There was a time during my misspent delusional early adolescence in the equally delusional early 80s when I wanted to play the organ.
It was because of Vincent Price. I’d seen The Abominable Dr. Phibes a few times throughout the 70s and 80s and had become a big Vincent Price fan long before that, but, man, was Dr. Anton Phibes ever it.
S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Hydra. T.H.R.U.S.H.– rank amateurs next to Anton Phibes. You have to go to Murphy and Sapir’s Destroyer series, also in the 70s, to find villains operating at this level of sinister creativity.
Phibes’s appeal, aside from Vincent Damn Price, stems from two characteristics. First is his motivation. Like some camped up cross between the Phantom Of The Opera and Dr. Orloff, everything Phibes does is for love.
Obsessive? Indeed. Sociopathic? To be sure. But love nonetheless (incidentally, one can anagram Dr. Anton Phibes into Phanto ‘N Brides, and he is constantly accompanied by his dead wife, Victoria, and his assistant, Vulnavia, so, yeah, there’s that).
Second, Dr. Phibes can be seen not so much as a villain but more as a tragic, quasi-Gothic figure. Think about it. From Walpole to Radcliffe to Faulkner, there is precious little variation in the elements of the standard Gothic tale.
Eccentric recluse. Possibly wealthy, often an artistic/scientific/scholarly genius. Phibes is a renowned concert organist as well as a doctor of theology. He builds his own clockwork orchestra (a bit reminiscent of Morpho in The Awful Dr. Orloff) and mechanizes his destroyed voice. Check.
Mysterious servant. Often silent. Tobe in “A Rose For Emily,” Mrs. Danvers, the aforementioned Morpho, Caligari’s Cesare, and now, Vulnavia. Check.
Creatively ghastly deaths. Some of my all-time favorite death machines show up in these two movies. In third place, the giant scorpion trap.
The best part is the fact that the victim has a chance to unlock the device, predating the Saw franchise by decades (to be fair, both borrow heavily from the glory days of EC’s Tales From The Crypt).
A close second, the telephone spike through the ears.
Hands down, first place has to be the head-crushing frog mask. Truly, these are three of my Top Ten Favorite Murders (another post for another time, true believers).
Honorable mentions include exsanguination, death by hail machine, and skewereing by the horn of a brass unicorn head from out of nowhere which I’m willing anytime to stack up against the death by giant falling helmet that starts Castle Of Otranto. Giant red check.
Supernatural incidents. Or at least implications of them. At least twice, Phibes refers to himself as being dead. While it’s not really made clear if he means this in a literal or metaphorical sense, I like to go with literal, cuz why not? It’s a horror movie.
I know what you’re thinking: “What about when Phibes says, ‘I was told after my crash that I would never speak again!’ How can he be dead?” I suggest thinking less rationally and, again, more Gothically, and let me remind of you, giant fucking helmet. Check.
The ghost, memory, legacy, and/or body of a dead spouse or lover. At the end of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, in a scene right out of “A Rose For Emily,” Phibes entombs himself with the body of his dead wife, his obsession with whom drives his every action. Check.
In the end, Victoria and Vulnavia by his side, Phibes escapes down The River Of Life. There is no retribution, no reckoning. Why should there be? Like Faulkner’s Emily, everyone Phibes kills not only has it coming, but isn’t even remotely likeable.
One might argue Dr. Phibes is clearly willing to take human lives. He tries to kill Dr. Vesalius’s son in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and Biederbeck’s wife in Dr. Phibes Rises Again. I would argue they are the only two victims Phibes fails to kill.
In other words, the best part, the part I love most–Phibes triumphs.
Well played, doctor, well played.