“Horror-comedy is a generic hybrid that deliberately provokes an emotional shift from terror, suspense, or dread to hilarity. In comedy-horror—its relative—a playful tone predominates, but it is undercut by horrific or startling events or effects.” – Rebecca Gordon
In The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), director Robert Fuest empowers the films’ sets to have the same narrative force as the characters. That’s rare and impressive. The art deco, faux-1920s interiors, replete with a Gatsby-like animatronic jazz band, grease the horror-comedy undercarriage.
This is arguably Vincent Price’s best film: at long last he found the perfect vehicle for his camp approach to horror. Too often Price offered parodies of fear, undermining the potential for a real scare. Phibes is different.
Dr Anton Phibes, a renowned organist and expert in music and theology, is thought to have been killed in a car accident in Switzerland in 1921, while racing home on hearing of his wife death, Victoria, during surgery. Phibes survived the crash, but was scarred and left unable to speak. He remade
his face with prosthetics—didn’t do a great job— and regained his voice by plugging an amplifier into his neck (it’s worth watching the film). Resurfacing secretly in London in 1925, Phibes believes his wife was a victim of incompetence on the part of the doctors (gives it such a contemporary feel), and sets out to kill those he believes are guilty for her death.
The good doctor is aided in his vengeance by his lovely and silent female assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North). Together they use the Ten Plagues of Egypt as a blueprint for the murders.
It’s comes as no surprise that Robert Fuest worked on episodes of The Avengers. In Phibes, we find the same dramatic formula: establish an absurd but alluring proposition, lean heavily on set design, remove everyday people from scenes, and let the principal actors react in a detached, if not ambiguous way, to startling events.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes achieved cult status long ago, attaining success in a notably difficult genre: great comedy-horror films are extremely rare.
The underlying theme that stimulates the drama is the very absurdity of Phibes’ quest—immortality, or reviving the dead. It is handled with precision, always walking a tightrope. One slip and the whole thing becomes a B/C film…and we’d be left with just another dopey Vincent Price flic, all camp and no screams, just something about revenge, obsession and murder. Ho-hum.
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