Dr. Vesalius: "Your wife no, Phibes, but you I will kill!"
Dr. Phibes: "But you can't, Doctor Vesalius. I am already... dead."
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is perhaps the best picture that emerged from the vast catalog of low-budget horror films that American International Pictures' released in the 1960's and 1970's. Like many AIP movies, Vincent Price serves as the star in the film in what may be his finest performance. The role of the film's lead, Dr. Anton Phibes, is perfect for Price who uses his usual over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek to add depth to the eerie main character. Robert Fuest occupies the director's chair few one of his few jobs directing a major motion Picture. Fuest's career was halted in 1975 following the release of his brainchild The Devil's Rain, which is considered to be one of the most disastrous, tasteless films ever released. The supporting cast should be credited as well. Joseph Cotten, a greatly talented actor known as a perennial back-up to Orson Welles, is convincing in his role as Phibes' main adversary, and Peter Jeffrey uses a charming sense of humor to provide laughter to the film as the oblivious Inspector Trout.
The plot of the film is completely outlandish but too interesting and unique to discount as silly or terrible. The film's exposition is not shown but is thoroughly covered. Anton Phibes, as already mentioned, is the primary character. He is once-famous organist who is known for his knowledge of music and theology, holding a doctorate in both. Tragedy strikes Phibes in 1921 when he learns his wife is dying on the operating table. On his way to provide aid to his ailing wife, Phibes is involved in a fiery crash that leads all to speculate his death; however, he was able to escape, grotesquely scarred and disfigured. Using his one-of-a-kind ingenuity, Phibes is able to create a life-like wig and face to cover up his horrible disfigurements and a gramophone-operated speaking system hooked to his windpipe. Phibes learns that his wife Victoria died on the operating table and convinces himself her death was caused by the careless work of incompetent doctors. The doctor is determined to exact revenge on the nine doctors and medical assistants he believes were responsible for his spouse's untimely passing. Using his knowledge of religion, he draws inspiration for his murders from the Ten plagues of Egypt which are derived from the Old Testament. His killings begin in 1925, four years after his unfortunate accident. After the second murder is committed, Inspector Trout, a detective with Scotland Yard, is placed in charge of discovering all connections between the two deaths and any possible suspects. With help from his beautiful, mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes conducts six more gruesome, odd murders, and eventually, Trout is able to contact Dr. Vesalius, who is revealed as the head surgeon who Phibes believes was the primary doctor responsible for his wife's death. The climax is reached when Phibes targets Vesalius as the victim of the ninth plague, "death of the first born", and kidnaps his son Lem. Vesalius is summoned to Phibes' secret location and discovers his son has been strapped to an operating table. Emulating the occurrences surrounding his wife's death, Phibes informs his foe he will have six minutes to remove the key he has placed near his son's heart, freeing him from the table, before a stream of acid descends on his only child. Vesalius is able to free his son and the acid instead falls on Phibes' servant Vulnavia. Believing his journey for revenge has been completed, Phibes retreats to the basement of his hidden apartment where he takes his place next to the body of his embalmed wife in a giant sarcophagus and replaces the blood in his body with embalming fluid. The lid of the coffin shuts and seals the couple into eternal darkness. When Trout finally arrives at the scene, he and Vesalius are surprised to realize that Phibes has strangely disappeared. After conferring about his possible whereabouts, they remember the tenth and final plague, "darkness", and speculate they will once again meet the wrath of the demented Dr. Phibes.
While on the surface, The Abominable Dr. Phibes may seem like a ridiculous waste of time and an overly-campy film, at its core it is a captivating and enjoyable B-movie starring Vincent Price who accurately captures the ambitions and emotions of the central character. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is truly a one-of-a-kind production and a must-see for any Vincent Price or horror movie fan.