Over the course of his career, Vincent Price has played the madman exceptionally well. Whether insane or simply driven so, the characters that Price portrays are usually flawed in some way, often by a tragic circumstance and it is no different here as he stars as The Abominable Dr. Phibes. In this particular movie, Price as Phibes has lost his wife a few years previous and over the course of that time, he has plotted his revenge against the doctors and the nurse that he feels were responsible for her death. To that effect, he takes a very elaborate route and frames them around the ten plagues from ancient Egypt in the Old Testament. Each killing is perpetrated with a coldness and efficiency and the police, though they try, are unable to prevent any of them. The film also provides us with a unique ending; one where the good guys do not essentially win out, though that could be a matter of perception depending on just how you look at it.
One of the better things about the picture, the best thing when you truly think about it, is Phibes and the mixed feelings his character creates within the viewer. His actions are deplorable and he is not a likeable figure and yet, he is one to be pitied. His actions take the lives of almost a dozen people, depriving their families of loved ones and so on, much like Phibes too was left and what he does is heinous as two wrongs do not make a right. There is a part of you though, that understands him no matter the horror he perpetrates. He has lost a wife, something he thinks could have been avoided if the proper actions had been taken and in his broken mind, he thinks his actions justified. With the horror of what he does at the forefront and each kill becoming harder to enact as the police start to close in, director Robert Fuest not only creates a sense of suspense and urgency, but one of anticipation as you want to see if Phibes can pull it off. Phibes might be killing people left and right, but you cannot help but be on the edge of your seat to see just how and where he might strike next.
The success of this picture, while a collaboration between all of its parts, would not have happened if not for the involvement of Price. The man is truly gifted and Phibes is one of the greatest roles the man ever took on. Though he hardly speaks for most of the picture, his presence is commanding and the fact that he can carry the movie without saying nary a word speaks volumes to the innate talent the man has. Of course, we do eventually hear the man speak and that in itself creates a truly memorable scene, one among many in fact. The entire picture was a work of art, from the way Phibes stages and commits his murders, to the lair that Phibes resides in with its art deco appearance and robotic musicians to the costumes and makeup sported by Phibes and his mute assistant Vulnavia played by the stunning Virginia North. Joseph Cotten as Vesalius, Peter Jeffrey and Norman Jones among others would round out the cast, but Price was the man you came to see and all you wanted to see soon after the picture would start.
There is a lot to love about the film as top to bottom; every aspect made it a perfect horror film. The script by William Goldstein and
James Whiton was smart, the music by Basil Kirchin quite excellent as it really set the perfect mood for each and every scene and the photography by Norman Warwick making the movie a real sight to behold. Though many of the aspects had a real Phantom of the Opera-feel to them, it took things a lot farther than that previous work ever did and created a villain far more despicable yet just as memorable.
Subtle, brutal and beautiful, watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an experience one must undertake if one is truly a fan of horror films as it is not something you will soon forget.
4.5 out of 5