The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Fuest
Written by
Produced by
CinematographyNorman Warwick
Edited byTristam Cones
Music byBasil Kirchin
Distributed byAmerican International Pictures
Release date
  • April 1971 (1971-04) (U.K.)
  • 18 May 1971 (1971-05-18) (U.S.)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$1.5 million[1]

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a 1971 British dark comedy horror film, produced by Ronald S. Dunas and Louis M. Heyward, directed by Robert Fuest, written by William Goldstein and James Whiton,[2] and starring Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten.[3] Its art deco sets, dark humour, and performance by Price have made the film and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again cult classics.[2] The film also features Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith, with an uncredited Caroline Munro appearing in still photographs as Phibes' wife.

The film follows the title character, Dr. Anton Phibes, who blames the medical team that attended to his wife's surgery four years prior for her death and sets out to exact vengeance on each one.[4] Phibes is inspired in his murderous spree by the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament.[5]


Dr. Anton Phibes, a famous concert organist and an expert in both music and theology, is believed to have been killed in a car crash in Switzerland in 1921, while racing home upon hearing of the death of his beloved wife, Victoria, during surgery. Phibes survived the crash, but was horribly scarred and left unable to speak. He remade his face with prosthetics and used his knowledge of acoustics to regain his voice. Resurfacing secretly in London in 1925, Phibes believes his wife was a victim of incompetence on the part of the doctors, and begins elaborate plans to kill those he believes are guilty for her death.[6]

Aided in his quest for vengeance by his beautiful and silent female assistant Vulnavia, Phibes uses the Ten Plagues of Egypt as his inspiration, wearing an amulet with Hebrew letters corresponding with each plague as he conducts the murders. After three doctors have been killed, Inspector Trout, a detective from Scotland Yard, learns that they all had worked under the direction of Dr. Vesalius, who tells him the deceased had been on his team when treating Victoria, as were four other doctors and one nurse. Trout had discovered one of Phibes' amulets (torn off during a struggle) at the murder scene of the third doctor. He first takes it to the jeweler who made it, then to a rabbi to learn its meaning. Now believing Phibes may still be alive, Trout and Vesalius go to the Phibes mausoleum at Highgate Cemetery. Inside they find a box of ashes in Phibes' coffin, but Trout deduces they are probably the remains of Phibes' chauffeur. Victoria's coffin is found to be empty.

The police are unable to prevent Phibes from killing the remaining members of Vesalius' team so focus their efforts entirely on protecting the doctor himself. Phibes kidnaps Vesalius' son Lem, then calls Vesalius and tells him to come alone to his mansion on Maldene Square if he wants to save his son's life. Trout refuses to let him go so Vesalius knocks the inspector unconscious, then races to Phibes' mansion, where he confronts him. Vesalius finds his son under anesthesia and prepared for surgery. Phibes has implanted a small key near the boy's heart that will unlock his restraints and Vesalius has to surgically remove the key within six minutes (the same time Victoria was on the operating table) to release his son before acid from a container above Lem's head is released and destroys his face. Vesalius succeeds and moves the table out of the way just in time. However, Vulnavia, who has been ordered to destroy Phibes' mechanical creations, is surprised by Trout and his assistant; backing away, she is sprayed with the acid and apparently killed.

Convinced that he has accomplished his vendetta, Phibes retreats to the basement to inter himself in a stone sarcophagus containing the embalmed body of his wife. He proceeds to drain his blood while simultaneously replacing it with embalming fluid and lies down in the sarcophagus next to Victoria. The coffin's inlaid stone lid lowers into place, completely concealing it. Trout and the police arrive and discover that Phibes is nowhere to be found. They recall that the "final curse" was darkness just before the basement goes dark.



The film was shot on the "20s era" sets at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. The cemetery scenes were shot in Highgate Cemetery, London.[7] The exterior of Dr. Phibes' mansion was Caldecote Towers at Immanuel College on Elstree Road.[8] The film was followed in 1972 by a sequel, titled Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Several other sequels were planned, including Phibes Resurrectus, The Bride of Dr. Phibes, and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes, but none were ever produced.[9]

Critical reception[edit]

Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote, "The plot, buried under all the iron tinsel, isn't bad. But the tone of steamroller camp flattens the fun."[10] Variety was generally positive, praising the "well-structured" screenplay, "outstanding" makeup for Vincent Price, and "excellent work" on the set designs.[11] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars, calling it a "stylish, clever, shrieking winner", though he disliked "the lack of zip in the ending".[12] David Pirie of The Monthly Film Bulletin was negative, faulting director Robert Fuest's "flat, unimaginative visual style" and a script "contriving to be coy and tongue-in-cheek without ever being witty".[13]

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 famous concert organist[14] 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".[15]

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.[16] The Abominable Dr. Phibes placed at number 83 on their top 100 list.[17]

At the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 88% based on 40 reviews and an average rating of 6.97/10. The site's consensus reads: "The Abominable Dr. Phibes juggles horror and humor, but under the picture's campy façade, there's genuine pathos brought poignantly to life through Price's performance".[18] The film was not highly regarded by American International Pictures' home office until it became a box office hit.[19]

Home video[edit]

MGM Home Entertainment released The Abominable Dr. Phibes on Region 1 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 box set in fall 2013.[20][21]

A limited edition two-disc set, The Complete Dr. Phibes, was released in Region B Blu-ray in 2014 by Arrow Films.[22] Both films were later reissued separately by Arrow and as part of the nine-film/seven-disc Region B Blu-ray set The Vincent Price Collection on the Australian Shock label.[Review 1]

The TV broadcast version of the film excises some of the more grisly scenes, such as a close-up of the nurse's locust-eaten corpse.


The music that 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".

Dr. Phibes 1971 soundtrack LP

One of several music-related errors or anachronisms within the film's storyline is the song overlaid as a recorded performance by one of the ostensibly mechanized musicians of "Dr. Phibes' Clockwork Wizards."[23] The pianist in this simulated animatronic band "sings" "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Although the film's plot is set in England in the 1920s, this particular song did not exist until 1943, when Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote it as part of their film score for The Sky's the Limit. Fred Astaire sang the jazz standard for the first time in that musical comedy. Likewise, the melody of the song "You Stepped Out of a Dream", written by Nacio Herb Brown (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics) and first published in 1940, accompanies a scene depicting Dr. Phibes and Vulnavia dancing together in the ballroom of his mansion. Other musical anachronisms are Vulnavia's playing "Close Your Eyes" (1933) on the violin, or her placing in a car a music box that plays "Elmer's Tune" (1941).

A soundtrack LP was released concurrently with the film's appearance, which contained few selections from the score, but rather was composed mostly of character vocalizations by Paul Frees.[24][25] A proper soundtrack was released on CD in 2004 by Perseverance Records, but it is now out of print.


A sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, was released in 1972. It was also directed by Robert Fuest and also stars Price as Phibes. Several other screenplays and sequels were proposed well into the 1980s, featuring potential actors such as David Carradine, Roddy McDowall, and Orson Welles.[26]


  1. ^ McCarthy, J.H. "The Vincent Price Collection". Retrieved 7 August 2017.


  1. ^ Lampley, Jonathan Malcolm (2010). Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price. McFarland & Company. p. 155. ISBN 9780786457496. Lampley quotes Vincent Price Unmasked (1974) by James Robert Parish and Steven Whitney for this figure.
  2. ^ a b "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". Turner Classic Movies.
  3. ^ "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". BFI. Archived from the original on 12 July 2012.
  4. ^ "The Abominable Doctor Phibes - 1970".
  5. ^ "The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) - Review - AllMovie". AllMovie.
  6. ^ Rovin, Jeff (1987). The Encyclopedia of Supervillains. New York: Facts on File. pp. 101–102. ISBN 0-8160-1356-X.
  7. ^ The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations by Tony Reeves. The Titan Publishing Group. Pg.9 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 25 June 2015. Retrieved 21 June 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ Pykett, Derek (2008). British Horror Film Locations. McFarland & Company. p. 12. ISBN 9780786451937.
  9. ^ "The Bride of Dr. Phibes Poster". Daily Dead. 1 December 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  10. ^ Thompson, Howard (5 August 1971). "Price Is 'Abominable Dr. Phibes'". The New York Times: 25.
  11. ^ "The Abominable Doctor Phibes". Variety: 23. 26 May 1971.
  12. ^ Siskel, Gene (June 7, 1971). "Dr. Phibes". Chicago Tribune Section 2, p. 16.
  13. ^ Pirie, David (September 1971). "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 38 (452): 179.
  14. ^ Approximately 44 minutes into the film (on the DVD) Dr. Vesalius and Inspector Trout discuss Phibes' educational degrees while at the cemetery. Trout says Phibes attended Heidelberg University where he earned a degree in music, and then attended the Sorbonne (University of Paris) where he earned a PhD in theology, thus the title of Doctor. Earlier in the film, Dr. Vesalius finds a Phibes concert playbill at a music ephemera shop and questions the owner about Phibes.
  15. ^ Null, Christopher Archived 15 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine., film review, 2002. Last accessed: 8 January 2008.
  16. ^ "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  17. ^ DC. "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  18. ^ "THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)". Retrieved 2 July 2019.
  19. ^ Gary A. Smith, The American International Pictures Video Guide, McFarland 2009 p 9-10
  20. ^ "Scream Factory Announces Vincent Price Blu-ray Collection, Including The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General". Daily Dead.
  21. ^ "Shout! Factory - The Vincent Price Collection".
  22. ^ "The Complete Dr Phibes".
  23. ^ "Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards".
  24. ^ "Abominable Dr. Phibes, The- Soundtrack details -".
  25. ^ Lampley, Jonathan. Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price. McFarland, 2010. p. 160. eBook.
  26. ^ Whiton, James and William Goldstein. Phibes Resurrectus screenplay and attached cast list (1984).


  • Gerosa, Mario (2010). Robert Fuest e l'abominevole Dottor Phibes. Alessandria, Italy: Edizioni Falsopiano. ISBN 978-88-89782-13-2.
  • Humphreys, Justin, with contributions by Mark Ferelli, Sam Irvin, and David Taylor (2018). "The Dr. Phibes Companion". Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media. ISBN 978-1-62933-293-2.
  • Klemensen, Richard; publisher. "The Definitive Dr. Phibes". Little Shoppe of Horrors. Des Moines, Iowa, October 2012: Number 29.

External links[edit]