February 18, 2016

TWO-FER: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES AND DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN!


It’s time for a two-fer! Today’s films are The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again!, starring the unparalleled Vincent Price as the skull-faced man with a sweet tooth for revenge.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a 1971 film directed by Robert Fuest, written by James Whitton and William Goldstein, and starring Price, Joseph Cotten, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, and featuring (for the sharp-eyed viewers out there) an uncredited cameo by future Bond Girl and Hammer darling Caroline Munro. One of the film’s writers, William Golding, wrote the novelization of both movies and went on to produce a series of books, which can be found at various online retailers if you have an interest in reading them. I haven’t, personally, but I’ve hears some wonderful things about them, and do aim to own the set at some point.

The film kicks off in London, circa 1925: somewhere deep inside the bowels of a forbidding mansion, a hooded figure belts out an impressive rendition of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests” on a gloriously designed pipe organ, backlit in crimson, channeling the manic glee of Lon Chaney’s performance from The Phantom of the Opera. In this first scene, there is already so much to love about this movie; the set design is a superb amalgam of 1920’s art deco and early 1970’s mod styles, which wonderfully complement the irreverent black humor of the film, and Vincent Price is pouring his entire heart into the role from the get-go.

The story unfolds as several prominent physicians are murdered in inventive, gruesome ways. A Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey), is on the case, but leads are scarce, save for a pendant which was accidentally left at the scene of one of the crimes. Trout has the pendant examined by a local jeweler, who happens to be the man who created them, and he explains to Trout that there are several such pendants, each bearing Hebrew letters which correspond with the Biblical plagues of Egypt. As more bodies pile up, it becomes evident that the deceased physicians are connected by a single event – an operation for Victoria Phibes (Caroline Munro), which led to her death on the operating table. Her husband, Dr. Anton Phibes, was believed to have perished in a horrible car wreck as he rushed to be by her side in the hospital, but upon Trout’s examination of Phibes’s tomb, it is discovered that Victoria’s body is missing. With no way to prove that the ashes in Phibes’s tomb is actually the remains of Phibes himself, it is deduced that it may have been the driver of the car who perished, giving cause to the idea that Phibes is indeed alive and well and seeking revenge for Victoria’s death.

With this new information, Trout and his team scramble to protect the only remaining physician, Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotton) and locate Phibes. While Vesalius is under the protection of Trout and his men, Phibes and his seemingly mute assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) kidnap Vesalius’s son in order to recreate the final Biblical plague – the death of the first born. Vesalius goes to confront Phibes on his own with Trout in hot pursuit. Vesalius is given the task of surgically removing a key from his son’s body in order to free him from the operating table as acid slowly descends down a tube above his face, threatening to disfigure the young boy’s features in the same way Phibes’s face was during his car wreck. Just as Vesalius successfully frees his son from the table and Trout and his men enter, Vulnavia is killed by the acid as it falls from the tube above. The men then search for Phibes, who has disappeared. Phibes, meanwhile, retreats to a secret sub-level of the house and lies down in a specially prepared crypt built into the floor with the body of his wife, whom he has perfectly preserved, and places a needle in his arm which begins to remove the blood from his body and replace it with embalming fluid. Just as the crypt closes, Trout and his men arrive, but being none the wiser about the crypt in the floor, simply suspect that Phibes has escaped.

Words cannot describe what a joy it is to see this movie. The kills are wonderfully dreadful and innovative, ranging from a killer frog mask, which contains a mechanism that slowly crushes the wearer’s neck, to a woman having honey poured over her as she sleeps and being eaten alive by locusts. Vincent Price’s face for the entire movie, up until the big reveal, is in reality a mask of his visage before his accident, and he spends the entire film emoting entirely with his eyes and flexing his throat during his lines (which were dubbed over by him during post) to give the impression that he is speaking behind the mask. Though this probably could be done more believably with today’s special effects, it is nonetheless an imaginative and convincing portrayal, and Price appears to relish every second of screentime with devilish delight. The amount of glee and satisfaction he conveys with only his eyes after each successful death is a true testament to this man’s talent.

Also of note is Peter Jeffrey’s portrayal as Inspector Trout, a man pretty much in over his head as far as police work is concerned. He is clearly used to “regular police work,” as it were, but is hilariously baffled by each extravagant murder Phibes commits, and probably has one of the funniest scenes in the film during which one of the doctors is impaled by a giant golden unicorn head. With the body effectively nailed to the wall, Trout and his men set about rotating the body of the dead man on the unicorn’s spiral horn in an attempt to free him, and I can’t help busting a gut every time I see it.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again! was rushed into production based on the overwhelming success of the first film and sees Vincent Price return along with Peter Jeffrey as Inspector Trout and director Robert Fuest. The rest of the cast is made up of entirely new faces, most notably Robert Quarry as Dr. Darius Biederbeck, the film’s primary antagonist. Vulnavia also returns, though portrayed this time around by Valli Kemp, as Virginia North was pregnant at the time and could not commit to the film.

The film’s opening is suitably operatic (and darn-near breathtaking), taking a few minutes to recap the first film before delving into Phibes’s return three years later, as the crypt opens upon the alignment of the moon and planets, and the machine which replaced his blood with embalming fluid reverses its process. Phibes calls upon Vulnavia (who is inexplicably alive and well with no scarring after meeting her demise at the end of the first movie) to help him transport Victoria’s body to Egypt, where below a hidden tomb flows the River of Life, capable of restoring life to Victoria and granting them both immortality. Upon rising to the main level of his mansion, however, Phibes is horrified to find that the building is in ruins and that the safe containing the map to the River of Life is empty. Only one man, Phibes knows, could be responsible: Darius Biederbeck, who himself has lived for centuries on a limited supply of a special elixir, and is desperate to prolong his unnatural longevity via the River of Life. He also wishes to give this gift to his lover, Diana (Fiona Lewis), though he has never told her his dark secret.

Phibes and Vulnavia infiltrate Biederbeck’s home, killing his henchman and stealing back the papyrus map, and make their way to Egypt. Biederbeck has already been able to translate the map by this time and unknowingly travels to Egypt on the same boat as Phibes. With the map’s help, Phibes and Vulnavia are able to bring Victoria’s body directly into the hidden tomb and they discover the silver key which will open the gate to the River of Life. They then set about dispatching Biederbeck’s team one by one. The kills, here inspired by Egyptian mythology as opposed to the Old Testament, are once again deliciously over the top and tongue in cheek (though I feel this time around they fail to meet the originality of the first film). Inspector Trout, who has spent the last three years trying to save face from the embarrassing events of the first film, receives word that Phibes is back and immediately sets out for Egypt to redeem himself. He arrives on Biederbeck’s base and unfortunately spends the rest of the movie not doing much, as his character has little to do with the rest of the story. At some point during all of this, Phibes also discovers that Biederbeck has stolen the silver key to the River of Life.

Once all of Biederbeck’s men are dispatched, he confronts Phibes and discovers that Diana has been imprisoned in an elaborate trap. Unable to free her, he surrenders the key to Phibes, pleading for him to spare her life. Phibes acquiesces, and then takes Victoria’s body through the gate, locking it behind him. Biederbeck, now out of his precious supply of elixir and beginning to age rapidly, begs for Phibes to take him along, but Phibes ignores him, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (which, according to the film’s timeline, won’t be written for another ten years) as he and Victoria float toward immortality. Here the film ends.

Though usually considered as good as the previous outing by fans, studio meddling resulted in several plot points being left out, resulting in a far less rewarding viewer experience when compared to the first film. Among these dubious actions was the mandate that the character of Vulnavia return, as opposed to Phibes getting a new assistant, even though she clearly perished at the end of the first film. Behind the scenes, Vincent Price and Robert Quarry reportedly despised each other, and their bickering off-camera is the stuff of film legend. Many subsequent sequels were pitched all the way into the 80s but never came to fruition, despite the fact that Vincent Price stated he would be more than happy to revisit the character. Regardless of its issues, this film is every bit as worth checking out as the original.


If you want more Dr. Phibes, William Goldstein wrote a series of books based on the character, some of which can be found for purchase on Amazon. I've not read them myself, but word has it that they are based heavily on ideas Goldstein had for sequels to the film, so in an unofficial manner, they continue the groundwork laid by the first film. Also, as of May 2015, there is a new Dr. Phibes film in development, titled Forever Phibes, with Malcolm McDowell set to take over the mantle of the titular character from the late Vincent Price. Not much has been reported since then, but if you are a fan of the first two films, this should serve as a big treat to all the Phibes Phans out there. Here’s hoping it gets released sooner rather than later!