I first saw The Abominable Dr. Phibes when I was 9 years old, in the theater in its original run. As soon as it was over, I had a new favorite movie. I had had a favorite movie before—Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs, which I loved so much that Mom and Dad gave me an entirely Snow White Christmas when I was five. I got ceramic figurines of Snow White and all seven dwarfs, three 100-piece round puzzles that featured scenes from the film (which I put together so many, many times that I was able to beat my father at puzzle races—he would pick a puzzle for each of us, and he would put his together normally while I would assemble mine face down; I always won, and I really don’t think that he was letting me win), the soundtrack album, etc. But Dr. Phibes was different. I somehow connected with this film, and it has remained one of the joys of my movie-viewing life for the last 40 or so years.
I can never get tired of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. I’ve had it, in some form or another, as part of my movie library since it was first released on VHS back in the mid-80s. Before that, I looked everywhere for the soundtrack LP, and actually found it once at a movie convention, but I just didn’t have the bucks the dealer wanted for it at the time. I found out later that it was not actually the score of the film, but Paul Frees singing some of the songs that were featured in the movie. I felt a lot better about not buying it after that. By the way, the score has been officially released on CD within the past few years.
Two or three years after first seeing the film, and shortly after having rewatched it on the CBS Late Movie, I was having a piano lesson when my piano teacher brought out a piece of sheet music for me to try. The piece was called “War March of the Priests” by Felix Mendelssohn. She played it for me, and I nearly fell off of the piano bench where I was sitting next to her. I asked her how she knew that the piece was from my favorite movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (it’s the piece that Phibes plays on the organ during the opening credits). She said that she didn’t know—she just thought that I might like it. So there’s another piece of evidence for synchronicity. Thanks, Uncle Carl!
After salivating over the paperback novelization in the ads in the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine for years, I finally got a copy when a friend of mine gifted me with one. I still proudly it display on my bookshelf. (Thanks, Stan!) And the posters…. One of the ones displayed outside the theater where I first saw that film said “Would you say that Phibes is a Phiend?” I looked for that style of poster for years, and I finally found it on eBay recently. The seller’s asking more than I want to pay, but it’s still a wonderfully ornate piece of advertising/work of art. In fact, I can trace back my love of all things art deco to this film, which is where I first saw the style before I knew that it had a name.
There’s a lot of love out there for this film, and deservedly so. It’s a true classic of the cinema of horror and the fantastic. Every time I watch the film, I’m amazed all over again at how…perfect the film is. The cinematography is gorgeous, Basil Kirchin’s music is dreamy (as are all his scores—he has a very individualistic style that is immediately recognizable), the sets and set decoration are sumptuous, and Robert Fuest, who has an artist’s eye for the telling detail, never again directed a film that was even half as good.
The first ten or so minutes of the film are a textbook example of what the scholars call “pure cinema.” Not a word of dialog is spoken during those first ten minutes, but they set up everything that’s to come later. Once the dialog comes in, screenwriters James Whiton and William Goldstein balance humor and horror nearly perfectly. The film is laced with a sly wit—notice the look that Phibes gives the camera when Dr. Hargreaves introduces himself as “a psychiatrist—a headshrinker.” And I can’t think of a more sublime moment in ANY horror film than the one where Vulnavia, Phibes’s assistant, stops cleaning for a moment and sits smoking, listening to “One for My Baby, and Another One for the Road.” That moment, which does absolutely nothing to advance the plot, shouldn’t be in the film. But there it is, and it’s absolutely lovely and, to me, absolutely perfect.
Utterly remarkable, The Abominable Dr. Phibes deserves to be held in the same high esteem as other acknowledged classics of the dark fantasy cinema such as Bride of Frankenstein and Curse of the Cat People. It’s probably my favorite of all the films listed in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, and for any horror film fan, or any film fan period, it’s essential viewing.
Here’s the trailer, courtesy of YouTube:
And here’s the entire film (well, actually, this is the first of nine parts), again from YouTube. Even if you don’t feel like watching the whole thing, watch the first five minutes of this and note the indescribably wonderful overhead shot of Phibes and Vulnavia dancing: