The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Robert Fuest
Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Virginia North, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Peter Jeffrey, Derek Godfrey, Norman Jones, John Cater, Aubrey Woods, Caroline Munro
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) (out of 4)
Directed by: Robert Fuest
Starring: Vincent Price, Robert Quarry, Valli Kemp, Peter Jeffrey, Fiona Lewis, Hugh Griffith, Peter Cushing, Beryl Reid, Terry-Thomas, John Cater, Gerald Sim, Milton Reid, Caroline Munro
The Doctor Is In (sane)
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Vincent Price was already a legend. I would split his horror output into three separate eras – 50s era (3D flicks like House of Wax, The Fly, William Castle movies like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill), 60s (the Corman-Poe cycle – Masque of the Red Death, The Raven, Pit and the Pendulum, etc), and his more campy era – a group of serial killer films including two Dr. Phibes movies, Theater of Blood, and MadHouse. The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, both directed by Robert Fuest (The Devil’s Rain) and released through American International Pictures (which also handled his Corman/Poe output), gives Price another opportunity to reinforce his cult status, playing a brilliant madman who invites a touch of sympathy, despite his insistence on taking out his victims in the most gruesome ways possible. Playing Dr. Phibes, Price gets to use his considerable on-screen presence and distinctive voice, and he also gets to ham it up a bit (something I’m sure he loved doing). What we get are two films with wildly different results – the first film is a near masterpiece, the second a near-disaster (if it wasn’t for Price’s considerable talents holding it together). It kinda reminds me of Donald Pleasence holding together Halloween II, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Kermit the Lush
The Abominable Dr. Phibes amazed me. The first ten minutes are like a silent film – ominous organ music (“War March of the Priests” by Felix Mendelsohn) being played by a cloaked figure on an art deco stage, followed by conducting his wind-up mechanical orchestra (“Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards”), and then a short dance with his lovely “assistant” Vulnavia (Virginia North) before setting out to kill a sleeping victim by putting bats in his room. Not a word is spoken, but the surreal atmosphere that is created through sound and visuals is great. Price’s performance as Dr. Phibes is interesting, since he is a disfigured man who cannot speak conventionally (from a car accident) but through ingenuity can hook up a probe to his neck and use a brass horn (like from a phonograph) to talk through. So he lets his actions speak for him most of the time, which involve unleashing his own version of the 10 plagues of Egypt on the doctors who botched his wife’s surgery, leading to her death. It’s vengeance that drives Phibes’ actions, convinced he is that her doctors were really her murderers.
Can I cook, or can’t I?
Some of the creative deaths Phibes has in store for the unsuspecting doctors include: a man wearing a head of a frog at a costume party which slowly crushes him to death (Plague of Frogs), a nurse killed by locusts, another by “hail” when Phibes places a snow-making machine in his car, etc. “Nine killed you. Nine shall die,” says Phibes to his deceased wife (played by Caroline Munro, uncredited), leaving one to wonder where the 10th plague comes in. The resolution of that plot point is clever enough that it was paid an homage at the end of Seven (which seems to have taken Dr. Phibes as an inspiration for its seven deadly sins scenario as well). I am becoming convinced that Seven would not exist without Dr. Phibes, and neither, by the way, would any of the Saw movies. Take two scenes – one involving a mechanical mask that slowly kills the wearer, and one near the end, where the “curse of the first born” threatens to take Dr. Vesalius’ son, unless the good doctor can retrieve the key from his chest to free him in time before slowly moving acid drips onto the boy’s face. Jigsaw who?
Hello Dr. Vesalius. I want to play a game.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes clearly takes some inspiration from Phantom of the Opera in the way it presents the character of Phibes, and Price is great in this kind of role. The film is actually set in the year 1925, but surrounds everything in art deco visuals mixed with a 70s mod style, using a few anachronisms (some of the equipment used in the film wouldn’t be invented for another 20 years). A few songs are also out of place – the tune “One For My Baby and One More For the Road” wouldn’t be written until 1943, for example. I should also point out that the ten plagues reference in the movie are only partially correct – in reality, a few of them are invented and other known Biblical plagues are ignored. No matter; this is a clever film that features a nice balance of horror and black comedy. I loved the doc’s wind-up orchestra, his little dance interludes in between murders with Vulnavia (Virginia North, who never says a word), and the fact that we have no idea where Vulnavia comes from, yet she remains his loyal servant to the end. Other good performances here include Joseph Cotten as Dr. Vesalius and Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout, not incompetent as a detective but still always one step behind.
2,000 year old feet. Have a whiff.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes was successful enough that the studio rushed to churn out a sequel the following year. Watching Dr. Phibes Rises Again, it’s obvious that the production was a rush job, since many inexplicable things happen in it and the certain “spark” that the first film had seems to be missing. There’s a silly opening narration by radio/TV announcer Gary Owens which completely retcons everything you saw in the first film – Phibes’ wife (again, an uncredited Caroline Munro) is now not dead but in “suspended animation” and Phibes has a new mission – travel to Egypt to find the river of life so his wife can live again. None of this was even hinted at before, and (spoiler:) having one’s blood replaced with embalming fluid is apparently a reversible process, where Dr. Phibes, dead for 3 years, can suddenly put his blood back in and wake up like it was a 3 hour nap. Forgetting the fact that this undoes the first film’s final curse, we now have a quest in which Phibes again calls on Vulnavia for help (this time played by Valli Kemp, because Virginia North was pregnant at the time of filming). It’s another head-scratcher, since (spoiler!) Vulnavia wasn’t in the greatest of shape in the last movie, but now she appears out of nowhere without a mark on her pretty face. The fact that she seems to arrive through a portal of mirrors suggests she’s some kind of otherworldly spirit; the movie never tries to explain it.
Be sure to turn her over after 10 minutes.
Phibes has a new nemesis – Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), a man also after eternal life and a guy with a big secret. During a brief journey to Egypt in a ship, Caroline Munro is prominently displayed in a glass case next to the Clockwork Wizards and a curious cat is dispatched by Phibes and placed inside a large empty gin bottle (don’t ask). Once we reach the pharaoh’s temple, it’s a race between all players – Phibes, Biederbeck, and Inspector Trout (again played by Peter Jeffrey) to find the elixir of eternal life. One thing I found odd about all of this is that, with Phibes’ ability to bring himself back to life, why does he need a two thousand year old Egyptian remedy to do the same for his wife? I guess none of this really matters – Dr. Phibes Rises Again seems to be more of a self-parody, with the comedy played up a bit. I suppose it’s better to look at it this way, otherwise you could sit there all day and ask questions like: how can Phibes recreate his art-deco home inside a mountain, and where does he get electricity from in the middle of the desert, and how can he implant ingenious devices like the car sandblaster which takes a guy’s entire skin off in the span of a few minutes? In any case, the biggest fault of the film here is the overuse of Phibes’ dialogue, and I am fully aware of the irony of complaining that Vincent Price talks too much in this movie. In The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Price plays a mostly-silent killer, so when he does speak, it’s all the more important and effective. Here, he talks (through his neck, of course) non-stop, constantly delivering exposition, and the result is that the sense of mystery and threat surrounding the character is diminished.
Caroline Munro – now performing at Hard Rock Dead.
The good news is that there are some diamonds in this rough – I liked a scene where Phibes eavesdrops on his antagonists by hiding his disfigured face among the skulls lying around the tomb, another where a man is distracted by Phibes’ automatons playing a recording of a bagpipe tune (which he mistakenly associates with the Scottish Fusiliers), and another death scene involving scorpions that is nasty and disturbing. Finally, I sorta dug the ending, in which one man gets his comeuppance through accelerated aging (see also: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Hunger, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Leech Woman) while Dr. Phibes paddles away with his wife singing Over the Rainbow. So, yes, there’s some good camp to come out of Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, and it’s really hard to dislike anything with Vincent Price in it. He tends to lend some class to whatever project he’s attached to, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again wouldn’t be much without him. I guess I should also say that the character of Vulnavia is fascinating in the sense that you never know what her motivations are or where she comes from. (There is an obvious unspoken affection between her and Phibes but she doesn’t seem to have any problem with the idea of getting him back with his wife). Maybe if I didn’t have the first film to compare it to, I would be more willing to embrace ridiculousness of Dr. Phibes Rises Again, but that’s the danger of doing sequels, I suppose. Anyway, despite what I think about it, the sequel has lots of fans.
- Bill Gordon
By the way, Dr. Phibes Rises Again comes with interesting trivia:
- Vincent Price’s final film for AIP
- main leads Price and Quarry did not get along one bit. From Wiki: “Quarry accused Price of overacting, and Price viewed his costar as an AIP-sanctioned Eve Harrington” From IMDB: when Price discovered Quarry singing opera, Quarry said “I’ll bet you didn’t know I could sing did you?” and Price responded “well I knew you weren’t a fucking actor!“
- Vulnavia is back only because studio executives wanted her back, while other actors from the original film re-appear playing different roles.
- Peter Cushing cameos as the boat captain (he’s kinda wasted here – blink and you might miss him)
- there were many proposed Phibes’ sequels but none got off the drawing board
- There were copyright issues with the use of “Over the Rainbow,” so the VHS version had to remove it. But it has been restored to the DVD.
Buy The Abominable Dr. Phibes on DVD
Buy Dr. Phibes Rises Again! on DVD
Buy Both Movies as a double feature on DVD