Vincent Price plays an organ-playing surgeon hell-bent on avenging his wife’s death and his own disfigurement by inventively murdering the doctors responsible. Equipped with the ten plagues of Egypt for inspiration, a band of robots (literally, as in instrument-playing robots) and a sultry assistant, Price’s Phibes makes up for his lack of dialogue – he has no lines until about halfway through – with a thrilling cocktail of mischief and menace.
Much like the later Theatre of Blood, the film impressively balances horror and comedy with some crackerjack practical effects. Phibes also feels like a forebear of Saw‘s Jigsaw with his penchant for inventive contraption-based murders and games. Directed by ex-art director Robert Fuest, this thing is a feast for the eyeballs too with some exceptionally lush production design that actually disguises its 1920’s setting by being so glitzy and glam. When the period was explicitly stated it took me by surprise. Maybe I just think England looked the same in the 70s as it did in the 20s. Not far off.
I also can’t stress how purely entertaining this thing is. Not only is the central mystery and story a gas but all of the film’s unusual asides and oddities just enrich it even further. The film will occasionally pause for Phibes’ organ-playing interludes that gleefully dip a toe into glam-rock territory, beating De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise to the punch by a good three years. The series of nasty deaths deliver wholeheartedly as well with an entire gamut of methods being utilised. Bodies are drained of blood, frozen, attacked by rats, bats and locusts making this one of the most inventive horror films I’ve seen. You’ve got shades of gothic horror, slasher, monster movie, dark romance, tragedy; practically all bases are covered. And to top it off: the film is funny in that very British way. Abominable Dr. Phibes has it all. It is a proper ghoulish delight.
Watched on Arrow Video blu-ray.