The film follows the title character, Phibes, who blames the medical team that attended to his wife for her death four years prior and sets out to exact vengeance on each one. Phibes is inspired in his murderous spree by the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Old Testament.
Dr. Anton Phibes is an expert in theology and music who is thought to have been killed in a car crash in 1921; his beloved wife, Victoria, died during an operation just previous to the car crash. He survived the crash, horribly scarred by the accident and left unable to speak. He remakes his face with prosthetics and use his knowledge of acoustics to regain his voice. Resurfacing in 1925, Phibes believes that his wife died a victim of incompetent doctors, and begins elaborate plans to kill them.
Phibes begins his quest for vengeance with the help of his beautiful and silent female assistant Vulnavia, using the ten plagues of Egypt as a basis, wearing an amulet with Hebrew letters corresponding with the appropriate plagues as he commits the murders. After three doctors are killed, Inspector Trout, a detective from Scotland Yard, learns that they had all worked together under the direction of Dr. Vesalius, who reveals that all of the deceased had been on his team in Victoria's case, as well as four other doctors and a nurse. There is a report of another murder and Trout suspects Phibes is alive. They visit the Phibes mausoleum at Highgate Cemetery. They find ashes in a box in Phibes' coffin, which Trout believes are the remains of Phibes' chauffeur; Victoria's coffin is empty.
The police try their best but Phibes continues killing the remaining medical team staff, except for Dr. Vesalius. As the final victim, Phibes kidnaps the doctor's son, Lem, then calls Vesalius and tells him to come alone to his mansion on Maldene Square if he wants to save his son's life. Trout's advises against the action and Vesalius knocks the inspector unconscious. He races to Phibes' mansion, where he confronts the mad doctor. Phibes has placed Vesalius' son under anesthesia in order to place a small key implanted near the boy's heart that will unlock his restraints. Vesalius must perform the surgery within six minutes (the same amount of time Victoria was on the operating table before her death) to get the key before acid from a container above Lem's head falls and destroys his face. Vesalius succeeds and moves the table out of the way; Vulnavia, backing away from the police, is sprayed with the acid.
Convinced he has accomplished his vendetta, Phibes retreats to the basement of his mansion to inter himself in a stone sarcophagus containing the embalmed body of his wife. He drains out his own blood and replaces it with embalming fluid as the coffin's inlaid stone lid slides into place, concealing them both in darkness. Trout and the police arrive and discover that Phibes is no where to be found. Trout and Vesalius recall that the "final curse" was darkness, and they speculate that they will encounter Phibes again.
The film was shot at the "thirties era" sets at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. The cemetery scenes were shot in Highgate Cemetery, London. The exterior of Dr. Phibes' mansion was Caldecote Towers at Immanuel College on Elstree Road. The film was followed in 1972 by a sequel, titled Dr. Phibes Rises Again! Several other possible sequels were planned, including The Bride of Phibes, but none were ever produced.
Critic Christopher Null wrote of the film, "One of the '70s juiciest entries into the horror genre, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is Vincent Price at his campy best, a famous concert organist who is exacting revenge on the nine doctors he blames for botching his wife's surgery, which ended with her death. Through a series of tortuous means that would make a Bond villain green with envy, the hideous Phibes is matched by Joseph Cotten as the doc at the end of the road. A crazy script and an awesome score make this a true classic."
In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films. The Abominable Dr. Phibes placed at number 83 on their top 100 list.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 81% based on 26 reviews and an average rating of 6.9/10. The film was not highly regarded by American International Pictures' home office until it became a hit at the box office.
MGM Home Entertainment released The Abominable Dr. Phibes on Region 1 DVD in 2001, followed by a tandem release with Dr.Phibes Rises Again in 2005. The film made its Blu-ray debut as part of Scream Factory's Vincent Price boxed set in Fall 2013.
A limited edition two-disc set, The Complete Dr. Phibes, was released in Region B Blu-ray in 2014 by Arrow Films. Both films were later reissued separately by Arrow and as part of the nine-film/seven-disc Region B Blu-ray set The Vincent Price Collection on the Australian Shock label.
The broadcast version of the film excises some of the more grisly scenes, such as a close-up of the nurse's locust-eaten corpse.
The music that Phibes plays on the organ at the beginning of the film is "War March of the Priests" from Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music to Racine's play Athalie. The organ used is the New York Paramount theater organ, now in the Century II Center in Wichita, Kansas. The organist is Dr. Robert Moore Strippy, then of Chicago.
The film's incidental score was composed by Basil Kirchin and includes 1920s-era source music, most notably "Charmaine" and "Darktown Strutters' Ball".
A music-related error or anachronism within the film's storyline is the song overlaid as a recorded performance by one of the ostensibly mechanized musicians in "Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards." The pianist in this simulated animatronic band "sings" "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Although the film's plot is set in England in the 1920s, this particular song did not exist until 1943, when Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote it as part of their film score for The Sky's the Limit. Fred Astaire sang the jazz standard for the first time in that musical comedy.
A soundtrack LP was released concurrently with the film's appearance, which contained few selections from the score but rather was composed mostly of character vocalisations by Paul Frees. A proper soundtrack was released on CD in 2004 by Perseverance Records and is now out of print.
A sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, was released in 1972. It was also directed by Robert Fuest and stars Price as Phibes. Several other screenplays and sequels were proposed well into the 1980s featuring potential actors such as David Carradine, Roddy McDowall, and Orson Welles.