The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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This article is about the film. For the band, see Dr Phibes & the House of Wax Equations.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Theatrical Poster
Directed by Robert Fuest
Produced by Ronald S. Dunas
Louis M. Heyward
Written by James Whiton
William Goldstein
Robert Fuest
Starring Vincent Price
Joseph Cotten
Peter Jeffrey
Virginia North
Music by Basil Kirchin
Cinematography Norman Warwick
Edited by Tristam Cones
Distributed by Anglo-EMI Film Distributors Ltd./MGM-EMI/American International England (UK)
Release dates April 1971
Running time 94 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a 1971 British horror film starring Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten. Its art deco sets, dark humour and performance by Price have made the film and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again cult classics. Dr. Phibes is inspired in his murderous spree by the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament.


In 1925 Anton Phibes, a horribly disfigured genius supposedly killed in a car crash, is convinced that his beloved wife died a victim of incompetent doctors, and begins elaborate plans to kill them. Inspector Trout suspects Phibes, but finds little support from Scotland Yard. Eventually Dr. Vesalius, head of the team of doctors that operated on Phibes's wife, begins to believe Trout and aids him in the hunt for Phibes.

Using highly imaginative methods based on the Plagues that befell Egypt in the Old Testament, and wearing a different amulet from a set of ten Hebrew letters that relate to the Ten Plagues, Phibes kills seven doctors and a nurse with the help of his beautiful and silent female assistant Vulnavia (played by actress Virginia North). He has reserved the final punishment for Dr. Vesalius. He kidnaps the doctor's son and places him on a table on which a container full of acid is waiting to destroy the boy's face. A small key implanted near the boy's heart will free him, but Vesalius must perform the surgery within six minutes to get the key before the acid falls. Vesalius succeeds and instead Vulnavia is sprayed with the acid as the police arrive.

Convinced he has accomplished his vendetta, Phibes retreats to a stone sarcophagus beside the embalmed body of his wife. He drains out his own blood and replaces it with embalming fluid as the coffin's inlaid stone lid slides into place, concealing them both in darkness. Trout and the police arrive and discover that Phibes has mysteriously disappeared. Trout and Vesalius recall that the "final curse" was darkness and they speculate that they will encounter Phibes again.

The Ten Plagues of Egypt[edit]

Dr. Phibes takes his inspiration for the murders from the Old Testament, the Ten plagues of Egypt. The plagues described in the movie differ slightly from the Biblical account:

  1. Boils: Prof. Thornton is stung to death by bees. (Not shown, only referred to during the film)
  2. Bats: Dr. Dunwoody is mauled to death by bats. (This one is not a Biblical plague but may be related to the plague of lice or gnats.)
  3. Frogs: Dr. Hargreaves (who is not a surgeon but a psychiatrist) has his head crushed by a mechanical mask of a frog
  4. Blood: Dr. Longstreet has all the blood drained out of his body
  5. Hail: Dr. Hedgepath is frozen to death by a machine spewing ice
  6. Rats: Dr. Kitaj crashes his plane when attacked by rats. (This is not a Biblical plague but may be related to the plague of pestilence.)
  7. Beasts: Dr. Whitcombe is impaled by a brass unicorn head
  8. Locusts: Nurse Allen is eaten by locusts.
  9. Death of the first born: Phibes kidnaps and attempts to kill Dr. Vesalius's son Lem. (This is the final plague in the Biblical account.)
  10. Darkness: At the ambiguous ending of the film, Phibes drains the blood from his own body while injecting embalming fluid, apparently joining his wife in death.


Production notes[edit]

William Goldstein and James Whiton wrote the original screenplay. In a letter dated 16 February 1971, the Writers Guild Credit Arbitration Committee confirmed their 'Written By' credits. Peter Cushing was the first choice for the role of Vesalius, but he turned down the role because of the serious illness of his wife. The name "Vesalius" is a reference to Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish physician and founder of modern anatomy.

In order for Joseph Cotten to know his cues, Phibes' dialogue was read aloud by a crew-member. Cotten would grumble that he had to remember and deliver lines, while Vincent Price's were all to be post-dubbed. Price responded, "Yes, but I still know them, Joe." (In fact, Price was well known in Hollywood for his ability to memorise all of the characters' lines in a given production). Price commented that Cotten was uncomfortable doing these scenes, so he intentionally made faces to make him laugh. Price went through hours of make up, which often had to be reapplied as he kept laughing. Dr. Phibes' wife, played by 1970s model, Caroline Munro (who later appeared in such Hammer Horror fare as Dracula A.D. 1972 and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), was excluded from the film's credits.

The movie was filmed at the "thirties era" sets at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. The cemetery scenes were shot in Highgate Cemetery, London.[1] The exterior of Dr. Phibes' mansion was Immanuel College on Elstree Road. The film was followed by a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, in 1972. Several other possible sequels were planned, including Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land, The Brides of Phibes, Phibes Resurrectus and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes, but none were made.


The film was not highly regarded by AIP's home office until it became a hit at the box office.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

Critic Christopher Null wrote of the film, "One of the '70s juiciest entries into the horror genre, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is Vincent Price at his campy best, a former doctor and concert organist (go figure that one out yourself)[3] who is exacting revenge on the nine doctors he blames for botching his wife's surgery, which ended with her death. Through a series of tortuous means that would make a Bond villain green with envy, the hideous Phibes is matched by Joseph Cotten as the doc at the end of the road. A crazy script and an awesome score make this a true classic."[4]

In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films.[5] The Abominable Dr. Phibes placed at number 83 on their top 100 list.[6]

Home media availability[edit]

MGM Home Entertainment released The Abominable Dr. Phibes on Region 2 DVD in 2001, followed by a tandem release with Dr.Phibes Rises Again in 2005. The film made its Blu-ray debut as part of Scream Factory's Vincent Price boxed set in Fall 2013.[7][8]

A limited edition two-disc set,The Complete Dr Phibes, was released in Region B Blu-ray in 2014 by Arrow Films.[9]


The music that Dr. Phibes plays on the organ at the beginning of the film is "War March of the Priests" from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music to Racine's play Athalie.

The film's incidental score was composed by Basil Kirchin and includes 1920s-era source music, most notably "Charmaine" and "Darktown Strutters' Ball".

A soundtrack LP was released concurrently with the film's appearance, which contained few selections from the film's score but rather was composed mostly of character vocalisations by Paul Frees.[10][11] A proper soundtrack was released on CD in 2004 by Perseverance Records and is now out of print.


  1. ^ The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations by Tony Reeves. The Titan Publishing Group. Pg.9 [1]
  2. ^ Gary A. Smith, The American International Pictures Video Guide, McFarland 2009 p 9-10
  3. ^ The conjunction of organist and doctor is reference to Albert Schweitzer.
  4. ^ Null, Christopher., film review, 2002. Last accessed: 8 January 2008.
  5. ^ "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  6. ^ DC. "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Shout! Factory website
  9. ^ Arrow Films website
  10. ^
  11. ^ Lampley, Jonathan. Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price. McFarland, 2010. p. 160. eBook.


  • Gerosa, Mario (2010). Robert Fuest e l'abominevole Dottor Phibes. Alessandria,: Edizioni Falsopiano. ISBN 978-88-89782-13-2. 
  • Klemensen, Richard; publisher. "The Definitive Dr. Phibes." Little Shoppe of Horrors. Des Moines, Iowa, October 2012: Number 29.

External links[edit]