Blu-ray Review: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES

If you go all month without watching a Vincent Price film, you're doing October wrong.

Blu-ray Review: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES

One of the most iconic things about Vincent Price was his voice, so it's odd that one of his best (and one of my favorite) films is The Abominable Dr. Phibes, as he has almost no dialogue in the film - and what little there is to enjoy is filtered through a voice box, as his character no longer has the ability to speak traditionally. It's the newest film on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray set honoring the legend, presenting six of his films on high def disc for the first time and loading them up with new bonus features (plus a few vintage ones from previous releases), and is a must-own set for a Price fan or someone looking for a few old-school gems to enjoy during this holiday season.

Indeed, I recently said (via tweet, I think) that if you go all month without watching a Vincent Price film, you're doing something wrong. The man is basically the physical embodiment of the holiday: sinister but appealing, somewhat frightening but with a sense of playfulness that inspires viewer comfort even when he's playing a full-blown villain. Indeed. Anton Phibes is the "hero" of the film but he's basically a serial killer, targeting the nine ("Nine! Nine shall die!") doctors and hospital personnel that he blames for his wife's death, even though most hadn't a damn thing to do with it. It's possible that with any other actor playing the role, this would come off as a typical slasher film (albeit with a very cool gimmick), but Price brings that automatic sympathy to the table, and so you're sort of hoping he succeeds in killing all these poor sods.

Part of the appeal of seeing the body count rise is the aforementioned gimmick, in which Phibes is killing everyone in a manner that matches up to the ten biblical plagues: boils, bats, hail, pestilence, etc. Of course, with any of these kind of scenarios there's a need to keep it from being repetitive, so we don't get to see boils (we just hear about it), and the last two are sort of combined into one sequence, allowing the film to have a number of wacky death sequences but without us feeling like we're stuck in a loop. Also helping is the rather enjoyable detective element; after three kills, Scotland Yard Inspector Trout realizes they are connected, and with each death gets closer, ultimately getting to the victims before Phibes kills them (and then, of course, failing to stop him). I quite like Peter Jeffrey as Trout; he's got that dry British flair and great comic timing (he would have made a terrific Arthur Dent, I think), and it's a shame that he didn't get to have many scenes with Price - I think they would have been fun to watch together.

Plus it's interesting to see how it influenced later films; Price would go on to basically remake it with Theatre of Blood, swapping the plagues for kills based on Shakespeare plays (not to mention an actual Phibes sequel where all of the deaths were Egyptian-based: sand, scorpions, that sort of thing). But there were a number of unrelated films that would carry the same sort of "using ____ as inspiration for the murders" hook - the Bible has been used a number of times (Se7en being the most obvious example), and then movies like Fade to Black where other films were the influence. Sure, it's just an excuse to have crazy death scenes, but it usually works, and is certainly better than anonymous, basic kill scenes (I just revisited Mandy Lane, and while it's a good movie, I had forgotten how dull all of the kills are). And it almost assuredly influenced the Saw series; there's even a "trap" scene at the end (someone has X amount of time to extract a key to save another one's life), and Jigsaw too went on a revenge scheme after his wife was seriously injured (and carried out his plans even after death).

It's also a fine film to present on Blu-ray; it's not the biggest budgeted film in the world, but director Robert Fuest and art director Bernard Reeves made a fantastic looking film; every set has a unique flavor and rich color scheme, and Phibes' lab alone, with his crazy organ and clockwork band, is more interesting than the entirety of most modern horror films. Unsurprisingly, the film historian commentary by Justin Humphreys (who also has a book on the series coming out) focuses heavily on the props and sets, sometimes a bit too much (at one point he bemoans not knowing who made a particular pattern that you can barely see and asks the listener for info if they have it), and he could really use a thesaurus when it comes to the word "beautiful," but it's an informative, non-stop source of trivia and observations. And it makes up for the rather dull track by director Fuest; it was recorded not long before his death at the age of 84, so his memory is a bit spotty and he can be a bit hard to understand at times, with the moderator adding very little of his own to make up for the gaps and go-nowhere stories. But you can still get a few nuggets of info, and there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than just soaking in the film's crazy aesthetic and Price's memorable (and, again, largely mute anyway) performance.

But the real gem for the supplements is a short piece about the history of the Iowa PBS intros that Price did in the early '80s, some of which appear at the top of their respective films on the set. Not sure why they'd put the piece on Phibes when it wasn't one that he did an intro for, but whatever - it's a great anecdote about his commitment to the genre and to being a consummate professional even for things that other actors would consider "beneath" them. There are even a few priceless outtakes that show him - in his 70s at the time, mind you - goofing off with the crew and making fun of himself when he forgot a line, and apparently they knocked them all out in a single day; not too bad considering some (like the one for Pit and The Pendulum) have him speaking quite a mouthful. Even if you skip the intros on the other films (you have the option), watching how they came together is a must see.

Apart from Witchfinder General, all of the other films on the set are from the Corman/Poe cycle (Fall of the House of Usher, Masque of the Red Death, Pit and the Pendulum, and The Haunted Palace, which is actually a Lovecraft story using a Poe title), so if you're not into those for whatever reason this set might not be enticing. But, Scream Factory's partnership with MGM is very strong, and they own most of the other titles as well, including Dr. Phibes Rises Again and the aforementioned Theatre of Blood. So hopefully this is just the first volume in an annual series; I for one would love to have entire shelf devoted to Price's always entertaining films in glorious high-def, with accompanying bonus features primarily concerned with just how great he was.

Brian Collins's photo About the Author: Brian, aka BC, has been watching horror movies since the age of 6, and twenty years later decided to put it to good use, both as a writer for Bloody-Disgusting as well as launching his own site, Horror Movie A Day, which Roger Ebert once read and misunderstood the points that were being made.
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