After pausing for a few minutes to enjoy a spell at the pipe organ and the music of his mechanical band, Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), a brilliant scientist everyone believes to have died in a horrific car accident, puts his plans for the night into action. Taking a cage covered in a black cloth, he has his assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) drive him to the home of an eminent medical doctor just as the man is going to sleep in his bed. Then, the skylight above opens silently and the cage is lowered into the room, and whatever is inside is released. And what is inside? Just a few flesh-eating bats to munch on the panicking doctor...
If there's one thing that Price was known for, that made his performances stand out, it was his silky smooth voice, so how perverse would it be to put him in a film where he not only doesn't speak for the first half hour, but when he does his distinctive tones are distorted by an amplifying device plugged into his neck? Yet so it is with The Abominable Dr Phibes, scripted by James Whiton and William Goldstein, and what do you know? Price copes admirably well with these restrictions and if anything, make his acting all the more effective by not having him rely on his usual hamming it up in horror films such as this.
That said, there aren't many horror films exactly like this, with its curious tone of being callous, amused and aloof all at the same time. Dr Phibes, as Inspector Trout (played with entertaining but restrained exasperation by Peter Jeffrey) following around in the wake of his crimes slowly discovers, is determined to bump off nine of the medical team he holds responsible for the death on the operating table of his lovely wife (seen in photographs to be an uncredited Caroline Munro). And the manner in which Phibes goes about this is inspired by the ten plagues suffered by Ancient Egypt in the Bible.
The deaths are nastily inventive; the first one has already happpened when the film starts, but couple this with the bats murder and Trout already has his suspicions raised. So when another doctor dies of having the frog mask he has been given to wear at a fancy dress party constrict and crush his head, it's obvious that a nefarious scheme is afoot, although Trout has to make quite an effort to be taken seriously by his superiors. Unlike the later Theatre of Blood, the victims are not entirely played by recognisable character actors, although Terry-Thomas shows up long enough to have the blood drained from his body.
One of the strange things about The Abominable Dr Phibes is that despite its elegance on a low budget you're not really backing any character to succeed. It may be fun to see Phibes carry off his tasks, but he is, after all, the villain no matter how justified he feels he is. Yet the heroes, Trout and possible casualty Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten), are rarely portrayed as great champions of justice, with Trout a bumbler and the cold Vesalius one of the men responsible for the mess up in surgery that prompted the killings. Couple this with a genuinely creepy atmosphere of its airless nineteen-twenties setting and the film especially stands out. Plus it's nice to see what a criminal mastermind does with his spare time, in this case music and dancing. That music is by Basil Kirchin with Jack Nathan's assistance.