There is a strain in British humor that treats aristocratic remove and detachment as a refined and affected game. Perhaps the most famous example of this mildly smug and complacent self-parody is Oscar Wilde, but the willingness to render any experience as a joke for the cognoscenti can occasionally have questionable results. It is camp for those so assured of their position that they don’t mind looking foolish. As long as we know to raise an eyebrow, share sidelong glances and smirk knowingly at the deliberate sadism, we can enjoy it too.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes shows how exquisite polish can be applied to the most gruesomely tasteless material. Phibes (Vincent Price) is on a quest to eliminate the surgical team whom he blames for his wife’s death. For reasons that are never explained (and which don’t really matter), Phibes kills each of them in a manner related to the Mosaic plagues inflicted on Egypt. These murderous exploits are depicted in graphic, sometimes almost nauseating detail, but for all the grim gore, the film gives even the most grotesque violence the sheen of an exquisite, slightly effete fashion spread.
Set in the 1920s, the story gives director Robert Fuest and his crew the excuse to create a series of Art Nouveau/Deco settings more precious than convincing. All of the men, even the detectives, are tailored with the immaculate perfection that also seems so typically “British.” (Although the two most important male characters, Phibes and Joseph Cotten’s Dr. Vesalius are played by Americans.) The one prominent female part, Phibes’s assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), is less a character than a radiant, high fashion image. She says nothing and does little more than pose in chic outfits calculated to set her to best advantage. (Which is just as well, because her moves are amateur hour.)
Peter Jeffrey, as the lead detective, Trout, runs around trying to thwart Phibes’s plans, but he seems to be the only one with any sense of urgency. The filmmakers are too busy making the murders both grisly and grotesquely comical to produce any real suspense. For example, a doctor doomed to endure the “curse of frogs” is killed when he wears a party mask in the shape of a frog’s head that slowly squeezes and crushes his own. (The scene is a double joke, since the doctor is a psychiatrist, i.e., a “head shrinker.” It’s unclear why a surgical team needed a psychiatrist, but the joke is too good to question.)
Fuest does not make the mistake of turning the movie overall into a farce, however. Self-conscious as the film is, it remains a vicious effort. The director’s seriousness takes the form of brittle over-refinement, with the unusual result of rendering flamboyance as a horror show. It’s all supremely nasty, if that’s your cup of tea. Just be ready to be patronized as hopelessly middle-class if you dare admit it isn’t.