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Thursday November 15th 2018

The Abominable Dr Phibes | 1971

Style and wit triumph over a shoestring budget and speed of shooting in this horror outing, filmed mostly on campy Twenties-style sets built at Elstree Studios.

To see the exterior of Dr Anton Phibes’ mansion, head for the Elstree Road between Bushey and Elstree in Hertfordshire. At the junction with the A409 you can’t miss the looming tower of the Immanuel College, 87-91 Elstree Road – a Victorian Gothic confection set in an 11-acre campus, that used to be the Rosary Priory High School, and before that, the Caldecote Towers Hotel.

The Abominable Dr Phibes location: Immanuel College, Elstree, Hertfordshire
The Abominable Dr Phibes location: Dr Phibes’s mansion: Immanuel College, Elstree, Hertfordshire

The building can also be seen in Tom Selleck actioner High Road to China, but there’ll be no more filming. Its grotesque charm has been sabotaged by some horribly inappropriate modern additions (rail: Elstree or Stanmore).

The cemetery in which Phibes and his wife were supposedly laid to rest is the overgrown and creepy old section of Highgate Cemetery, on the west side of Swain’s Lane, London N6.

When central London’s burial places had filled up in the 19th century, huge cemeteries were opened up on what were then the outskirts of town. Not famous for their quiet modesty in grave styling, the Victorians came up with one of the most gloriously extravagant.

The first grandiose monuments were erected in the West Cemetery in 1839, but by 1854 even that was filling up and the East Cemetery, on the other side of Swain’s Lane, was opened. However, the expense of maintaining the grounds meant that the already florid Victorian monuments became spectacularly overgrown and the cemetery subsequently provided the ideal Gothic backdrop for films such as Hammer’s Taste The Blood Of Dracula and Tales From The Crypt.

Cinematic luminaries in the eastern section include William Friese-Greene, interred close to the railings on the Swain’s Lane side, often credited as the inventor of cinema. The inscription on his tombstone, ‘The Inventor of Kinematography’, is certainly unequivocal, and even goes on to quote the patent number, for those who might doubt the claim. Friese-Greene, originally a portrait photographer, was certainly a prolific experimenter, but no businessman, and died in poverty in 1921. Thirty years later, during the patriotic frenzy of the Festival of Britain, he was played by Robert Donat in John Boulting’s dubious biopic The Magic Box.

Other notable cinematic figures in this section include German emigré screenwriter Lukas Heller, who adapted the original source novels and plays into the screenplays Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Killing of Sister George and The Dirty Dozen for director Robert Aldrich. Heller’s countryman Carl Mayer, who wrote the screenplay for silent German expressionist classic Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), also lies here.

Britain’s own Max Wall, the sepulchral-voiced, rubber-limbed music hall performer who reinvented himself as a respected straight actor, appearing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, Hanover Street and, erm, The Nine Ages of Nakedness (well, we all have to earn a crust), is another occupant. Theatre knights Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Michael Redgrave are also buried in Highgate.

The stern visage of Karl Marx, possibly the most famous occupant of the cemetery, tops a bulky plinth in the East Cemetery. Unreconstructed Stalinist Mrs Delt (Irene Handl) takes her son Morgan (David Warner) to pay homage at the grave of Marx in Karel Reisz’s 1966 film of David Mercer’s play, Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment. “You know, he wanted to shoot the royal family, abolish marriage and put everybody who’d been to public school in a chain gang,” says Handl. “Yes, he was a idealist, your dad.”

Years later, Philip Davis and Ruth Sheen also pay their respects at Marx’s plot in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes.

In the older, western section lies Patrick Wymark, the stocky character actor who appeared as the predatory Landlord in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and as General Oliver Cromwell in Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General.

The cemetery is now owned and administered by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. The East Cemetery is open to the public every day (except Christmas and Boxing Day) (admission charge). To view the older West Cemetery you’ll need to join a guided tour, which takes about an hour (weekends all year, weekdays March to November) Check Highgate Cemetery for up-to-date details.