‘Nine killed you.
Nine shall die.
Nine eternities in Doom!’
So utters Dr. Phibes (played by Vincent Price) to the photograph of his long dead wife in this most bizarre and entertaining of horror films. It was made in 1971 and directed by Robert Fuest, who had previously directed several episodes of the television series The Avengers during the 1960s. The same campness that emanated from that series is present in this film, but is personified to great effect through Vincent Price’s performance.
The story itself is a strange one, yet cleverly simple. Dr. Phibes, (a doctor of Theology, not medicine) was a great organist and inventor in the 1920s. However, his wife was taken ill and died on the operating table. Phibes raced to be by the side of his dying wife, but his chauffeur crashed his car, and Phibes was presumed to have been killed in the crash. However, he did not die, but survived, hideously scarred and deformed and now having to wear a wig and mask (we only see his disfigured face at the end of the film). The film begins several years after these events. Dr. Phibes is living secretly in London in a large lair full of contraptions he has invented such as the ‘Clockwork Wizards’, a mechanical band (who somewhat resemble Frank Sidebottom for those familiar with the 1980s Manchester 'comedian'). Here Phibes plays his hyperbolic organ in discordant style. The set design (by Brian Eatwell), here in particular, is exquisite. But back to the story; Phibes blames the surgical team that operated on his wife for her death and so exacts revenge on them, using the ten Curses of the Pharaohs from Exodus as his blueprint. Thus, the film follows Phibes and his female assistant, Vulnavia, as they murder eight of the nine of the surgical team. Phibes has a wax bust of each of them that he melts with a blowtorch once they have been killed. The ten curses are bees, boils, bats, frogs, blood, rats, hail, beasts, locusts, death of the first born, and finally darkness. The methods for each of these deaths are quite ingenious, but I shall summarise those shortly. Whilst these murders are taking place, we also follow the futile (and often comical) attempts of the police and detectives trying to catch Phibes and prevent further murders. They of course fail, with the exception of the last of the attempted murders, but regardless, Dr. Phibes achieves his revenge and escapes capture. He retires to a secret double casket hidden in the basement of his house, containing the body of his preserved wife. There, he connects his veins and arteries to bottles of formaldehyde and the blood is drained from his body and slips into eternal rest (or rather until the studio big-wigs decide a sequel would be lucrative). Lovely.
Vincent Price completely makes this film and without him one could imagine it becoming something of a bore. Yet he barely has a handful of lines throughout the film and has to rely on a combination of facial expression and physical acting to create the character of Phibes. This he excels at, expertly executing every tiny mannerism, look and movement. He portrays Phibes as a man of refinement who prefers not to get his hands dirty when it comes to murder. Rather he likes to use his inventions, or animals to do the actual killing. Due to his accident, Phibes is unable to talk or open his mouth; he can only talk by holding a device that looks a little like a stethoscope
to the left-hand side of his neck which is connected to a speaker. He can only eat through a hole on the right side of his neck (hence he drinks some champagne
by pouring it down the side of his neck). In order to speak his lines, Price had layers and layers of make-up applied to his face and particularly around his mouth. Thus, in the scenes where Phibes speaks, the make-up conceals Price’s mouth movements and makes it look as though Phibes mouth remains closed (while his Adam’s apple
bobs up and down). Apparently, this make-up had to be constantly reapplied due to Price’s constant bouts of laughter with co-star Virginia North
, who played Vulnavia. Indeed, if one watches carefully, one can see several moments when North is struggling to maintain a straight face (particularly in a scene around two-thirds in when Phibes and Vulnavia dance together). I still can’t get out of my head the sight of Vincent Price looking extremely serious whilst wearing a stripy cook’s apron and cooking brussel sprouts
…Price plays the role perfectly.
The film had a mixed reception when it was released. The studio announced it as ‘Vincent Price’s 100th film’ in an attempt to increase its publicity (it was not his 100th film). Writing in ‘Heritage of Horror’, David Pirie wrote that it was ‘perhaps the worst horror film made in England since 1945’. True, the script has its weaknesses and at times threatens to go a little flat, but the pace of the film is fast enough and the performance of Price strong enough, to make this a minor grumble. If one were to watch it with high expectations or in a serious frame of mind, then it’s likely one would be disappointed. But watch it without expectation and one should be highly entertained. Anyone with any interest at all in good horror should watch this film. A sequel was made and is of decent quality, Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
The murders are as follows:
Bees – We don’t actually see this one as it occurs before the film begins. Killer bees are released into the library of the victim who is stung to death.
Boils and Bats – The first murder we see. Phibes and his assistant release bats into the bedroom of one of the doctors. The bats attack his face, bringing it out in boils (and of course killing him).
Frogs – At a fancy-dress party, Phibes gives a mask (more like a helmet) in the shape of a frog to his victim and helps him put it on. The mask is on a clockwork latch however, that gradually tightens around the victim’s neck until he can no longer breathe and it snaps.
Blood – Possibly the best of the deaths in the film. Terry-Thomas is the victim. Vulnavia entrances him and ties him to a chair. Enter Dr. Phibes who slowly drains all the blood out of his victim, placing it in jars on the mantelpiece.
Rats – The victim goes for a fly in his aeroplane only to find, (once in the air of course) that the cockpit is filled with angry rats. The plane soon crashes.
Hail – Dr. Phibes uses a machine he has invented for creating hail. Trapped in the back of his car, the victim is pelted with hail.
Beasts – A statue of a unicorn is catapulted across a street straight into the chest of the victim (horn first).
Locusts – Whilst the nurse sleeps, Phibes drills a hole through the floor of the room above. He coats the nurse with purified brussel sprouts and then pours locusts through the hole (for some reason locusts are meant to like brussel sprouts….). Next morning, all that remains of the nurse’s head is the skull.
Death of the first born – Phibes kidnaps the son of the head surgeon who operated on his wife. He gives the surgeon six minutes (the same amount of time Dr. Phibes’ wife survived on the operating table) to operate on his son, in order to retrieve a key implanted in his son’s chest. This key unlocks the trolley his son is on. If he fails to do this within six minutes, acid will pour over his son’s face. The surgeon does manage to free his son, and the acid pours over Vulnavia by accident.
Darkness – This curse was reserved for Phibes and he achieves it by entombing himself with his wife.
Director: Robert Fuest
Written by:James Whiton and William Goldstein
Dr. Anton Phibes: Vincent Price
Dr. Vesalius: Joseph Cotton
Vulnavia: Virginia North
Dr. Longstreet: Terry-Thomas
Lem Vesalius: Sean Bury
Nurse Allen: Susan Traver
Dr. Hedgepath: David Hutcheson
Dr. Dunwoody: Edward Burnham
Dr. Hargreaves: Alex Scott
Dr. Kitaj: Peter Gilmore
Dr. Whitcombe: Maurice Kaufmann
Inspector Trout: Peter Jeffrey
Crow: Derek Godfrey
Sgt. Schenley: Norman Jones
Waverley: John Cater