For director Robert Fuest, this film was a high wire balancing act: an odd amalgam of horror, comedy, satire, irony and 60s-era kitsch. He never slips, but gingerly scampers from scene to scene, setting the tone dial at just the right temperature. Out of this we have enduring cult classic.
Throughout the 1970s, The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a stable at art cinemas, usually kicking off the midnight hour. It double-billed some places with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In fact, the two films have more similarities than differences. (Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien played a character called Phibes in the 1995 episode of The Detectives).
Vincent Price, the undisputed champion of Horror Schlock, is at the apex of his talent. Few could pull this off. Certainly he paid his dues, appearing throughout the 50s and 60s in about four million films of varying quality, mostly campy B- and C+. Drive-in stuff for when they had drive-ins.
Watch for odd embellishments (even for such an odd film). What to make of the automaton orchestra? Or Phibes unique way of…speaking? There are many flourishes that you don’t appreciate until multiple viewings.
The film was so (unexpectedly) successful that a sequel (Dr. Phibes Rises Again) was made the following year.
The film’s tagline is “Love means never having to say you’re ugly.” Besides an obvious slap at Love Story, it’s a reliable indicator of the untethered duality that swirls in a psychedelic fog around this horror comedy.
(Of special note, director Robert Fuest was the art designer and director on ten episodes of The Avengers…so if you know that classic series (hello Emma Peel), you can see how they generate the surrealistic mojo).