Hi, my Jewish friends! You didn't think I was going to leave y'all out of the vaguely-insulting fun, did you? Of course not, and here we are with a film that, by virtue of referencing in somewhat slapdash fashion the ten plagues of Egypt, is the closest thing the world has to a Passover-themed horror picture.

"When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst".
-Exodus 7.4-5, New American Standard version

"A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street, and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen."
-Superintendent Waverly

In the second book of the Torah, Shemot, named Exodus in Christian bibles. the God of Israel calls down ten plagues upon the kingdom of Egypt to impress upon the reigning Pharaoh that he must permit the Israelite slaves to leave his country or face the implacable wrath of the divine. In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Vincent Price, who is basically like God, calls down the same ten plagues upon the doctors and nurse who failed to save his wife. And by "the same ten plagues", I actually mean "seven of the same plagues, two that kind of fit in with the feel of the Biblical text, and one involving a brass unicorn head", but the important point remains: The Abominable Dr. Phibes is basically a remake of The Ten Commandments, only much better.

It is, in point of fact, one of the absolute pinnacles of American International Pictures, and arguably the single greatest AIP release made without Roger Corman on hand as either producer or director; it is one of Price's signature roles and my personal favorite out of them all, though I cannot bring myself to call it his best. Like many AIP films of the early '70s - it was released in 1971 - the overall vibe is of the attempt to be a hipper, sassier Hammer, and in this it is completely successful: it is a sublime combination of horror, absurdist comedy, and camp, erasing the distinction between "good" and "so bad it's good" more thoroughly than had ever been done before or has been done since.

Written by James Whiton & William Goldstein (two men whose careers consist, essentially, of this one film), and directed by the late Robert Fuest (who, it is alleged, did a healthy amount of re-writing), Dr. Phibes has almost no more plot to it than I have already described, though it's vaguely structured as a mystery, in which Inspector Trout of the Yard (Peter Jeffrey) notices that two medical men have both been killed in needlessly complex manners involving animals: bees (not in the Bible) and bats (not in the Bible, either, especially not the vegetarian fruit bats that are shot in the cutest imaginable manner here). He immediately puts two and two together and concludes that London is being plagued* by a serial killer who hates doctors, but it takes quite a while and quite an impressive stack of dead men before he's actually started to make some headway on figuring out what the hell is happening: four years ago, in 1921 (you have to be paying close attention to pick up either of those details, without which the movie takes place in a neverwhen that can be confidently dated to "the first half of the 20th Century"), eight doctors and nurse, led by a certain Dr. Visalius (Joseph Cotten), failed to save the life of Victoria Regina Phibes (future Hammer pin-up girl Caroline Munro, seen in photographs), who only barely predeceased her husband, musicologist and theologian Dr. Anton Phibes, who died in a car crash on his way to the hospital.

Trout (I can't think of him without "Trout of the Yard!" playing like a fanfare in my head, but I'll spare you) immediately supposes that Phibes isn't as dead as all that, though everyone from his prickly superiors, Crow (Derek Godfrey) and Weaverly (John Cater), to Visalius himself, finds this to be profoundly unlikely. We, of course, have seen Phibes several times already, and know better, though the question of whether or not he actually died in that crash or not is still a bit vague: Phibes, who is of course played by Price, has immobile facial features which he apparently is required to apply by hand every day, and when he speaks, it is by plugging a cable into a jack in his neck, which extends to some kind of modified phonograph player. Through this device, Phibes delivers robust, plummy monologues (two of which end in the phrase "Nine eternities of doom!") to his dead wife's photographs, or his gorgeous, mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), and we see what might be the surest measure of Vincent Price's abnormal skill at being the greatest of bad actors: robbed of the ability to move anything above the neck but his eyes, he still is able to overact the living shit out of the part, though calling it "overacting" is perhaps unfair; that implies an accident or incompetence, and what we see here is assuredly not incompetence.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a a campy horror film in which both the campiness and the horror are feints, while the real business of warped dark comedy slides in underneath. This it is that a movie in which Price strikes poses to the back row, if such a thing even makes sense, also includes the amazing, tiny moment in which he sniffs a victim's brandy while looking around his apartment, and stares at the corpse with a piercing look of snobbish contempt; a movie in which a flying brass unicorn sculpture that pushes into the movie like a visitor from the warped horror of contemporaneous Italy is greeted with the unbeatable punchline of two cops trying to figure out whether to unscrew it from the deceased clockwise, or counter-clockwise.

It is also a stylish film, as is frequently pointed out by the film's defenders, though even the style is in service to the overall sense of absurdity: Phibes has constructed for himself an underground layer complete with a robot band named Dr. Phibes' Clockwork Wizards, while Vulnavia, described with eccentric precision by an eyewitness (Aubrey Woods, in one of several great cameos by awesome British character actors) as "fashionable", is wearing a new, equally unlikely gown every time we see her.

And it is a creative body count movie, though once again, the elaborate deathtraps Phibes invents aren't meant to be prurient so much as they are ridiculous: his ludicrous complicated attempt to get herbivorous locusts to devour a person's flesh right down to the bone, or his Bondian ice gun, or a convoluted, Day-Glo acid machine that plays into a sequence that feels like something out of a Saw movie, only done with an infinitely lighter touch.

It is, then, an inordinately playful movie, and all the more enjoyable because it acts like there's not a single thought on its mind other than providing a gruesome horror picture hung on a routine avenging psychopath whose appropriation of religious iconography has as much to do with showing off how literate he is, rather than because he's some kind of super-religious crazy. I take it as a given that the filmmakers don't necessarily expect us to be suckered in by a convincing rabbi (Hugh Griffith), who provides some extravagant misinformation about the plagues, and that we're perhaps meant to understand that the bats, for example, are neither terribly threatening nor terribly biblical. Indeed, I think that starting with the bats, quite possibly the stupidest death in the whole movie, is a gesture in the direction of lowering the stakes and making it "okay" for us to enjoy a dark comedy about violent murders, by establishing right from the very start how not-serious those murders are going to be. The whole thing is a deadpan, blood-soaked lark, buoyed by uniformly terrific performances - I'll admit that knowing Cotten's role was intended for Peter Cushing makes it a lot harder to like what he's up to in the part - and bright, contagiously weird visuals, and one of the oddest soundtracks that any "horror" movie has ever received (mostly smoky jazz and swing recordings of pop standards - and anachronistic for 1925, to boot).

It may even be the quintessential Vincent Price vehicle: it is, after all, a sustained exercise in being very smart about being a very dumb B-movie, and this, applied to acting, describes nearly all of Price's great roles (though some, like Witchfinder General and a few of the Roger Corman Poe movies, find him genuinely acting well). It is a cult movie and doomed to be ever a cult movie, but as a member in good standing of that cult, I have never once in the half-dozen times I've watched this film felt less than completely entertained.

Body Count: 9, not including the first victim of Phibes's vengeance, who died before the film starts. Also not counting a chauffeur who surely looks dead when the cops are poking at his body, but the dialogue makes it clear that he's just dazed; I will not say that it's post-dubbing meant to cover up the fact that the filmmakers had second thoughts about Phibes killing someone outside of his rigidly-defined modus operandi.

Biblical Plagues Referenced
-Boils (bee stings)
-Frogs (frog mask crushes skull)
-Blood (bled dry)
-Hail (frozen to death by ice gun)
-Locusts (flesh devoured by locusts)
-Death of firstborn ('twould be a spoiler to explain it)
-Darkness (buried alive)

Non-Biblical Plagues Claimed To Be Biblical
-Bats (mauled by fruit bats)
-Rats (in cockpit of plane, causing panicky crash)
-Beasts (brass unicorn head shot into chest)

Biblical Plagues Not Referenced
-Biting Insects
-Flies
-Diseased livestock