Double Feature Review: ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’ (1971) and ‘Dr. Phibes Rises Again’ (1972)

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Don’t cry upon God, Dr. Vesalius. He is on my side!

Sometimes nothing will do but Vincent Price hamming up a storm in Technicolor. In the past this dark urge within me has resulted in a Corman Poe cycle fest, with Pit and the Pendulum, Masque of the Red Death or Fall of the House of Usher on order.  However lately I’ve found myself gravitating to a more recent set of films. And while I don’t currently have copies of most of the Poe Films I’m happy to say the Doctor IS in, abominable as he may be.

I saw a lot of Vincent Price movies as a kid, usually on a Saturday afternoon on TBS or USA, occasionally on Night Flight or even the old Weird II out of Bangor. At that point in his career Price was more the lovable but creepy uncle, the guy who did the voice-over at the beginning of “Thriller” and the weird old guy who created Edward Scissorhands. He’d lived long enough that he’d become a comfortable monster – hell, I remember seeing him on The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo.

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(Oddly, I never felt that safe about films with Boris Karloff. His characters always had menace and pathos for me. I remember being flabbergasted when I found out his was the voice of The Grinch!)

It wasn’t until much later that I began to appreciate the body of work he’d made at the height of his career – the Poe cycle, House of Wax and even non-horror films like Dragonwyck. He was such a character and built such a persona that it was easy to forget he was capable of far more subtle work – like Laura and Witchfinder General.

Still, it’s those films on cable I remember most, and that over-the-top scenery chewing persona that he perfected that most makes me smile.

The Medium
I’ve got the MGM Scream Legends DVD collection, which also contains another Price favorite of mine, Theater of Blood. These aren’t the highest quality releases, but they get the job done.

If you’re looking for these on blu-ray in the US they can only be found on the first two Vincent Price Collections from Scream Factory (unfortunately, the Phibes films are split between the two sets). The second collection can still be found at a reasonable price, but the first is long out of print and extremely expensive. (Looks like the second set will be going OOP soon as well.)

For streaming options you’re out of luck for the first film – it doesn’t appear to be (legally) available anywhere currently. Dr. Phibes Rises Again can be rented or purchased from Amazon, Apple, Redbox and Vudu.

The Movies

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

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There is a serious dearth of films with organ playing madmen in them – especially nowadays. I love that The Abominable Dr. Phibes embraces this shtick wholeheartedly from the very first scene. The ‘good’ Doctor has Art Deco surroundings, a mechanical Jazz band, a lovely assistant who is well trained in interpretive dance, the violin and murder, and a taste for shiny capes and robes. And, of course, a talent for elaborate murders based on the 10 plagues of Egypt. Doctor Phibes is a super villain in a world without super heroes. I imagine he’s a little lonely because of that (and, you know, because his beloved wife is dead – or mostly so, if the sequel is to be believed).

There are opponents, of course – primarily in the form of Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Sgt. Schenley (Norman Jones) of Scotland Yard. Trout does the best he can to solve the murders and bring Phibes to justice, but he’s named Trout – it’s just not inspiring. He also has a terrible habit of being juuust a little too late to the party – something his superiors are happy to point out. (The one time he’s early to a murder it doesn’t matter – the victim is killed by a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Yes. I said a bronzed unicorn head launched from a catapult. Due to the spirals of the horn they’re actually forced to unscrew the poor devil from the wall…)

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Phibes is aided in his exploits by a beautiful, mysterious woman (Virginia North, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).  His gal Friday, she is essential to fulfilling his plans, but their relationship is never explained – not that henchwomen need elaborate back stories, but in my head canon she’s his daughter. North does a fantastic job keeping up with Price while under similar limitations – she never speaks (though a late-film acid attack does elicit a scream).

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The reason behind all the elaborate deaths – and the most straightforward one is packing a vintage airplane with huge rats – involves the untimely demise of Mrs. Victoria Phibes (an uncredited Caroline Munro). It seems she died on the operating table and Phibes intends to visit these plagues on each person who was present in the operating room, culminating with the death of the primary surgeon, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten). Actually, it’s worse than death – because the penultimate plague is “The Death of the Firstborn,” Phibes threatens the life of Vesalius’ son.

Phibes is a villain, make no mistake – many of the people who are killed had only the most tangential involvement and cannot seriously be taken as guilty of anything. A nurse’s death is particularly gruesome (locusts eat her face, if you want to know) and she probably didn’t do anything but swab brows and hand over instruments. Regardless, it IS Phibes we end up rooting for. In a bland and bureaucratic world Phibes is all color and passion, music and motion. He has personality – and most of the rest of the cast does not. Price just lights up the screen – even though he never actually speaks! (Phibes must talk – and eat – through a hole in his neck.)

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The final confrontation between Vesalius and Phibes actually presages Saw in some respects – Phibes has locked Vesalius’ son on an operating table that is suspended beneath a device that will drip acid on to the boys face in 10 minutes. The only way to unlock the contraption holding they boy is for Vesalius to operate on him to remove a key that Phibes has lodged next to the boys heart. Open heart surgery in 10 minutes for the life of his son.

In true melodramatic fashion Phibes saves the final curse – darkness – for himself and joins his wife in death. Or does he?


Dr. Phibes Rises Again

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The success of the original Dr. Phibes movie meant that a second was rushed into production. At one point there seemed to be a concerted effort to make the films into a genuine franchise – several scripts and titles were bandied about well into the 1980’s – but nothing seems to have come of it (until recently – see The Bottom Line).

The sequel takes place three years after the events of the first film, as the planets come into a grand conjunction and Phibes returns to life (this is despite his blood being replaced with embalming fluid at the end of the first film). He apparently has a plan involving an ancient Egyptian tomb, a mountain and a river – the end result of which will be the return of his beloved wife.

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Though the same people are involved in the second film it’s just not quite as good. Oh, Price is excellent as always and they allowed for more inflection in his electronic voice this time around. The murders are appropriately garish and gruesome. Some of the sets are really fantastic as well. However, there’s just less… heart in it. The reasons for the murders are less compelling and they’re pretty damn elaborate for being mostly half-assed at the last minute. Did you know his lovely, mute assistant from the first film is named Vulnavia? (Valli Kemp this time, after Virginia North retired from film.) You will by the end of this movie, because every time he opens his… uh… tube, he says her name. I liked it better when she was a mysterious presence – unknown and unexplained.

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In addition they’ve inexplicably re-used some actors in different roles – major roles – and it knocks you out of the flow whenever it happens.

Robert Quarry (Count Yorga himself) offers a foil almost worthy of Phibes this time around in the character of Darius Biederbeck. A man with dark secrets of his own. Unfortunately the two actors aren’t on screen together until the final scenes.

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Though the Egyptian trappings offer an interesting new location for Phibes’ machinations and the jokes are plentiful – if overly broad this time around – the whole of the picture just never rises to the same giddy heights of the first film. The music isn’t as good, the cinematography isn’t as good and the story – though it has possibilities unexplored – is not quite up to snuff either. It’s still a good time, it just suffers in comparison to the original.

Though ending with Phibes singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a character rapidly ages is almost worth the price of admission.

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The Bottom Line
Way too much fun, and two of a handful of 1970’s Vincent Price films I really enjoy. (These make great companion pieces to Theater of Blood, FYI.) It’s obvious everyone had a great time making the Dr. Phibes films – particularly the first one – and I’m a little sad they never got a chance to make any more sequels with Price.

In 2015 original Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein announced a new Phibes film, Forever Phibes, was in the offing, with Malcolm Macdowel slated to star. While it appears to be in development hell and  I can’t image it being anywhere near as over-the-top glorious as its predecessors, I nonetheless look forward to seeing shiny robes, art deco sets, mysterious but lovely assistants and all the thunderous organ music I can stand.

In the interim, you can get your Phibes fix with a series of books by Goldstein that include adaptations of the original films (and a book featuring Vulnavia) or with the comic book series by Bluewater Comics.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.