pharaohs right in the face. By the time it was all over, the Egyptians’ false ‘god incarnate’ was shown to be completely helpless against a wandering Jewish shepherd speaking in the name of God. Typology anyone?
Now to be honest, Dr. Phibes himself isn’t all that concerned with the deeper theological implications of the story that inspires his murderous set-pieces. Really, he’s not even all that interested in accuracy, as he replaces gnats with bats and flies with rats. Still, he gets an ‘A’ for effort because, symbolically, it all still works. Having announced (rightly or wrongly) that God is on his side, the disfigured doctor proves time and again that the authorities, the intelligentsia, and even he himself (Phibes reserves the curse of darkness for his own demise) are all powerless before divine wrath. By story’s end, the only intended victim to escape punishment is the one who is offered and accepts the challenge of redemption. Sure, redemption doesn’t usually come under the threat of having your child horribly disfigured by acid, but that’s just the kind of thing that makes Phibes so much fun, isn’t it?
To be fair, the makers of The Abominable Dr. Phibes knew very well that bats and rats weren’t originally part of the ten plagues. They also knew, however, that bats and rats are typically more horrifying visually than a bunch of gnats and flies, so the decision was made to make the switch. And that’s how we ended up with that wonderful scene of Dr. Dunwoody being eaten alive… by completely harmless fruit bats.