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The Abominable Dr. Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

A series of medical doctors are being murdered by the ghoul-faced Dr. Phibes, who uses diabolical setups to murder his victims in ways that mimic biblical curses. Can the interminably stupid but well-meaning Detective Trout of Scotland Yard stop him?

Starring horror film legend Vincent Price in the title role, The Abominable Dr. Phibes plays out as a kind of ghoulish fever dream -- funny at most times, but strangely dreamy as well. There's an air of subtle creepiness that haunts the film, even while it is being humorous. Phibe's motivation is simple enough -- his wife was 'murdered' after being in a horrific car accident by ten doctors who operated on her after the crash. Phibes intends to exact revenge on those doctors and what makes the movie interesting is that although Phibes is motivated by revenge he is not a wild-eyed maniac. His revenge has fermented into a fine wine that he sips slowly, carefully, savoring every delicious droplet.

Whether Phibes is alive (but horribly scarred) or actually dead himself, is never really addressed, which actually helps the movie. If he's dead, then his thirst for revenge is so powerful it has turned him into a revenant, unable to die until he has exacted his revenge. But he's in no rush -- Phibes plays his organ and after each murder he ritualistically places an amulet with the Hebrew character for the curse used on the victim around a waxen bust of the victim. Phibes then melts the face with a small blowtorch.

Phibes is aided by the mysteriously beautiful Vulnavia, whose origin is also never explained. She never speaks, she only aids Phibes in his machinations and dances with him as Phibes' clockwork orchestra plays his favorite waltz. Vulnavia dresses beautifully and acts as his chauffeur. Is Vulnavia a demon from the netherworld sent to help Phibes' in his evil work?

His overwhelmed nemesis, Detective Trout, slowly starts to figure out what Phibes is up to, but can do nothing to stop him. He stammers, he tries to protect the doctors, he tries to trap Phibes and his flustered incompetence is what keeps the film from being completely without humor. You just know that Phibes will most likely succeed, but who can say?

The murder scenes are sometimes a bit hokey -- the silliest of all being the murder by bats. Perhaps audiences three decades ago would be terrified at the sight of a bat, but modern audiences are likely to know that bats don't prey on humans. Some of the other murders, however, are gruesome (death by locust in particular) or just plain horrifying, as in the case in which one doctor is completely drained of blood. One murder is so ridiculous it is actually funny. A doctor is warned by Detective Trout that he may be targeted by Phibes. Only seconds later the man is impaled by the airborne bust of a unicorn!

No,  you heard me right -- a huge brass unicorn head impales a man. Trout and his assistant view shake their heads at the sight of the horn protruding through a nearby wall, and then as they discuss the matter the police 'rotate' the victim on the other side of the wall to 'unscrew' him from the wall. It's at this moment that you realize for certain that Phibes is likely unstoppable.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a fun movie that won't terrify, but is spooky in a lyrical, poetic sort of way. Phibes murders with style, with real panache, and then the possibly undead villain saves the last curse for himself.

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