The Eternal Vibes of Dr. Phibes: Resurrecting a Horror Icon

2021 marked the 50th anniversary of Robert Fuest’s comedy horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Starring the legendary Vincent Price as a half-dead madman bent on retribution. The film is a decadent entry in early 70’s gothic horror with nostalgia for the roaring 20’s. Where elegance meets the preposterous, played straight. Cultivating a massive cult following for over 5 decades, the vibes of Phibes have left a dramatic influence on the horror genre.  

Revenge is the Best Medicine

In an art deco ballroom stylized with shades of pink and lavender, a cloaked organist rises to the stage. Accompanied by a mechanical jazz band, The Clockwork Wizards, he is Dr. Anton Phibes. The famous concert musician, mechanically gifted and educated in theology. With the assistance of his robotic protégé, Vulnavia, he creates a masterpiece of revenge.   

His noble wife, Victoria Regina Phibes, was taken too quickly and too cruelly from this world. Requiring immediate resection, a surgical team of 9 lead by Dr. Vesalius were too late to save her. Dr. Phibes rushed to her side only to arrive in a fiery car crash. He rises from the ashes disfigured and seeking justice for those that failed Victoria. A specter obsessed with aesthetic, Phibes smites each surgeon from existence with a biblical plague. The 10 curses of the pharaohs from the Book of Exodus are executed with precision. 9 killed Victoria and 9 shall die, 9 eternities in doom.  

Our villain remains silent more than half an hour into the film before plugging himself into a modified gramophone. Addressing a photo of his departed wife, Phibes regularly grieves her passing by reciting poetry in his lair. A sort of shrine to her memory with images papering the walls. A false and unflinching face promises to join their two hearts together in time. The scene feels like a bizarre fever dream, watching Price pantomiming to his own voiceover dialog. Hammer Horror royalty, Caroline Munro, is uncredited as the beloved Victoria Regina. Her preserved remains lie in state, awaiting her husband to join her in the Elysian fields of the afterlife. 

The Genesis of Phibes

Shortly after William Goldstein was widowed in 1961, he had a vivid dream about a man bringing his wife back to life. Developing his nocturnal idea into a 17-page story, he pitched it to Jim Whiton. A longtime friend of Goldstein, who had some success as a television writer. Sparking interest, the two men collaborated on a screenplay. American International Pictures loved Dr. Phibes but the script was drastically altered by story editor, Robert Blees, and director Robert Fuest. The more dramatic elements of the original were maintained by Goldstein, having authored the official novelization for Award Books

Following the success of the first Dr. Phibes film, AIP hastily commissioned Goldstein and Whiton to write a sequel, with a third planned. Their script stuck close to the original, following a similar story arc but was again overhauled by Blees and Fuest. Dr. Phibes Rises Again was released in 1972, lacking the humor and flair from the first movie. Price returns as the murderous doctor, traveling to Egypt in search of immortality. Accompanied by his mechanical assistant and Victoria’s remains encased in a calliope with The Clockwork Wizards.

Goldstein and Whiton had also written a third script for the planned franchise, but it never saw the light of day. Laurel Entertainment would propose two different Dr. Phibes films in the 80s and Price himself expressed interest in a treatment entitled The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes by Paul Clemens. All would resurrect original characters but shape them into something more reformed. Various plot ideas surfaced of Phibes battling art thieves and occultist Nazis. The revenge of Dr. Vesalius’ son and an undead Victoria becoming something worse than her husband. Even a small screen revival was proposed with a tv series featuring Dr. Phibes fighting crime.

Though nothing materialized, the horror icon would live on through literature. Not only writing the official novelizations for both Dr. Phibes films, William Goldstein would also create a series of books. Authoring a prequel to the events of the first movie, Dr. Phibes: In The Beginning. Followed by Vulnavia’s Secret in 2013 and The Androbots in 2019. BlueWater Comics (now TidalWave Productions) introduced the characters to a new medium in their horror comic anthology series, Vincent Price Presents. Running 37 issues from 2008 to 2011, the stories featured retellings of Price’s films and original tales. Including new adventures of Dr. Anton Phibes dolling out his genius wrath. The collected stories were released in 2012 as a graphic novel, Vincent Price Presents: The Seven Lives of Dr. Phibes.

The Kind of Fiend That Wins

Most noted influence the Dr. Phibes films had on the horror genre is the Saw franchise. The fiend would construct intricate skill tests and speed traps for rivals to save loved ones in both movies. These deadly games were expanded on with the Jigsaw killer, giving way to 9 entries in the series. The biblical themed murders would add a different flavor to religious horror. Directly inspiring 1995’s Se7en, the themed murders were reimagined as the 7 deadly sins. Just as Phibes succumbs to his own work as the 10th plague of darkness, John Doe is consumed by his own as the sin of envy. Though revenge driven, these executions are part of a spiritual quest. The stark pageantry of the murder rituals looks like something out of a Jodorowsky film. Dr. Phibes expresses his passion with an altar of wax heads molded after the offending surgeons. Each bust is adorned with a Hebrew medallion and melted, a surreal act resembling scenes from The Holy Mountain. In an early scene, Phibes assembles his face with crude features and make-up to pass without detection as the living dead. This off-screen emphasis was also seen in 1990’s horror comedy, Nothing But Trouble. The 106-year-old Judge Alvin Valkenheiser is caught in a candid moment applying his face with similar repurposed prosthetics. Both lovable villains reside in mansions filled with automated engineering and hold multiple degrees of education. There have also been some comparisons between Dr. Phibes and Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Both sophisticated men that could be regarded as a Robin Hood among serial killers. A grim underdog that the audience roots for just like in Sam Raimi’s Darkman

Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly 

The surreal elegance of the Dr. Phibes films has yet to be matched in the horror genre. Paying tribute to cabaret floor shows with musical interludes dripping with 70’s camp. This horror comedy is a very dry humor with minimalist dialog and bumbling detectives 3 steps behind the assailant. The Abominable Dr. Phibes is also a morbidly romantic movie. Climaxing with the mad organist embalming himself in a tomb shared with his wife. His madness born from a devoted love that transcends this mortal coil and death itself.   

Further Reading

The Dr. Phibes Companion by Justin Humphreys

Caroline Munro: First Lady of Fantasy by Robert Michael “Bobb” Cotter

With These Hands: A History of Mad Love

The 1930s were peak in Hollywood’s Golden Age of horror. Universal led the way with its legendary monster movies and Paramount added sophisticated suspense to the genre. In 1935, MGM decided to release the horror-thriller Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre in his American debut. Lorre, a highly publicized talent, harnessed a dark glamor with his emotive acting. Bringing an amalgamation of repulsiveness and vulnerability into each role that the audience sympathizes with against their will.

His Love Was a Pitiful…Hopeless Madness

The famous surgeon, Dr. Gogol sits in private box at the “Théatre des Horreurs”, just as he has for the last 47 nights. Blissfully gazing upon Madame Yvonne Orlac as she is tortured on stage as the Duchess. Having sent flowers and notes to her dressing room for each performance, he finally approaches her dressing room on closing night. Yet he is crushed to learn she is married to concert pianist, Stephen Orlac. As he wraps up a tour, Yvonne retires from the stage to join him at last. The dejected Gogol comforts himself by purchasing the theater’s promotional wax figure of Yvonne from the lobby. Having it delivered to his private chambers to do with as he pleases, without fear of rejection.

While enroute to meet with his wife, Stephen is mangled in a terrible train wreck. Crushing his hands which must be amputated to save his life. Yvonne is desperate to preserve her husband’s livelihood and begs Dr. Gogol for a miracle. His surgical genius is struck with divine inspiration and Stephen is given a hand transplant. The donor of which being a recently executed knife thrower from the circus. The surgery is a success, but Stephen is repulsed by his transplants that require long and expensive treatments. They don’t take to playing the piano as they once did but now seem to have a talent for knives. The Orlacs are forced to sell all their valuables as the bills pile up, straining their marriage much to Gogol’s delight. With murder hanging in the balance, Stephen descends into madness. Luring Yvonne to Dr. Gogol for answers, like a fly to a carnivorous plant.

I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Mad Love was the first of many remakes of Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac). An Austrian silent horror film directed by expressionist veteran, Robert Wiene. This version focused more on the unraveling of Stephen as the protagonist. Rejecting his evil willed appendages and featuring a con man as the villain. Wiene’s film itself was inspired by a 1920 French fantasy/horror novel, Les Mains d’Orlac. Written by Maurice Renard, it is cited as one of the earliest appearances of body horror.

Mad Love is less faithful to Renard’s novel than Frankenstein or Dracula are to their origins in gothic literature. Which comes as no surprise that the script writer, John L. Balderston, had previously written on those film adaptations along with The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein. Balderston expanded on an otherwise minor character by combining the novel’s benign doctor with ‘Spectropheles’. A grotesque figure clad in white that haunts Stephen Orlac’s wife throughout Renard’s version. Regarded as the ghost of the train accident in the book and on screen as Dr. Gogol, a ghoul in white surgical scrubs. Both personal devils of Mrs. Orlac that must be faced before all is lost.

Balderstone had composed the film’s dialog with Lorre in mind, at points calling for the actor to deploy his “M look”. Referring to Lorre’s breakthrough role as Hans Beckert, a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M. A Weimar Republic-era movie that would type cast the actor for the rest of his career. The tortured Stephen Orlac is played by, Colin Clive. No stranger to horror as the memorable Dr. Henry in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Keye Luke appears as Gogol’s assisting surgeon, Dr. Wong. Best known for his role as Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan films and appearing with Peter Lorre in 1938 film Mr. Moto’s Gamble. Edward Brophy plays Rollo the knife thrower, on his way to the guillotine. Brophy had also played a knife throwing circus performer named Rollo in the 1935 movie Freaks. Possibly setting the cult film within the same cinematic universe as Mad Love.

Other film adaptations include The Hands of Orlac (1960) directed by Edmond Grevilleand Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold. The premise of a killer transplant inspired a number of other films such as The Crawling Hand (1963), The Hand (1981), and Les Mains de Roxana (2012). On television it had influenced a segment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the Doctor Who serial, “The Hand of Fear”. A variant of the theme was used in an unproduced project of Alfred Hitchcock, The Blind Man and parodied in The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror IX”. It has even been suggested that Mad Love directly inspired the visual style of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

 “Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves”

Though upon initial release Mad Love was a commercial failure, it has grown a devout following through the years. Amassing an audience that appreciates Freund and Balderston weaving as many horror tropes within their movie as they could. From set designs to borrowed lines, the film pays tribute to its expressionistic roots and other heavy hitters in the genre.

The film title Mad Love is more obviously in reference to the sadistic obsession Gogol has for the actress and the skin-crawling scenes of his entitled wooing. Perhaps it also regards Yvonne’s devotion to her husband, Stephen. Resorting to desperate measures to care for the wreck-mauled pianist. Including reaching out to a repugnant stage-door johnny and admittedly trading on his unrequited feelings. Unknowingly evoking a madness in their lives that can only come from “love”.