This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
We haven’t had a major horror actor with a real flair for old-fashioned campy melodrama ever since Vincent Price died, and there was never a better vehicle for him than the Doctor Phibes movies. Set in a baroquely art deco version of the inter-war period, these were two entries in Price’s long list of films he starred in for Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson’s American International Pictures. But rather than teaming up with long-standing collaborator Roger Corman this time, Price was directed by Robert Fuest, a director with a singular visual imagination (which would later lead to him trying to make a film adaptation of The Final Programme and failing hilariously) that crafted some of the most colourful imagery the horror genre has ever seen.
The Abominable Doctor Phibes
For his first appearance, we catch up with Dr. Anton Phibes as he treats us to an organ recital – but he’s got more than music on his mind. After a surgical procedure on his wife was botched, his car was found crashed and burned and it was assumed he has died in his rush to get to her after learning of her fate. Not so! In a mansion somewhere in London the doctor has converted his pastel ballroom into a staging ground for an elaborate ritual of revenge. Working in concert with his unspeaking assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), he seeks out each of the nine surgeons who so badly failed his wife, and kills them one by one utilising methods inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt – in a manner obliquely related to their medical specialisation, if he can manage it.
Each killing is meticulously prepared; Phibes sets his clockwork orchestra to play a little inspirational music before he sets off, goes forth to do the deed, and returns home just as his clockwork orchestra strikes up a tune to welcome him back. Then he slips an amulet referring to the plague in question about the face of a bust of the victim, burns the bust’s face, and then sets about planning the next stage of his campaign. The police in the form of Inspector Harry Trout (Peter Jeffrey) and Superintendent Waverley (John Cater) are on the job, but they are rational, straightforward men – completely ill-equipped to handle the irrational and intensely creative methods Phibes uses.
Although presented as a horror, I’d actually suggest that The Abominable Doctor Phibes is best appreciated as a revenge fantasy – with the emphasis on fantasy. Although some of the killings are gruesome and uncomfortable – I’m particularly squeamish about the frog mask with the clockwork mechanism which slowly but surely makes the mask shrink until the wearer’s head is crushed – by and large the film isn’t trying to scare, disgust, unnerve or terrify the viewer. Instead, we are asked to simply sit back and enjoy the bright, colourful scenery, surreal imagery (one scene involves Phibes and Vulnavia very seriously and carefully boiling a large number of Brussels sprouts), and exuberantly, insanely convoluted methods of vengeance. Phibes’ plans could not possibly work in practice – he’d have to have far too much knowledge of his victims’ movements and precautions for starters, and then have to pull off his planned killings with near-precognitive perfection – but that’s exactly the point, their ridiculousness is why they’re amusing and their ornateness is why they are so fascinating to watch.
In short, the film asks us to appreciate Phibes’ revenge on an aesthetic level, rather than as a moral endorsement of vigilantism. This is set up from the very start. We are introduced to Phibes and Vulnavia in the opening credits and right from that moment are encouraged to empathise them not through any declaration on their part about the validity of their cause – we only put together Phibes’ motives later in the film – but through a musical performance. The film begins as Phibes rises from his underground lair playing his organ, and then he begins his clockwork orchestra, Vulnavia enters and they dance within his garish, technicolour lair; both are costumed wonderfully and dance with such grace that the overall effect is simply mesmerising. Then they make their way out into the world to begin their reign of terror, and as gruesome and appalling as some of the killings are you just can’t bring yourself to hate them – how could you, when they are so very stylish? Phibes’ background as a musicologist and a theologian is chosen specifically to support the notion that there’s a fine line between performance and ritual, and it’s right on that line that Phibes himself exists.
The unique atmosphere of the film is maintained in a contrast between the way the different scenes sound. The scenes focusing on Phibes and Vulnavia all feature music prominently, whereas the scenes depicting the police’s investigations have no backing music whatsoever – a major exception occurring when Dr Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) learns of Phibes’ past as a world-famous organist. Likewise, Phibes and Vulnavia do not speak very much at all – it’s ten minutes into the film before a single line of dialogue is spoken, and Phibes himself does not speak until around half an hour into the film, and then only through a strange, cybernetic mechanism – whilst the police’s investigations are dialogue-heavy, to the point where they begin verging on over-wordiness. Whilst the police and victims and others exist in a realistic, mundane world, where people communicate through naturalistic speech Phibes and Vulnavia inhabit an unreal, fantastical world, dancing to the backing music to their own movie, Phibes speaking only to issue declarations of doom against those he is fighting his ritual war against.
The emphasis on the cinematic nature of Phibes and Vulnavia’s world is what makes their campaign of bloody murder truly pleasing to watch. In the opening sequence and throughout the film, Phibes and Vulnavia dance, perform, and enact their theatrical rituals for the benefit of no audience except themselves – well, no audience that is visible in their world. For whose benefit can these performances be except us? The possibility that we, the film’s audience, are the powers that Phibes and Vulnavia are supplicating with their rituals is simply too wonderful to ignore, not least because it explains why audiences and critics alike have been inspired by the film for decades, long after its contemporaries have become impossibly dated. (One of the last curses – the death of the firstborn son – involving keys implanted in victim’s bodies which must be surgically removed in order to save their lives must surely have been an inspiration for the Saw films.) And if the rituals are performed for our benefit, that suggests that the sacrifices Phibes and Vulnavia offer up are in our honour – and really, that’s the real reason anyone dies in a horror film or revenge fantasy: for the audience’s own personal amusement. Phibes and Vulnavia are simply more honest about it than most cinematic psychopaths, and that’s why it’s so difficult to hate them.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again
Cashing in on the success of its predecessor, Dr. Phibes Rises Again begins with a brief summary of previous film, including Phibes’ apparent death at the end of it. Subverting the point of that scene completely, we then see Phibes resurrected three years after the events of The Abominable Dr. Phibes – because in this year the stars are right for Phibes to take the body of Victoria to Egypt, where he has prepared an underground palace for the two of them, and where a particular ritual will permit Phibes to restore Victoria to life and grant both him and her eternal life. He can once again count on the help of Vulnavia (played this time by Valli Kemp), who literally appears from out of thin air to assist him once again – no worse for wear after her nasty accident at the end of the previous film – but on rising from his crypt Phibes discovers that his mansion has been demolished, and the Egyptian papyrus which he requires for the ritual has been pilfered!
It soon transpires that wealthy scholar Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry) and his comrades have possession of the papyrus, for Biederbeck has his own reasons for tracking down the River of Life and enjoying its benefits. Soon it’s a race between the two parties to get there first, with Phibes and Vulnavia taking pot shots at the other side and Trout and Waverley, the policemen from the first film, once again trying to deal with the carnage they leave in their wake.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Dr. Phibes Rise Again, if you’ve seen the last film, is that Phibes talks a lot more this time around than he did previously, the scriptwriting team of Robert Blees and Robert Fuest having decided to issue him with a more portable version of his speech device in order to permit him to speak more. In fact, they aren’t always careful about making sure he has his speech device plugged in before showing him talk, and whilst some of these instances might be a case of them depicting his internal monologue it’s actually really hard to tell what is meant to be his own thoughts and what’s meant to be his own speech, since they are delivered with precisely the same effects on Price’s voice-over. And there definitely are points in the film where Phibes gives Vulnavia an order without being plugged into anything, so it’s clear that the speech machine has become something Phibes only needs when it’s convenient for the writers to plug him into something.
This is one symptom of a more pervasive issue with the script, which is that it abandons the formulaic approach of the previous film in order to give the scriptwriters greater freedom. But whilst the writers may have found the constraints established by James Whiton and William Goldstein’s script in the first film to be limiting, it was precisely those constraints which produced its unique atmosphere. The formula developed, whilst not especially accommodating of sequels, was vital to creating the ritualistic, orchestrated feel of the whole thing, and in abandoning that they abandon the atmosphere of the previous film, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again simply doesn’t have anything to fill the void. It’s not that some of the new ideas they come up with aren’t good – Victoria’s travelling casket disguised as a mechanical orchestra is a fun touch, and Phibes’ Egyptian HQ does well at replicating the wonderful look of his London mansion, but that’s kind of the problem – even as the scriptwriters jettison so much of what made the first film unique, they then turn around and try and retain just enough surface elements to make it seem like they’re beating a dead horse.
A particularly irritating example of the way the writers have abandoned the rules and strictures of the first film is the way they handle Phibes’ murders. Whereas the first time around every killing was deliberate, planned out well in advance, carefully conceptualised in order to fit the Seven Plagues theme, and directed against someone that Phibes had a specific and long-lasting grudge against. All of that is gone this time around. In the last film, Phibes killed people because – as he saw it – they had done him a great wrong; in this one, he kills them because they are in the way. Last time, the killings all had a particular theme; this time, the only connecting element is Phibes’ overelaborate gadgets. Previously, Phibes was depicted as being a master of schemes, drawing up his plans in advance and executing them flawelessly, whereas now he’s willing to kill on the spur of the moment. Phibes’ homicidal methods and the ritual surrounding them in the first film were vitally important to his characterisation – until we learned about his wife, it was the only thing we saw of him – and so by changing them, the writers change the character, and they don’t seem to have a very good idea of what they want to change him to. As appealing a villain as he was in the first movie, we’ve already seen him do a little too much to really regard him as a hero, but this seems to be the direction they’re intent on taking him.
It’s also hard to see how the sequel fits in with the first film, especially since the first time around there was no suggestion that magic existed or that Phibes was planning to resurrect Victoria. I suppose you can cook up a convoluted theory or two to explain how they hang together. Since Phibes and Victoria end up drifting away together into darkness once again at the end of the film, which parallels the end of the first film musically as well, you could perhaps take the whole thing as a consoling hallucination of Phibes’ as he lies dying at the end of Abominable. Or perhaps, considering Vulnavia’s apparent complete recovery from what happens to her at the end of Abominable and the way she just appears out of thin air, you could imagine that she’s a demonic familiar of Phibes’. But this is grasping at straws; the fact is that Dr. Phibes Rises Again is a complete failure as far as sequels go. It doesn’t continue the story, because it comes up with a new one, it doesn’t give us new insight into any of the characters so much as it undermines the previously-established characterisation… even as a cynical exercise in squeezing out a little more material from the premise and cast of the previous film, it fails because it doesn’t give the cast anything interesting to do.
But even taken on its own, Dr. Phibes Rises Again just doesn’t work. The story is hard to follow, the characters are poorly developed, scenes drag on for too long, and the plot barely makes sense. Returning director Robert Fuest assembles a great deal of talent and then doesn’t do anything interesting with it. Peter Cushing has a very welcome guest spot as the captain of the cruise ship both Phibes and Biederbeck are taking to Egypt, but he only appears in one scene. Robert Quarry as Biederbeck is just plain unconvincing as a villainous foil to Phibes, who really cries out for an adversary as flamboyant and charismatic as he is. Terry-Thomas, fresh from being killed in the last film, gets another role as the shipping agent for the cruise, though this time around his appearance – in common with a lot of the talky scenes – outlasts its welcome.
At the end of the day, the biggest failure of Dr. Phibes Rises Again is that it has all of these potentially amazing ingredients, but it yields a whole which is far less than the sum of its parts, not least because there’s no keystone element like the musical rituals of Abominable for the whole to be built around.
Various sequel novels by various hands have emerged over the years, but as is often the way with tie-in fiction these haven’t really won over many fans. Likewise, numerous attempts were made during Price’s remaining years to get a third movie underway, but so far as I am aware they never actually got as far as shooting any material. Still, with Dr. Phibes Rises Again already firmly in the realm of diminishing returns, this is probably all to the good. Arrow Video have put out an exceptional Blu-Ray set of the Phibes movies with an extensive booklet on their making and – perhaps more importantly – packaging that reflects the fabulous art deco aesthetic of the movies far better than any previous home media release. If you enjoy Phibes at all, you’ll at least want the Blu-Ray of the first movie, since after all a film so heavily focused on its aesthetics deserves to have them displayed with the greatest possible clarity. To paraphrase the original poster, “Love means never having to say you’re standard definition.”