The Abominable Dr. Phibes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
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/MGM-EMI/AIP (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.[1] 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 movie also features Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith with a cameo appearance by future Bond girl Caroline Munro.[3]

The screenplay was written by James Whiton and William Goldstein and the 93 minute feature film was directed by Robert Fuest.[2] In the storyline the title character, Phibes, blames the medical team that attended to his wife for her death four years prior 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 (Vincent Price) was an expert in theology and music who was supposedly killed in a car crash in 1921, shortly after the death of his beloved wife, Victoria, during an operation. However, he survived the crash, horribly scarred by the accident and left unable to speak, forcing him to remake his face with prosthetics and use his knowledge of acoustics to regain his voice. Resurfacing in 1925, Phibes believes that his wife died a victim of incompetent doctors, and begins elaborate plans to kill them.

Phibes begins his quest for vengeance with the help of his beautiful and silent female assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), using the ten plagues of Egypt as a basis, wearing an amulet with Hebrew letters corresponding with the appropriate plagues as he commits the murders. After three doctors are killed, Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), a detective from Scotland Yard, learns that they had all worked together under the direction of Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), who reveals that all of the deceased had been on his team in Victoria's case, as well as four other doctors and a nurse. When another murder is reported, Trout suspects Phibes is alive, and he and Vesalius go to the Phibes mausoleum at Highgate Cemetery. They find ashes in a box in Phibes' coffin, which Trout believes are the remains of Phibes' chauffeur; Victoria's coffin is empty.

Despite all of the police's best efforts, Phibes is able to kill the remaining doctors and the nurse. Reserving the final punishment for Dr. Vesalius, he kidnaps the doctor's 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. Despite Trout's protests, Vesalius knocks the inspector unconscious and immediately races to Phibes' mansion, where he confronts the mad doctor. Phibes has placed Vesalius' son under anesthesia and prepared him for surgery; a small key implanted near the boy's heart will unlock his restraints, but Vesalius must perform the surgery within six minutes (the same amount of time Victoria was on the operating table before her death) to get the key before acid from a container above Lem's head falls and destroys his face. Vesalius succeeds and moves the table out of the way; Vulnavia, backing away from the police, is sprayed with the acid instead.

Convinced he has accomplished his vendetta, Phibes retreats to the basement of his house to lie in the stone sarcophagus containing 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

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. (The actual Biblical plague, first in the Biblical account itself, involved water being transformed INTO blood.)
  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 flies.)
  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 dubbed in post-production. 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's 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's wife was played by 1970s model Caroline Munro, who later appeared in such Hammer Horror fare as Dracula A.D. 1972 and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. But Munro 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.[6] The exterior of Dr. Phibes' mansion was Immanuel College on Elstree Road. The film was followed in 1972 by a sequel, titled Dr. Phibes Rises Again! 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 ever actually produced.[citation needed]

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 famous concert organist[7] 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."[8]

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.[9] The Abominable Dr. Phibes placed at number 83 on their top 100 list.[10]

The film has a score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes with an Audience Score of 75% (liked it).[11] The film was not highly regarded by American International Picture's home office until it became a hit at the box office.[12]

One of the last things Keith Moon of The Who did, just prior to his death from an overdose of Heminevrin in 1978, was to watch the film. (Requires citation.)

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.[13][14]

A limited edition two-disc set,The Complete Dr Phibes, was released in Region B Blu-ray in 2014 by Arrow Films.[15]

The 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 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.[16][17] A proper soundtrack was released on CD in 2004 by Perseverance Records and is now out of print.


Dr. Phibes Rises Again is the 1972 sequel to film. It was also directed by Robert Fuest and stars Vincent Price as Dr. Anton Phibes. Several other screenplays and sequels were proposed well into the 1980s featuring potential actors such as David Carradine, Roddy McDowall, and Orson Welles.[18]


  1. ^ "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". BFI. 
  2. ^ a b "The Abominable Dr. Phibes". Turner Classic Movies. 
  3. ^ Alan Jones. "The Abominable Dr Phibes". RadioTimes. 
  4. ^ "The Abominable Doctor Phibes - 1970". 
  5. ^ "The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) - Review - AllMovie". AllMovie. 
  6. ^ The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations by Tony Reeves. The Titan Publishing Group. Pg.9 [1]
  7. ^ Approximately 44 minutes into the film (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, and thus the title doctor. Earlier in the film, Dr. Vesalius finds a Phibes Concert playbill at a music ephemera shop and questions the owner about Phibes.
  8. ^ Null, Christopher., film review, 2002. Last accessed: 8 January 2008.
  9. ^ "The 100 best horror films". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  10. ^ DC. "The 100 best horror films: the list". Time Out. Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  11. ^ "THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)". Retrieved 15 November 2014. 
  12. ^ Gary A. Smith, The American International Pictures Video Guide, McFarland 2009 p 9-10
  13. ^ "Scream Factory Announces Vincent Price Blu-ray Collection, Including The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General". Daily Dead. 
  14. ^ "Shout! Factory - The Vincent Price Collection". 
  15. ^ "The Complete Dr Phibes". 
  16. ^ "Abominable Dr. Phibes, The- Soundtrack details -". 
  17. ^ Lampley, Jonathan. Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price. McFarland, 2010. p. 160. eBook.
  18. ^ Whiton, James and William Goldstein. Phibes Resurrectus screenplay and attached cast list (1984).


  • 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]